The Pizzagate scandal

November 26, 2017

 

This week’s post is about Pizzagate, one of those fake news stories that emerged in 2016 in the month leading up to the presidential election. It is one of those stories that I was vaguely aware of, but I did not know many of the facts. Luckily I heard a podcast from Reveal which looked into this bizarre conspiracy. In Pizzagate: A slice of fake news the podcaster teamed up with Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund “to explore how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire.” The cast of characters includes chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the alt-right, a famous conspiracy theorist, a performance artist, Madeleine McCann and an actor/writer who decided to take the law into his own hands.

“My NYPD source said it’s much more vile and serious. We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring. Not even Hillary’s most ardent supporters and defenders will be able to excuse this!”

The first clue comes from this Facebook post by Carmen Katz that went up on October 29th, last year, just ten days before the election. The reporters saw that Carmen’s profile said that she lived in Joplin, Missouri. Unable to find Carmen Katz in the phone book, they found her real name Cynthia Campbell. They were eventually able to talk to her. She denied any involvement, claiming that her Facebook account had been hacked. Later though her attitude changed and she accused the journalists of the hacking and threatened to sue them.

The starting point for the conspiracy theory goes back to the thousands of hacked the Democratic Party’s emails from the man running the campaign John Podesta. In Podesta’s emails, there are a few references to pizza and a couple of references to Comet Ping Pong, an establishment whose owner Podesta knew, and where Democrats would hold fundraisers. The emails did made lots of references to pizza. Conspiracy theorists on Reddit knew that this had to be some kind of code. Of course it was – cheese pizza had to stand for child pornography.

The story slowly began to gather momentum. Carmen Katz’s original tweet appeared on the Twitter account at David Goldberg in New York. Given the name and that the photo for his avatar was of a man with a large Photoshopped nose, it seems more like an anti-Semitic meme used by White Supremacists. Be that as it may, the post was shared at least 6,000 times on Twitter and was subsequently picked up by a fake news site.YourNewsWire.com.

The story then goes international. The reporter goes off to Macedonia. There in Veles, a depressed former factory town we meet Borcha Pechev, a man who earns a bit of extra cash setting up fake news sites, for which he charges 100 Euro at a time. Veles is said to be the fake news capital of the world. They don’t actually invent fake news there; they just copy and paste it from American fake news sites. And they do not have it in for Hillary – this is strictly a business.

The story was still doing the rounds on the fringes when on November 2nd Alex Jones’s Infowars programme. I have mentioned Mr Jones in previous posts. Trump is known to be a fan. His most notorious claims are probably that 9/11 was a hoax and that nobody actually died in the Sandy Hook shooting. One guest on alleged that there was a child slave colony on Mars. Despite this, or maybe because of this, his show has excellent ratings and he gave the Pizzagate claims fresh impetus.

This particular episode featured an interview with Doug Hagmann, a private investigator from Erie, Pennsylvania. He claimed that:

All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hilary Clinton. And the people in the halls of our power in the United States.

It later emerges that he has no evidence to back up his claim. Jones would eventually apologise for his role in Pizzagate.

You would have thought that Trump winning the election would have seen the story die.  But that didn’t stop the spread of Pizzagate. It actually grew after the election. The story got became huge in Turkey, where it has been suggested that the Islamist conservative Justice and Development Party government wanted to distract attraction from a recent child abuse scandal and from controversial pending legislation on child marriage, which would have made a child rape no longer punishable if the perpetrator offered to marry his victim.

Jack Posobiec, a thirtysomething, an American alt-right activist, went to Comet Ping-Pong, where he used Periscope to live-stream an investigation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. When he tried to broadcast a child’s birthday party being held in a back room of the restaurant, he was asked to leave.  A New York Times story, which restaurant owner James Alefantis hoped would help debunk the story proved counterproductive. And of course Russia was involved.

