All posts by Jacques Rousseau

Breivik, terror and Islamophibia

Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist. Read more at Synapses.

On Elevatorgate: Dawkins, Watson and the need for balance

The origins of what has now become a bitter war between various elements in the secular community lie partly in a failure to understand context, or to apply the principle of charity. Some posts on Elevatorgate make it appear that Watson accuses all men of being rapists, and others that Dawkins is a misogynist – but neither viewpoint seems justified. I’ve said a few words about this on Synapses.

 

Bill of Responsibilities

Note: this is an edited version of a column for The Daily Maverick

It has been a month since the department of education, LeadSA and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum launched their Bill of Responsibilities. Some criticisms of the bill were forthcoming from Ivo Vegter, Khadija Patel and myself (herehere and here). We had concerns regarding various aspects of the Bill, ranging from whether such a bill was necessary at all, to the appropriate role of the state in relation to such a bill.

One of the criticisms levelled at those who expressed opposition to the Bill was that “we need to do something”, with Yusuf Abramjee of LeadSA going so far as to deride “armchair critics” (Facebook link) who (according to his caricature, at least) do little but carp from the sidelines.

This characterisation is untrue, and unfair, as there are various ways of expressing concern regarding the state of South African society, and working towards its betterment. If parts of civil society are of the view that a particular measure – such as the Bill of Responsibilities – is counterproductive for what they imagine to be a healthy South African society, it does little good to attack their motives and character, rather than the substance of the critique.

This is not to say that a bill of responsibilities is necessarily counterproductive to goals such as fostering a healthy society – my concerns addressed one specific Bill, rather than the idea of such a bill in general. And while it is true that many of the salient details such a bill might include are already embedded in the spirit of the South African Constitution, the Bill of Rights is mainly a document of the role of the State in protecting the rights of citizens.

In addition to that – and particularly, now that LeadSA have offered such a document – it could be useful to remind ourselves of what responsibilities we as citizens have, if we are to secure and build on the sacrifices and efforts entailed in our being able to enjoy the privileges of living in a democratic and (mostly) free society.

I’ve therefore been giving some thought to what such a document should look like, bearing in mind the criticisms of the existing document made by myself and others. What you see below, then, is an alternate Bill of Responsibilities, intended for freedom-loving South Africans who also desire a healthy future for this country, but who think that this can be achieved without an excess of paternalism, and without intruding on the liberties secured in our Constitution.

Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome, although it should be born in mind that moral prescriptivism and other forms of paternalism run contrary to the spirit of this suggested bill, and will thus not only be difficult to accommodate, but will also be unlikely to meet with any sympathy. An underlying premise running through the document is that of a commitment to individual liberty, which means that if you are of the view that other values are more foundational, we’re unlikely to agree on much.

Also, while LeadSA’s bill was explicitly aimed at the youth of South Africa, the bill presented below is written for adults. Once the document is revised (and potential feedback incorporated), I hope to draft a simplified version that is more suited to South Africa’s youth.

A Bill of Responsibilities for the citizens of South Africa

Preamble:

I accept that the rights and freedoms enjoyed by South Africans will sometimes come under threat, and that they require constant and vigilant protection if we are to ensure their survival. Furthermore, I accept that if I care to protect these rights and freedoms, I should be conscious of the role I might play in reinforcing or undermining them.

I accept that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lay a strong foundation for a country that is free, and in which all of its people are equal. I also accept that the Bill of Rights lays out unconditional rights for the all citizens of South Africa, and that the primary responsibility for the protection of those rights rests with the state.

I accept that while any legal responsibilities I have to my fellow citizens are codified in statutory law, I can nevertheless impact on those around me in positive and negative ways, regardless of the legal status of my actions.

On enlightened self-interest

1. To recognise that actions have consequences, and that other people are often as committed to their interests, and as convinced of their point(s) of view, as you are to yours.
2. To recognise that no citizen is by nature better than any other, and that any preferential treatment for one citizen, or a group of citizens, over others requires impartial justification.
3. To recognise that choices are made inside a legal framework, where what you do might result in repercussions if that action illegitimately defeats the interests of others.
4. To recognise that you live inside a social framework where you define yourself, and therefore people’s expectations of you, based on your words and actions. Our reputations, and the amount of trust others place in us, are informed by the information we have provided about ourselves.
5. To recognise that our behaviour is not guided and limited by the law alone. We make promises and develop relationships, both of which result in other people having legitimate expectations as to our behaviour.

