The clothes on our backs: what fashion means

December 18, 2010

Out of suffering comes the demand for pleasure.  When we have suffered we do not care less about clothes but more.  To love clothes is to embrace life in all its joyous variety, even if all you ever do is turn the pages of a magazine and long for fairyland, crave couture ballgowns you will never own.  We all need daydreams. Linda Grant, The Thoughtful Dresser.

Clothes create a wordless means of communication that we all understand. Katherine Hamnett, British fashion designer.

You think this has nothing to do with you? You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly shot up into collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the powerful editor-in-chief of the fictional fashion magazine Runway in the film version of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. The character was a thinly-disguised Anne Wintour, the British-born editor-in-chief of Vogue.



You just can’t escape fashion. When we walk down the high street, shop windows unashamedly try to seduce us. Fashion models are household names. Fashion and glamour are intimately linked with the world of movies. Movie stars adore fashion, films adore fashion. It has been the subject of countless films: Funny Face, Prêt-a-porter, Zoolander, The Devil Wears Prada, Coco Before Chanel, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and even Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Bruno. Some of these films may have been critical but the two industries need each other. Fashion taps into our fantasies and Hollywood is the quintessential dream factory. And Lady Gaga is the latest incarnation of the relationship between fashion and popular music. In fact, nobody can remain on the outside – even if, like me, you are not particularly interested in what’s in Vogue. Everything you wear makes a statement. From fanatical fashionistas to those of us who would be fodder for one of those makeover shows like What Not To Wear, we all have our sense of personal fashion.

The fashion industry is really a product of the modern age, until the mid-19th century, most clothing was custom made. The fundamental distinction is between haute couture and prêt-a-porter. To be called a haute couture house, a business must belong to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, which is regulated by the French Department of Industry. The English may have a reputation for lacking sartorial elegance, but it was an Englishman, Charles Worth, who established the first haute couture fashion house in Paris in 1858. The period after WWII  witnessed a “golden age” age of haute couture, when wealthy socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor would think nothing of ordering whole collections at a time. In those heady days some 15,000 women would wear couture. Today only 2,000 women in the world buy couture clothes; 60% are American. Only 200 are regular customers.

Despite the dramatic shrinkage of the market, designers choose to maintain haute couture production. Who actually wears this stuff? The catwalk has always been a mystery to me. The best comparison I have seen is with Formula One or those international motor shows. They exist to showcase the latest developments in the motor vehicle industry. High Fashion provides the prestige which helps them promote their real business – flogging perfume, cosmetics, their ready-to-wear lines and of course the accessories. Who can afford to buy one of those formal gowns, which cost thousands of euros and may only be in fashion for a season? It is accessories, the shoes, the handbags and the jewellery, that are the real cash cows for these firms. Gucci and Prada are, despite all the hype about the ready-to-wear stuff, effectively leather goods companies.

When did it all begin? When did we begin putting other people’s names on our attire? In the 1930’s French tennis star Rene “le Crocodile” Lacoste began producing a versatile new tennis shirt with its characteristic embroidered crocodile, which is believed to be the first instance of a designer logo appearing on a garment. But it didn’t catch on immediately That would come a bit later. This development was satirised in Back to the Future, when Marty McFly goes back to the 1950’s and accidentally meets his mother:

Marty McFly: Calvin? Why do you keep calling me Calvin?

Lorraine Baines: Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It was really in the late seventies that the idea of fashion logos took off. And now for my son it has become the way the world is. Apart from the crocodile we have the polo horse, the Nike swoosh and thousands more symbols, which seem to have become more important than the actual apparel which they adorn.

