Monday, 21 September 2009

Can I write this blog entry without touching the keyboard?

There's a well-known rule that when a tabloid headline poses a question, the answer is almost always 'no'. I don't think I'm going out on a particularly dangerous limb when I propose that this rule holds for the Mail's Can this man cure cancer with his bare hands?

This one's a really classic example of journalists reporting credulously on pseudoscience, complete with the time-honoured opening which presents our hack as a skeptic who's seen it all and definitely don't believe none o' this garbage, not no way.
The BBC's Watchdog says he's a menace. But when one of our most cynical writers met Britain's most controversial healer, her scepticism began to waver.
The writer, Rebecca Hardy, may well be one of Britain's most hard-nosed, scientifically literate skeptics for all I know, but it seems she's had precious little time to rigorously test paranormal phenomena before at the Mail, where she's been mostly employed to bring us the stories that really matter; stories like how Anne Robinson is looking for a man, how Jerry Hall would like to have sex with a man, how Cherie Lunghi can't find a man, how Mariella Frostrup didn't have sex with one particular man, how Andy Murray found a woman, how people have reacted to Paul Beshinivsky finding a woman, and how some old rich guy would like to impregnate a woman.

In the article, Hardy meets Adrian Pengelly, the "world renowned Visionary Healer, Energy Worker, Teacher and Psychic" (according to his own website), who works with both people and animals, both with his magic hands and also apparently at a distance anywhere in the world. It seems Pengelly recently got criticised by the BBC's consumer affairs show Watchdog for doing things like, y'know, claiming he can cure cancer with his fucking 'energy'. Like all good cranks, Pengelly has a finely-tuned sense of which people are stupid enough to believe him naturally in tune with his energy.
'Your energy's moving OK,' he says, which is, I guess, a good thing. Not like poor Matt Allwright from BBC1's Watchdog. 'When he came in his energy was so unpleasant - aggressive,' says Adrian.
Having not seen the episode of Watchdog in question, I won't address Hardy's characterisation of what the show claimed and how unfair it was on Pengelly, who is, we're told "a rather gentle man", with a list of anecdotes to support his claims and who says "I don't care about scientific evidence". Pengelly later seemingly contradicts this claim by talking about the incredible science behind his skills:
'I was just happy to help people. Some said I had a gift from God. But I just wanted to understand the science.

'I thought: "What is there? There's only energy - electricity in different forms - and it floats." I can feel energy come with one hand and draw it with another.

'Somehow the energy I was generating was stimulating the body's immune system.
I dunno about you guys, but that's got me in the mood for some hard-ass science, so let's move on to the test and watch how ruthlessly Hardy analyses Pengelly's abilities as he gets his hands on her and starts feeling her energy...
I've left my bag on the floor with a packet of cigarettes sticking out. Surely, if this man is a fraud, he's going to hone in on my lungs.

'There's no sign in your energy system of you smoking,' he says. 'If you were a heavy smoker, I'd be able to feel that. How many do you smoke a day?' A packet.
This is a strange one, because I would class a pack a day as a heavy smoker. Apparently she doesn't consider herself one though, and credits Pengelly for a hit here. Perhaps he tuned into her psychic energy, perhaps he just noticed that she wasn't constantly coughing up phlegm, who can say?
Now he's feeling my liver. 'People often accumulate emotional and psychological stress here,' he says. 'I can feel lumps of stress.'

Quelle surprise - I have a deadline to meet.
I'm not sure there's anyone anywhere who doesn't think they have some stress in their lives, a fact that Pengelly does at least acknowledge before honing in his diagnosis to something that's still massively vague but allows Hardy to provide all the information for him;
'One lump is now becoming bigger than the others. It's either a partner or a child it's related to. Is it related to a child and a partner at the same time? Does that make sense?

'The energy is twisted together. It's an emotional trauma, a shock, an energy you've held on to.'

Now I'm slightly freaked out. Almost two years ago my son's father died'
Of course, anyone who knows anything about cold reading can see what's going on here. Pengelly dangles a suggestion out there which his subject then stretches to fit her life. In this case it's her son's father dying, but Pengelly left his suggestion open enough to cover miscarriages, illnesses in both children and partners, relationship break-ups, custody battles and all manner of other potential traumas. The good thing about feeling energies through your hands rather than, for example, claiming to talk to the dead, is that it sort of makes sense that you would get vague signals back which your subject has to interpret themselves. With seances you always wonder if these spirits are mumbling and why they appear to only know the first letter of a dead relative's name, but the nebulous psychic energy racket has got a bit more leeway.

But just in case you think Pengelly is a crank, Hardy reassures us that he was once, like her, skeptical. I mean, he was "a policeman's son", for fuck's sake, and we all know about the well-documented link between having a copper for a dad and not believing in psychic healing. Pengelly became convinced when he went to a psychic fair and a man told him "where the scars were on [his] body from cycle racing", which I'm sure we can all agree would be almost impossible to guess. He tried out his own psychic ability by putting his hands on a friend's head and watching in astonishment as her migraine vanished. A scientist or doctor might suggest that headaches are self-limiting and subjective conditions which go away by themselves over time and are thus ripe for the old correlation/causation fallacy, but in this case our scientifically-minded journalist is just so darn impressed that she probably forgot.