A 28-year-old actor/writer (he has a credit for a film on the IMDB) from North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch, had become obsessed with the paedophile cabal. It was his duty to save all those innocent kids On December 4th, 2016, armed with a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle, he decided to drive from his home state the miles to the nation’s capital. On the way, he made a suicide video: “girls, I love you all more than anything in this world.” Once he had arrived at Comet Ping Pong restaurant, he started looking for the basement. All he could find was a locked door. He shot it up only to discover, there was no basement. And there were no kids either. He then surrendered to a SWAT team,

After the incident, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, and also a member of Trump’s transition team, tweeted:

Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many “coincidences” tied to it. This tweet may well have been the reason why Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump’s transition team on December 6, 2016

Welch and he was arraigned on federal charges and pled guilty. Now, his life, and his family’s life, is ruined. The restaurant owner, James Alefantis has also had his life is changed forever by this. The death threats have continued. I really don’t think this wacky conspiracy theory decided the election, but it does show a crazy idea can take on a life of its own. This is nothing new, but social media has made its impact even greater.

 

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1) And what about the performance artist I mentioned in my introduction. The artist in question is Marina Abramović. She was close to John and Tony Podesta. One of the Wikileaks emails referred to a 1996 performance piece Spirit Cooking:

Dear Tony,

I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining?

All my love, Marina

In the oeuvre Abramović wrote a series of absurd dark self-help mantras phrases on the walls of a gallery in pig’s blood. The phrases included:

 Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”

 “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”

 “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk. Drink on earthquake nights.”

 “Sitting on a copper chair. Comb your hair with a clear quartz crystal brush, until your memory is released.”

This tied in with the conspiracy theories.

2) According to Wikipedia, conspiracy theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann. They claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping. The source was the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, which has also argued that Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian.

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Fantasyland in action: the rise of the Anti-Vaxxer movement

October 28, 2017

Doctors complain that quacks keep patients away from orthodox medicine. I cheer! Since all the treatments, both orthodox and alternative, for cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, are equally unproven, why would a sane person choose treatment that can kill the patient? Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn

The University of Google is where I got my degree from! Actress Jenny McCarthy the public face of the antivaccine movement in the 2000s on the Oprah show

When I was little, a thousand American children died from polio every year, and thousands more were permanently paralyzed. The year I turned three, a flu epidemic killed seventy thousand people in the United States, and I spent two weeks in the hospital with unstoppable diarrhoea caused by a retrovirus, and nearly died. Back then, as many as a thousand American kids died every year from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Several hundred Americans were dying every year from measles, and the disease rendered many hundreds more deaf or, as we said then, retarded. But during the 1950s and early ’60s, vaccines appeared that prevented all those, and every kid got them. Many thousands of unnecessary deaths and cripplings were prevented. There was no antivaccine movement. Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland

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In 1955 the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine came out. Discovered by the American virologist Jonas Salk, the vaccine was motive for huge celebration in the USA and the rest of the world. Having successfully inoculated thousands of monkeys, Salk took the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans in 1952. He must have had faith in his discovery – as well as administering the vaccine to 161 children from the Pittsburgh area, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons with the vaccine in his kitchen. Salk announced the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953. But shortly after all this moment of triumph, a bad batch of polio vaccine came out sparking a polio epidemic which left 200 children with paralysis and killed ten. Nevertheless, such was the trust in science that parents quickly went back to vaccinating their kids. This was the Golden Age of Vaccines when the public accepted the value of the scientific breakthroughs. Now Salk’s laboratory would probably have been bombed by animal rights’ activists and it would have denounced as some kind of conspiracy to brainwash society. Indeed, the golden age didn’t last. And it all began in the 1960s

Robert Mendelsohn, M.D. was born in 1926. This self-proclaimed medical maverick became politicized in the late 60s. I am sure that the grandfatherly, white coated, paediatrician was a very pleasant and kind man. And I don’t doubt that his motives were sincere. He probably did want doctors to be the best they could be. And some of his criticisms of the medical establishment were justified. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! He really did come out with some nonsense. Mendelsohn believed that parents were better qualified than doctors to assess their children’s health. If you were a woman the greatest danger to your health might actually be your doctor. And germane to this week’s topic he was one of the leading opponents of vaccination, claiming that there was no convincing scientific evidence that mass vaccination could be credited with eliminating any childhood disease. This is what I was talking about last week. Countercultural ideas gradually seeped out into the rest of society. Unfortunately there are still websites praising this doctor.