Talking about fashion inevitably raises questions about sizes. I find this question only slightly less complicated than string theory or quantum physics. I am really confused about what shop sizes actually mean and on top of all this chaos we now have so-called vanity sizing. If you haven’t heard this term before, it is used about designers who place a label with a smaller size on a larger-size garment. Those nice clothing companies don’t want us to feel bad about ourselves; they want us to feel thin. This was demonstrated empirically in a study of 1,011 pairs of women’s trousers, which found that the effect was especially pronounced in the cheaper brands. A collateral effect of this resizing has been the need to introduce new sizes such as the notorious size zero. This has become a scapegoat for all weight-related illnesses. During Madrid Fashion Week in 2006. all those models who had a body mass index (BMI) of 18 or below, were barred from the runway by the organisers,

Fashion often is the butt of very harsh criticism, especially the really expensive stuff. And the brickbats are often totally justified. We are often judged by what we wear. Many people, especially women, have suffered physically in the pursuit of fashion.  But I would also like to defend the role of fashion. Fashion is about the desire for fantasy. It deals with how we would like to be and not necessarily the way that we are. It should not be taken literally, that is to miss the point. In her book The Careful Dresser, Linda Grant describes how a couture seamstress among the prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp used to customise her fellow prisoners’ uniforms.  She also tells the emotive story the Hungarian-born fashion entrepreneur Catherine Hill who at the age of twelve found herself in the Auschwitz death camp. Her mother was gassed immediately, her father succumbed to typhus. In the midst of this horror, Hill tore off the bottom of the hem of her uniform to make a bow to put around her bald head so she could ‘look pretty.’ She explained why she did it: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation.”  When you read something like this, it makes you look at fashion from a totally different perspective.

Words made in Germany

December 18, 2010

I previously did a post about untranslatable words, which had some lexical curiosities from around the world. I particularly enjoyed the German ones such as:

backpfeifengesicht: a face that cries out for a fist in it. (German)

fensterln: climbing through a window to avoid someone’s parents so you can have sex without them knowing.

korinthenkacker:  a “raisin pooper” — that is, someone so taken up with life’s trivial detail that they spend all day crapping raisins.

scheissenbedauern: the disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had expected. (German)

schlimmbesserung: a so-called improvement that makes things worse. (German)

tantenverführer: a young man whose excessively good intentions suggest suspicious motives. (literally aunt-seducer) (

torschlusspanik: the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older (literally: gate-closing panic), often applied to women worried about being too old to have children. (German) 

I was looking through Adam Jacot de Boinod’s The Meaning of Tingo: And Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World and here are a few more words and expressions that are made in Germany:

betriebsblindheit: organizational blindness.

eine Kröte schlucken to swallow a toad (make a concession grudgingly)

er gibt seinen Senf dazu one who always has something to say even if no one else cares (literally, he brings his mustard along)

Knisper! Knasper! Knusper! the sound made by Rice Crispies.

fisselig: flustered to the point of incompetence.

folterkammer a gym or exercise room (literally, a torture chamber)

geisterfahrer  a person driving on the wrong side of the road

grüebelsucht an obsession in which even the simplest facts are compulsively queried

gurtmuffel  someone who doesn’t wear a seat belt.

Hals und Beinbruch, for example, takes the spirit of the English expression ‘break a leg’ and goes one step further – it translates as ‘break your neck and a leg’

katzenjammer a very severe hangover (literally, the noise made by extremely miserable cats)

krawattenmuffel one who doesn’t like wearing ties

kummerspeck, a word that describes the excess weight you will gain from emotion-related overeating (literally, grief bacon).

leben wie die Made im Speck to live like a maggot in bacon (life of Riley)

nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben, ‘not to have all the cups in the cupboard’ (not to have all one’s marbles).

nie fragt sie: ist gefegt? Sie ist gar fein she never asks: has the sweeping been done? She is very refined.

ohrwurm a catchy tune that gets stuck in the brain or rapidly obsesses an entire population (literally, an ear worm)

pomadenhengst a dandy (literally, a hair-cream stallion.

technonomade someone who conducts most of their business on the road, using laptops and mobiles.

urlaubsmuffel, or person who is against taking vacations.

verheult puffy-faced and red-eyed from crying.

warmwassergeige a souped-up motorcycle (literally, warm-water violin)

zechpreller someone who leaves without paying the bill

My media week 19/12/10

December 18, 2010

The National Review features an interview with Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). McCloskey, who was born Donald N. McCloskey in 1942, transitioned from male to female in 1995, at the age of 53. She is an eloquent advocate of the moral virtues of capitalism.