The article finishes with Hardy talking about how she feels sort of better since Pengelly touched her up, saying "Meanwhile, I, as a professional cynic, am far less sceptical about Adrian than I expected". Maybe her stress disappeared, as she acknowledges, because she'd met her deadline. Perhaps it disappeared because instead of doing a real job she sat on a chair in a field getting gently massaged by a nice man. I certainly couldn't say. But isn't it so refreshing to see a serious journalist like Hardy really applying her critical thinking to a topic? So let's all petition the Mail to move Rebecca Hardy to a new position dealing with science and health claims, because truly her analytical talents are wasted on stories like Sinitta's continuing love for Simon Cowell, Dermot O'Leary's family plans and the trials and tribulations of someone who was engaged to someone who danced with a newsreader on a TV show about dancing.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Now PC prude bans phrase 'political correctness'

If ever you needed proof that 'political correctness' long ago ceased to be an actual code of language, if it ever was, today's papers are jizzing themselves silly about how you can't even say 'spotted dick' any more in case you offend dicks, or people with dicks, or people with no dicks, or people who once saw a dick but wish they hadn't. The Daily Express have gone with the rather straightforward NOW PC PRUDEES [sic] BAN SPOTTED DICK, presumably because you can't even say 'prudes' any more without offending the prudes.

The story runs like this; some people think that the name of the pudding 'spotted dick' is inherently hilarious, presumably the kind of people that really relish ordering cocktails called things like 'Sex On The Beach' or 'Interracial Anal Fisting' (not sure if the second one is a real cocktail). Canteen staff in one particular canteen have got bored of sniggering comments about spotted dick, and decided to rename it 'spotted Richard' on the menu (perhaps in homage to pudding-esque Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, who knows?). This isn't really news in the sense that most of us would understand the term, but nevertheless the story made the Express, The Mail, The Telegraph, The Sun, The Star, the BBC, Sky News, and quite possibly a number of distant solar systems with no discernable traces of life. (If you're feeling a sense of deja vu, it could be because this sort of thing has happened before).

The Express, quick as a flash, sends a man racing up to the top of Express Towers to project the emergency PC Gone Mad symbol into the sky (I believe it's in the shape of a rainbow sheep), and, sure enough, their call for a hero is answered in the form of the tireless Philip Davies MP, a man who may very well actually shit reactionary quotes when he goes to the toilet:

Tory MP Philip Davies, Parliamentary spokesman for the Campaign Against ­Political Correctness said: “They are likely to get more people sniggering ­because they are calling it spotted Richard rather than spotted dick. It also speaks ­volumes that one group can be so childish and the other so sensitive.”
It seems they didn't need Davies to actually say 'political correctness gone mad', because he was beaten to it by someone who heard something about it from someone which he reckons is probably what happened:

Last night council member Klaus Armstrong-Braun said: “I find this unbelievable. I have been told it happened because it was felt the name was offensive. That is ludicrous. This dish has been around for 150 years and its name has never been a problem.

“It is part of British culture and heritage and to change it because of the childish ­behaviour of a few is absolutely ridiculous.

“It will even cost money because the name labels have to be changed. It is political ­correctness gone mad.”
That creaking sound you can hear is the national economy straining on the edge of total collapse with the news that Flintshire County Council's canteen is about to waste funds running into perhaps tens of pennies on their menus which almost certainly get reprinted on a regular basis anyway.

So what is political correctness these days? I'm a liberal person who tries to be careful with my choice of words because I understand that words are extremely powerful tools, weighted and shaped by decades of changing meaning and history such that they carry with them connotations which I think it behooves us all to acknowledge, out of a mixture of basic respect to people and the need to be understood. What I'm not is someone who thinks the name 'spotted dick' should be banned. The word 'dick' is not really a PC concern, is it? Political correctness isn't about banning swear words, that's just censorship at most.

It seems that 'political correctness' has now come to mean 'any type of censorship, change or compromise made which we in the press don't agree with'. Therefore, I propose that people just stop saying it. Just stop. You've ruined it now. It once sort-of meant something, but you messed around with it like excited children, tried to use it for something other than its intended purpose, and now it's broken. Maybe you can come up with another term which more accurately represents the weirdly simplistic narrative you're trying to spin, or, and here's a wild idea, maybe you can just try and criticise things on their own relative merits instead of screaming 'PC! PC GONE MAD!' like some kind of yelping chorus of gits. Does it make you feel good to constantly rail against a poorly-constructed left-liberal strawman using quirky, isolated examples which you know full well have nothing to do with any kind of political movement? Why the obsession with concocting a strange fantasy world wherein a dark cabal of socialist oppressors are stealing all your good old British words? It's so bollock-achingly fucking boring now that I'm actually tempted to start a campaign to genuinely get spotted dick banned (not even renamed, the actual pudding banned from shops, forever) just to piss you morons off.

So yeah, you can quote me on the 'let's stop saying the phrase "political correctness"' stuff and pretend I've banned it, if it helps give your world that frisson of excitement. Next time you're at a social gathering, why not end one of your spluttering right-wing rants with the phrase "...but of course, you can't say 'political correctness' any more, apparently the politically correct get offended by it!". Perhaps I'll be there when you say it, at which point I'll drag you off into a darkened room and violently stuff your every orifice with a popular currant-filled suet pudding while screaming "YEAAAAAAAH HOW YOU LIKE MY SPOTTED RICHARD NOW, BITCH?! TASTE MY RICHARD!", until your body explodes and your wretched existence finally draws to an undeservedly spectacular end.