A more recent anti-vaxxer star is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The son of Bobby has trashed the legacy of his uncle, who was a proponent of vaccines. Kennedy, Jr claimed that government scientists were “involved in a massive fraud.” There have even been rumours that he would chair a commission on vaccine safety to be set up by Donald Trump. All we need now is expert witnesses including Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, Charlie Sheen and the University of Google’s Jenny McCarthy, all well-known anti-vaxxers. And it could be chaired by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor responsible for a notorious 1998 study of EIGHT subjects which purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

This is where the scepticism has brought us. It is good to analyse the motivation of pharmaceutical companies, but to go from there to believing that vaccines had nothing to do with the eradication of so many diseases or that there is a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, is highly irresponsible. There have already been really serious consequences. In December 2014 there was a serious outbreak of the measles at Disneyland, California. Over a period of just three days, some 40 people contracted the disease during their visit visiting the park. They then went on to infect over 80 more people, and there are currently said to be around 127 measles cases attributed to the Disneyland incident. The outbreak sparked a new law in California; as of June 2015, parents are longer able to opt out of inoculations due to their “personal beliefs”. Measles also swept through a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota that had been targeted by anti-vaxxer advocates, including the Organic Consumers Association and Andrew Wakefield. Consequently, during the next few years vaccination rates plummeted in the community making its members more vulnerable to measles and mumps too. There were 79 cases in the 2017 outbreak, of which 65, or 80% affected children of Somali descent. Science has become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten how terrible these diseases can be. Sadly, we may be about to become acquainted with them. Irrational thinking costs lives.

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As Ben Goldacre likes to say: the plural of anecdote is not data. Here are a couple of charts from the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project website:


Welcome to Fantasyland

October 22, 2017

But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Kurt Andersen writing in The Atlantic

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Before the 2016 the British satirist John Oliver did a piece in which Trump came out with a shocking revelation before the November election. It had all been a hoax – he had just been trying to show how broken the system was. Alas, Trump’s victory is no joke. Kurt Andersen started his new book Fantasyland before Trump had even entered the presidential race. Nevertheless, it provides an indispensable historical guide to recent events.  Andersen looks at the long-running tension between Enlightenment values and magical thinking that has characterised has the former British colony in nearly 500 years of history. On leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex”. In this book Andersen is more worried about the “fantasy-industrial complex”, the news business, religious, political, and entertainment organisations that have created this Fantasy world. What Andersen shows us is that in America there has been a strong tradition of magical thinking, anti-elitism, scepticism of authority and a desire to ignore reality. This book gives us a historical background. We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the enabling power of the internet.  I am not going to write about the whole book; rather I am going to look at a couple of the influences that Andersen mentions.

I realise that the term American exceptionalism may be a bit of a cliché, but there is something bizarre about American religion; nobody does religion quite like the Americans. Their society is a product of a country founded by the Puritans in New England who sought to create a Christian utopia, a City on the Hill. This was a theocracy as the faithful waiting for the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end times. America is a huge, vibrant religious marketplace. Two of its more bizarre creations have been Mormonism, which Andersen describes as the “All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith”, and Scientology. But it goes beyond this. It is such things as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the prosperity gospel that give certain strands of American Protestantism its unique flavour.

A part of the book I found fascinating was his exploration of the 1960s. A profound shift in thinking emerged in the ’60s – anything and everything became believable. Many in academia turned away from enlightenment values; in particular, we saw the rise of postmodernism. Andersen is not arguing that Donald Trump read Foucault and came to the conclusion that truth was all relative. Indeed, many Conservatives have attacked relativism. Nevertheless, this fast-and-loose attitude towards the truth has been adopted by the right to promote climate-change denial, black helicopter conspiracies*, and increasingly hysteric gun-rights activism and a general anti-science bias. Andersen expresses it like this:

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”

I found this book a stimulating read. However, the USA does not have a monopoly on magical thinking. This American idea of reinventing yourself is also what makes America great. What intrigues me is that you have the greatest scientists in the world alongside people who believe that dinosaurs shared our planet and that Noah was able to fit hall the animal species onto the Ark. bout Ben Carson embodies this duality. A candidate in the Republican presidential primaries and currently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, Carson came out with the outlandish claim that the pyramids were built to store grain. He has a science background. He was the Director of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 until his retirement in 2013. Indeed, he was a pioneer in developing a procedure for the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head, and many other innovations. The guy is not stupid.