The New Humanist looks at the strange history of how Scientology was founded: Inside the mind of Scientology’s Messiah

NPR featured some predictions for 2011, which were made in 1931 

Radio Four’s Beyond Belief looked at the supernatural with the help of a medium, an evangelical Christian and sceptic.

I’m not anti-semantic, some of my best friends are words

December 11, 2010

Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if ill-formed it is rejected in society, if well-formed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries. Thomas Jefferson

 The OED, more so than any other dictionary, encompasses the entire history of all English’s glories and foibles, the grand concepts and whimsical conceits that make our language what it is today. It’s a great read. It is much more engrossing, enjoyable and moving to read than you would typically think a non-narrative body of text could ever possibly be.  Ammon Shea, a man who read the whole Oxford English Dictionary in a year.

For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways. WH Auden


Dictionaries have traditionally held an iconic status in literate societies and no bookshelf was complete without one of these weighty tomes. Besides finding the mot juste, settling disputes in Scrabble and helping us with tricky crossword clues, they can also deal with far weightier questions. Did Shakespeare really invent as many words as he is given credit for? New information suggests that many of these words and expressions have earlier, popular, origins. And the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently ruled that, based on written evidence, the pavlova dessert was actually invented in New Zealand and not Australia. Surely Borges’s description of the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb, is surely applicable here.

Lexicography goes back a long way and was practised in Ancient China, Greece and Rome. In fact, the earliest known dictionary, unearthed in the ruins of a palace of Nineveh, is probably a series of clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions from the time of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. The first purely English alphabetical dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The only surviving copy is found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Not until Samuel Johnson produced his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was there a distinguished English Dictionary. We can learn a lot by comparing this dictionary with the one published by the Academie Francaise. They reflect two different ways of organisation – the individualist and the collectivist.

The creation of the French dictionary was entrusted to the Académie Française, a body which had been set up in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to purge French of its impurities. Although the Academy had 40 members, writing the dictionary was a long and laborious process. Here is how it was satirised by one of the Academie members, Antoine Furetière:

The one who shouts the loudest is the one who is right; each person gives forth with a long harangue on the slightest trifle. The second man repeats like an echo everything that the first has said, and most frequently three or four of them talk at the same time. In the commission composed of five or six persons, there is one of them who reads, one who offers his opinion, two who chat, one who sleeps, and one who spends his time perusing some dictionary which is on the table. When it is the turn of the second to express his views, the article has to be read to him again because of his distraction during the first reading . . . . No two lines are accepted without long digressions, without somebody telling a funny story or a tidbit of news, or without somebody else talking about conditions in the country and about reforming the government.

The academicians spent six years, almost as long as it took Johnson to complete his entire dictionary, just on the letter “G.” The dictionary was finally published in 1694, having taken 55 years to complete. Furetière, who was expelled from the academy for working on a rival dictionary, penned this ditty about the official dictionary:

I am this big dictionary,

Which was for half a century in the belly of my mother;

When I was born I had a beard and some teeth:

This fact should not be considered very unusual;

Since I was at the time fifty years old

Johnson’s dictionary offers a stark contrast to the French experience. The book, which was financed by local booksellers to the tune of 1,500 guineas (£1,575), equivalent to about £230,000 as of 2010, was composed by this one man in just seven years. The source of finance meant that the famously cantankerous lexicographer would have to pay back his patrons. The advantage of working alone was that Johnson was able to avoid a lot of the infighting that had afflicted the French version. The dictionary was finally published in 1755 and although it had its detractors, it was a remarkable monument to the intellect of this singular Englishman. However, its definitions were somewhat eccentric:

lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and determining the significance of words.

excise: A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

And the most memorable of all:

oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Johnson left a wonderful legacy for British lexicographers; the OED, the definitive work on the English language was built on the shoulders of this giant. It began when the Philological Society decided that English needed a more reliable dictionary. Eventually they reached agreement with Oxford University Press and James Augustus Henry Murray began work on what was called at that time a New English Dictionary. The original plan was for a four-volume 6,400-page work, which they estimated would take ten years. Some 800 volunteer readers were employed, including one William  Chester Minor, a Yale University trained surgeon and military officer in the U.S. Civil War. He was a brilliant linguist. Unfortunately he was psychotic and believed he was being pursued by Irishmen. After killing a man in London, he was confined to Broadmoor, the UK’s most notorious asylum for the criminally insane. In a quite astonishing feat, he made around 12,000 contributions from his cell, where he had built up a small  library.

Despite the 800 volunteers, progress was excruciatingly slow – after five years they were still on “ant”, and they realized that maybe their original estimate had been a tad optimistic. They did produce their first fascicle in 1884 but it would be another 44 years before the 125th and last instalment came out. When it was finally finished, The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles contained 400,000 words. The 20-volume second edition followed in 1989 and the third edition is due in ten years.  Compare the scale of the OED to the eighth Academie Francaise dictionary, published in 1935, which contained a mere 35,000 words.

Ammon Shea is a man after my own heart. The 37-year old former removal man from New York read the 22,000-page OED cover to cover, absorbing a total of 59 million words. With the help of strong coffee the New Yorker spent ten hours a day in the basement of his local library working through the twenty volumes. One of the things he said was that the sheer scale of the OED intimidated him – he felt like he didn’t really speak the English language. He felt more like a tourist struggling to order a cup of coffee or find the bathroom. But Mr. Shea published his experiences in his book Reading the OED and he has recently written a history of the phone book. Maybe the OED was just too much excitement for him.

Now the OED has gone high-tech and you can see it all online. The use of corpuses has revolutionised dictionary making. The future is undoubtedly online with vast new lexical databases that can be easily updated. The constraints on space almost disappear and retrieving information is so much more convenient.

I would love to be able to see all the OED’s contents online. They have some incredible features. But you have to pay a subscription. There is the rub. That is the beauty of Wikipedia. Maybe this kind of online collaborative project cannot provide the quality control that comes from the expertise and years of experience that professional editors bring to the table. But as an amateur I will make do with the free stuff. I have five or six dictionaries at home but I can’t see myself buying any in the future.

The other question raised by dictionaries is the descriptive/prescriptive debate. From previous posts you will know that I am in the former camp. The Thomas Jefferson quote above sums up my attitude perfectly. The idea that some academy can control how we speak strikes me as ridiculous. That is why I oppose language academies. They may have started in the Enlightenment, but the soon become what Bill Bryson calls “forces of ayatollah-like conservatism”. The French government’s attempts to curtail Anglicisms are about as logical as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the tide. I do seem to remember that by the time the Spanish DRAE included the word apartheid, Nelson Mandela was no longer on Robben Island. I think that now they are now more dynamic but my suggestion to Spain France and any other country which has an academy is simple: abolish them. You know it makes sense.

Some gems from the OED

December 11, 2010

After he  had finished reading all the OED Ammon Shea was inevitably asked what his favourite words were; he chose 500. Here is a selection of those words:

antapology – a response or reply to an apology

bedinner – to treat to dinner

cachinnator – one who laughs too much or too loudly

conjugalism – the art of making a good marriage

debag – to strip the pants from a person

dilapidator – a person who neglects a building and allows it to deteriorate

dyspathy – the opposite of sympathy

gove – to stare stupidly

gymnologize – to dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher

hansardize – to change one’s opinion

happify – to make happy

miskissing – kissing that is wrong

natiform – buttock-shaped

paracme – the point at which one is past one’s prime

pejorist – one who thinks the world is getting worse

philodox – one who is in love with his own opinion

quisquilious – of the nature of garbage or trash

rapin – an unruly art student

ruffing – the stomping of feet as a form of applause

sanculottic – clothed inadequately, or in some improper fashion

tripudiate – to dance, skip or leap for joy

twi-thought – a vague or indistinct thought

unlove – to cease loving a person

vocabularian – one who pays too much attention to words

xanthodontous – having teeth that are yellow, as do some rodents

yuky – itchy; also, itchy with curiosity

zyxt – to see

My media week 12/12/10

December 11, 2010

Radio 4’s Great Lives looked at the life and times of Malcolm McLaren. Was he a musical great, or the great rock n’ roll swindler? Listen and judge for yourself.