All this magical thinking has not prevented this country from becoming the world’s leading superpower. Conservatism is not an illogical ideology, but I have to agree with Andersen that in recent years the adoption of magical thinking has been asymmetric. It is frightening the way in which the Republican Party has taken on board this flight from reason. Just look at the recent 2017 special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General. Trump’s candidate was actually preferable to the eventual winner, Roy Moore. Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Ayatollah of Alabama’s” ideas:

  • Moore has stated that the September 11 attacks were a divine punishment for Americans’ declining religiosity and the Sandy Hook shooting was “because we’ve forgotten the law of God.”
  • He has been prominent in the anti-Obama birther movement, which claims that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. He has also argued that the previous president is secretly a Muslim.
  • He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil should be outlawed. It is an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it. Moreover, the legitimization of “sodomy” will cause suffering in the United States.
  • He opposes the theory of evolution, arguing “There is no such thing as evolution. That we came from a snake? No, I don’t believe that

This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. To be frank now I’m feeling nostalgic for George W. How did we come to this? Just imagine if Trump were impeached. I can’t say that the thought of President Pence makes me feel any calmer.

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*Wikipedia defines it thus: Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies.[citation needed] Rumours circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws.

 

 


A couple of videos

October 22, 2017

Here are a couple of videos in which Andersen talks about the ideas in the book:

 


The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 


Sport: Inside the world of diet gurus, faith healers, power bracelets and $100 pyjamas

May 28, 2017

On Saturday 24 May 2014 it was the Champions League final between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. In the ninth minute Atlético’s star player Diego Costa limped off the field. I am a Real Madrid supporter, and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the Brazilian-born centre-forward. In particular as a sceptic, I was glad to see bullshit exposed. Because in the weeks before the final Costa, who had a thigh injury, had been seen by Marijana Kovacevic, the “miracle doctor”. She used horse placenta to miraculously cure Costa’s injury in record time. She did get him on the pitch, but it was a fleeting appearance. That ninth-minute substitution would have been really handy later in the final. Following a 93rd-minute header by Sergio Ramos, which cancelled out Diego Godín’s first-half goal, the match went into extra time. The Atlético men were mentally and physically exhausted. In extra time Real scored three more goals and a tenth European Cup was on its way to the Bernabeau trophy room.

Seven years ago Novak Djokovic was an elite tennis player. But he had never realised his full potential and was unable to really challenge Federer and Nadal. The Serbian nutritionist Igor Cetojevic tried a bizarre applied kinesiology experiment, asking Djokovic to put a slice of bread against his belly with his left hand while extending his right hand straight out and pushing up while he pressed on it from above. He discovered that with the bread against his stomach he felt noticeably weaker, unable to resist Cetojevic’s downward pressure. When the bread wasn’t there he felt no such loss of muscle strength in his arm.

Cetojevic concluded that Djokovic was sensitive to the gluten in the bread. Of course sceptics might say that how did the nutritionist know it had to be the gluten and not the yeast, salt or the other many chemicals, additives and ingredients typically found in a slice of bread? As a brief digression, what is happening with bread? We have been eating the stuff for millennia. For some reason the industrialised loaf does not seem to be doing us much good.

Djokovic decided to put his faith in this doctor, who would transform the Serb’s diet. The results were spectacular – Djokovic started to feel stronger, quicker, and fitter. He now has 12 Grand Slam victories, 11 of which have come after the change in his diet. In fact, much of the advice is actually quite good. He eats a lot of vegetables, pulses, fresh berries and nuts while eliminating biscuits, pizzas etc. from his diet. He also eats in a mindful way without looking at his mobile, watching TV or playing video games. I ought to do the same. In 2016 he opened a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo, where he now lives. Maybe he really is gluten intolerant, but I don’t recommend putting a slice of bread on your as a diagnostic tool.