The Daily Mail  looks at some recent scandals in Celebration, Disney’s model community in Florida. Wife-swapping, suicide, vandals … and now even a brutal murder. Walt would be turning in his frozen grave if that weren’t an urban myth.

In the Guardian Darian Leader argues that you shouldn’t judge talking therapies on the basis of market values. That’s all well and good but as a sceptic, I want to see some kind of evidence that it’s any better than sitting down for a chat.

At Café Hayek Russ Roberts argues that we need real capitalism on Wall Street. He believes that currently we have crony capitalism based on rent-seeking. Here is part of what he wrote:

And you are right of course–there are parts of Wall Street that are subject to market forces. But as long as creditors in large financial institutions are not in that group, it doesn’t matter how many banks or hedge funds or insurance companies fail–the players in the large financial institutions will be encouraged to be over-leveraged and the decision-makers who make imprudent decisions with borrowed money will be highly rewarded as they pick up nickels in front of the steamroller.

Big Pharma

December 4, 2010

The pharmaceutical industry has transformed our world. We have been using plants and plant substances to treat all kinds of diseases and medical conditions going right back to prehistoric times. But it was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that most of today’s major pharmaceutical companies were founded.The period between 1930 and 1975 approximately was the golden age of the discovery of medicines. It is difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of this revolution. A doctor starting to practise medicine in the 1930s would have had a dozen or so proven remedies to treat his patients’ illnesses. By the time that same doctor was reaching retirement age he would have had some 2000 remedies at his disposal.

You would think that this incredible progress would have made pharmaceutical companies very popular. Nothing could be further from the truth. In her book The Truth about Drug Companies Marcia Angell, the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine provided the following damning critique of the industry:

1. Pharmaceutical companies are producing too many “me-too drugs” and too few drugs that are genuinely new.

2. The most influential regulatory agency in the world (the American FDA) is too closely linked to the industry that it is supposed to be regulating.

3. Pharmaceutical companies have too much control over the clinical tests that assess the effectiveness and safety of their own products.

4. The current 20-year period of validity of drug-patents is unjustified and its present regulation is detrimental to the quality of clinical research. Drugs today are patented before having completed the clinical tests necessary to prove their effectiveness and safety. This means that the 20-years period of validity of a drug-patent includes the years necessary for its clinical testing. To avoid the pressure to shorten clinical studies, the law should be modified so that the clock starts ticking once a drug can be sold and not before. The total length of the patent could then be reduced to 6 years. Legislation should also be enacted to eliminate the current legal loopholes used by pharmaceutical companies to block the arrival of generic drugs on the market for 30 months following the expiry of their own patent.

5. Pharmaceutical companies have an undue influence over medical schools curricula (2/3 of US university hospitals have direct economical links to this industry).

6. Important information on research, development, marketing, and pricing of drugs is kept secret from the public.

7. Drug prices are too high and too inconsistent.

Pharmaceutical companies are certainly no saints. They are not NGOs and their ultimate responsibility is to maximise the profits for their shareholders. They are not above hiding tests or distorting research findings. As they fund a lot of research, they will often downplay tests that are not convenient for them. This clearly happened with some of the SSRI inhibitors. Twenty-two studies that had negative or unclear results were simply not published at all, and eleven were written up and published in a way that described them as having a positive outcome. Pharmaceutical companies may have to deal with a more knowledgeable audience – doctors but that just means that they have to employ more sophisticated manipulation.

The industry’s critics often rail against the abusive prices charged by drug companies. But it is very easy to confuse the cost of physical ingredients, which may be a few cents with the real cost of developing a drug. And of course the most expensive ingredient is knowledge. It is a question of science but it also involves trial and error. It is very easy to overlook how many failures there were before they actually came up with a safe and effective drug. These costs must be included in the price of the drug. If the cost of research, testing and failed drugs are taken into account, the price tag for developing a successful new drug has been estimated at about $1 billion.

Drug approval, which attempts to protect the public from new and untried medicines, makes us face some significant trade-offs. In particular we have to consider the balance between safety and getting the medicine onto the market as soon as possible so that it can save lives. For example in the United States the testing process tends to be stricter than in Europe. They may well have saved them from the thalidomide disaster that afflicted the old continent in the 1960s. Clearly the longer the trial, the greater the confidence we can have that the drug is safe. But you can never have a 100% guarantee. And you should not assume that there are no costs in making the process longer. Once again we see the seen and the unseen. Drug regulators face a particular set of asymmetric incentives when deciding whether to approve a drug or not. If a drug gets the green light and then 1,000 people die, you have a very visible problem and someone to blame. But not approving a drug has costs but they are more hidden; we are not so aware of the people who die before the approval process has been completed. In the USA AIDS activists were able to get the FDA to relax its restrictions so that AIDS victims could be given treatment before the approval process had finished.

The relationship between innovation and profits is one we have to seriously consider. I am not a big fan of patents but a strong patent system is positive in that it encourages research. Having said that Switzerland apparently had a strong record of medical innovation despite the fact that they had no patent system until 1978. The big downside is that these medicines are prohibitively expensive for developing countries. One key battleground has been HIV and AIDS drugs.Governments and companies in countries like Brazil, and Uganda have started to challenge pharmaceutical patents, arguing that saving human lives justifies the breach of patent law. In 2007 the Brazilian government declared Merck’s Efavirenz anti-retroviral drug a “public interest” medicine. They challenged Merck to negotiate lower prices with the government, or, if not Brazil would issue a compulsory license. So we have a delicate balance to maintain here. We want affordable medicine especially when you are dealing with health emergencies. But we don’t want to kill off innovation.

Medicines are also subject to absurd scare stories. What is interesting is though we live in an increasingly globalised world, these stories tend to be quite localised. In Britain we had the ridiculous case of the MMR vaccine and its alleged links to autism. In France it was about a hepatitis vaccine. The role of the media in the British case was quite shocking. But health scares are what sell papers. One would like to think that lessons would have been learned from this debacle. But the reaction seems to be put the blame on the doctor whose original report the media were so keen to promote. They don’t want to look at their own role in this sorry episode.

These stories though can be considered anecdotes. However in the developing world they can be the recipe for health disasters. Two cases immediately spring to mind. The first is South Africa, where President Mbeki denied the connection between AIDS and HIV. Anti-retroviral drugs were out and vitamin pills were in. Secondly we have the case of polio, which was on the verge of being eradicated, when a bizarre conspiracy theory took hold of the Muslim population in northern Nigeria. This theory seems to come from the same line of reasoning that argues that no Jews were killed on 9/11 or that Israel has been distributing libido-increasing chewing gum in Gaza The polio vaccine conspiracy seems to be a  product of the demented mind of the physician and the president of Nigeria’s Supreme Council of Sharia Law, Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, Dr. Ahmed, an Islamist, accused Americans of lacing the vaccine with an anti-fertility agent that sterilizes children (or, in an alternate version, it infects them with AIDS). Kano state Governor Ibrahim Shekarau was quoted as saying:

 “It is a lesser of two evils to sacrifice two, three, four, five, even 10 children (to polio) than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile,”

It may be uncomfortable to realise that so much medical innovation is the product of profit-seeking private firms. This doesn’t sit easily with our idea of the public good. However there is an intellectual fallacy that you can have all the medicines we have now but at a much cheaper price. Ultimately we are dealing with tradeoffs here. Maybe we would be better off with fewer but more affordable medicines.  I certainly have no illusions about the pharmaceutical industry. They are out to get what they can. But I have tried to show that some of the criticisms against them do not stand up to scrutiny. Although it may be fashionable to bash the pharmaceutical companies, I do feel that they have, on balance, made the world a better place.