In the late 1990s faith healer Eileen Drewery had a controversial partnershipship with Glenn Hoddle. Although she had no sporting qualifications, he hired her as a consultant. Her remit was to cure the players of both physical and psychological ailments. Steve McManaman, compared Hoddle’s training camps to a “cult”, accusing him of favouring those players who choose didn’t drink the kool-aid.

The 1998 World Cup was on the horizon. Ray Parlour was in the squad, but he had had tweaked his calf in training that week with Arsenal. He was going for a scan, but Hoddle wanted him to go and see Drewery first. Unsure what to expect, Parlour entered the room. Drewery closed the curtains. Parlour wondered if he was in a strip joint – was Eileen about to take her clothes off? The player was feeling apprehensive. When Drewery put her hands on the back of his head, Parlour blurted out: “Short back and sides, please.”

Drewery was the subject of much ridicule. In one of the tabloids Parlour did one of those mocked-up pictures showing Drewery with her hands on his head. Hoddle did not see the funny side. Parlour was left out of the next England squad. Arsène Wenger, who had been Hoddle’s manager at Monaco, said he would get in touch with the England manager to try and find out what the problem was. Apparently Hoddle felt that Parlour had disrespected his faith and would not be playing for England while he remained manager.

I am a big fan of the NFL. I love the cocktail of strategy, power, speed and violence. And the greatest star is undoubtedly Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. A sixth-round draft pick Brady now has five Super bowl rings and is widely considered the GOAT – the greatest of all time. He is nearly 40 years old and fresh off winning his fifth ring after helping his side come back from what had been a 28-3 deficit halfway through the third quarter. What’s more he has talked of playing until he is 45 or even beyond. This would be unprecedented.

Brady is driven, ultra professional and articulate. A brilliant decision maker on the field he is in danger of becoming professional sport’s answer to Gwynneth Paltrow off it. He’s building a lifestyle brand based on pseudoscience and magic pyjamas. In 2014, Brady opened his TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. TB12 sports is Brady’s joint venture with business partner Alex Guerrero. The fitness guru has a chequered career. He fell foul of the Federal Trade Commission for marketing a miracle cancer-curing supplement he falsely claimed he studied in 200 terminally ill patients. They also called him out and for not really being a doctor and he had to pay a $65,000 fine and was barred from referring to himself as a doctor again. He also had to stop selling Neurosafe, a concussion-protection water.

Last year the quarterback and Guerrero launched his TB12 website, with an online store where you can buy nutritional supplements, fitness gear, vegan snack bags and the $200 TB12 Nutritional Manual, featuring “89 seasonally-inspired recipes. There is also the UA Athlete Recovery Sleepwear, which has “a bio-ceramic print that harnesses infrared energy to reduce inflammation.” Brady’s eats 80% vegetables and avoids dairy products, sugar and white flour. This sounds a pretty good idea. However, he has also cut out olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplants. This is because they cause inflammation. Like Djokovic’s, Tom Brady’s diet does seem quite healthy and I’m sure many English football players could learn a lot from the utter dedication of the quarterback. Much of what Guerrero does is probably but you cannot overlook the cancer scam, Neurosafe and the overpriced pyjamas.

I haven’t mentioned the energy bracelet yet. These were supposed to improve athletic performance: “Ever since I started wearing (a Power Balance band) I noticed I was falling less,” claimed ex-NBA star Lamar Odom, a member of the 2010 champions the Los Angeles Lakers. Be on the lookout for terms like negative ions, quantum, natural, energy frequencies and the like. Why is the world of sport full of pseudoscience, bogus claims and dodgy products? I think there are a number of factors. Athletes operate in a world of small margins and are trying to eke out any possible competitive advantage. They are in an activity where luck also plays a part and they may well seek what psychologists call the illusion of control. And one should not underestimate the power of the placebo effect. The sad thing is that with the influence these stars exert on society they may promote a lot of magical thinking. Sceptics are going to be needed for the foreseeable future.


The rise of food allergies

June 5, 2016

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.