Ben Goldacre’s barbs

December 4, 2010

I have recently been reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, which is based on his Guardian column of the same name. In the column Goldacre takes a satirical look at the media’s lack of accuracy when covering science. Goldacre doesn’t believe in the motto “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” He directs his barbs at pseudoscience, quackery and health scares. He is most definitely not a fan of Gillian McKeith, the Holistic Nutritionist and presenter of Channel 4’s You Are What You Eat.  Here is a selection of my favourite quotes from the book:

But these are just stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data.


Most people know that homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that there will be no molecules of it left in the dose you get. What you might not know is just how far these remedies are diluted. The typical homeopathic dilution is 30C: this means that the original substance has been diluted by one drop in a hundred, thirty times over. In the ‘What is homeopathy?’ section on the Society of Homeopaths’ website, the single largest organisation for homeopaths in the UK will tell you that ‘30C contains less than one part per million of the original substance.’

‘Less than one part per million’ is, I would say, something of an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preparation is a dilution of one in 10030, or rather 1060, or one followed by sixty zeroes. To avoid any misunderstandings, this is a dilution of one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or, to phrase it in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, ‘one part per million million million million million million million million million million’. This is definitely ‘less than one part per million of the original substance’.

For perspective, there are only around 100,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometres (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30C dilution.*


 The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of—or cure for—cancer. At the core of this whole project are a small number of repeated canards, basic misunderstandings of evidence which recur with phenomenal frequency.


Soon these food marketing techniques were picked up by more overtly puritanical religious zealots like John Harvey Kellogg, the man behind the cornflake. Kellogg was a natural healer, anti-masturbation campaigner, and health food advocate, promoting his granola bars as the route to abstinence, temperance and solid morals. He ran a sanatorium for private clients, using ‘holistic’ techniques, including Gillian McKeith’s favourite, colonic irrigation.

Kellogg was also a keen anti-masturbation campaigner. He advocated exposing the tissue on the end of the penis, so that it smarted with friction during acts of self-pollution (and you do have to wonder about the motives of anyone who thinks the problem through in that much detail). Here is a particularly enjoyable passage from his Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects (1888), in which Kellogg outlines his views on circumcision:

The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.


I’m going to push the boat out here, and suggest that since you’ve bought this book you may already be harbouring some suspicions about multi-millionaire pill entrepreneur and clinical nutritionist Gillian McKeith (or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith).


 I once saw a bloke at the opening of a Jackson Pollock exhibition in the Tate, wearing a T-shirt that said: “my cat could do better”. What, you may be wondering, has that got to do with Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD)? Well now. Besides her PhD, which we have already discussed, there were a few other interesting entries on her CV. For example, she is proud to announce under “Professional Associations” that she is a certified member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC), which certainly sounds impressive. I bet you get a little certificate and everything.

In fact, I know you get a certificate, because I’m holding it in my hand right now. It’s in the name of my cat, Henrietta. I got it in return for $60, and it’s a particular honour since dear, sweet, little Hettie died about a year ago. So, coming in a bit cheaper than Gillian’s non-accredited correspondence course PhD and Masters degrees (although she will have got a discount from “Clayton College of Natural Health” if she ordered them both at once), it looks as if all you need to be a certified member of the AANC is a name, an address, and a spare $60. You don’t need to be human. You don’t even need to be alive. No exam. No check-up on your qualifications. And no assessment of your practice. I guess that could be embarrassing for some of their certified professional members. Presumably, the diploma is there to certify that you have $60.

….. But back to the money: if anybody wants nutritional advice from the decomposing corpse of my ex-cat, I shall be setting up a small shrine at the bottom of the garden, where you can leave chewed mice, ready cash, and offers of a primetime TV series on Channel 4.

My media week 04/12/10

December 4, 2010

One of my favourite economists, Gary Becker, analyses The Behavior of Catholics and Contraceptive Use.

ABC’s Future tense looks at DARPA, which I featured in a post I did about war and technology. They invented both Internet and GPS.

In essay in the Wall Street Journal Bill Gates argues that Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories.

Spiked offers a defence of the late Bernard Mathews, the man who brought cheap turkey to the masses.

On Radio 4’s Point of View John Bakewell weighs up the pros and cons of extending human life.