On law, social interaction and public policy

6. To recognise that even where actions might not be illegal, they can nevertheless cause others to lose respect for you. Your failure to look after the interests or possessions of others could result in decreasing their desires to contribute to your needs or defend your interests.
7. To recognise that when you abuse any power you might hold over others, you assume that your interests are more important than theirs. People who are abused in this fashion are justified in being angry and resentful at this treatment, and could be expected to lose respect for you.
8. To recognise that when we find ourselves in positions which involve representing the interests of others, if we fail to take those interests into account, we are betraying their trust, and breaking a promise.
9. To hold Government to account for meeting the legitimate expectations of citizens, through measures such as voting, legal protest action, and persuading fellow citizens of their role in contributing to holding Government accountable.
10. To recognise that that your choices can impact on the welfare of others, and that altruism from others cannot be assumed. However, showing kindness and respect for others is usually rewarded by them treating you in the same way. If you don’t contribute to the welfare of your fellow citizens, you have no reasonable expectation that they contribute to yours.

On thought and speech

11. To recognise that your knowledge is certainly incomplete, and that a dogmatic insistence on the superiority of your viewpoint is rarely justified.
12. To acknowledge that because of this, you should try to seek out as much information as you can, and assess that information as impartially as you can, before thinking that you know the answer to a question.
13. And furthermore, that because we may have access to different information, and assess that information in different ways, that others have the right to criticise your point of view.
14. To recognise that if your primary commitment is to reaching justified points of view, you should welcome serious critical interrogation of your arguments even when it might be uncomfortable to have your views challenged.
15. To understand that fair criticism should be understood as relating to the arguments you have presented, rather than as an attack on your personal value as a citizen.
16. To recognise that if your primary commitments do not include reaching justified points of view, others have no responsibility to take your point of view seriously.

On patriotism and the future of South Africa

17. South Africa’s Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, charts a future in which all citizens are free to determine and express their own values, except where those values conflict with the limitations defined in the Constitution. Citizens should expect the state to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights’. SA Constitution, 7(2).
18. Supporting your country entails obeying all demands of law, and the instructions of those who are delegated to enforce it.
19. However, we should remember that laws can be unjust or unreasonable, and that citizens are entitled to question or challenge applicable laws through any legal means available to them.
20. In challenging the decisions or actions of the state, or any entity associated with the state, citizens should remember that any pressure exerted in an attempt to silence such challenges is a violation of their rights to freedom of thought and expression.

Quacks like Patrick Holdford find receptive audiences in South Africa

Patrick Holford is one of the many nutritionists, doctors or specialists of one form or another who make a living by selling false or misleading promises. Sometimes, they even endorse harmful remedies, or harmful avoidance of effective remedies, as is the case with Holford’s association with HIV denialism (and Scientology). Why does a national chain of pharmacies endorse this quackery? Read more at Synapses.

 

Moralistic outrage chills free speech

The Kuli Roberts column, Bitch’s Brew, has been cancelled by Avusa and the Sunday World newspaper following the publication of a “racist” column which expressed various stereotypes related to a subsection of South Africans sometimes described as ‘coloureds’. But as offensive as the column might have been to some, is there ever a good reason to deny free expression of views? Read more at Synapses.

The war on woo

Two recent posts that should be of interest to FSI members – on astrology, and on PowerBalance (both via Synapses). In both of these cases, the actual “product” often does little harm (although in the case of astrology, it certainly can do so). However, material harms (whether physical or financial) are perhaps not the only sort of relevant harm. These examples of pseudoscience and quackery contribute to a climate of unreason, and thereby may make us more susceptible to believing in more dangerous forms of woo.

Consumers in South Africa to stage homeopathic ‘overdose’

Press release 17/01/2011

Consumer rights activists in South Africa have today announced their intention to take a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’ next month, as part of a major global protest against the alternative remedies.

Protestors in Cape Town will swallow entire bottles of homeopathic pills on February 5th 2011, in a bid to raise public awareness of the fact that homeopathic ‘remedies’ are ineffective – putting pressure on pharmacists and healthcare providers to ensure that products sold as medical treatments actually work. Continue reading Consumers in South Africa to stage homeopathic ‘overdose’

Leo Igwe arrested (again)

As reported on here, the harassment and intimidation of Leo Igwe continues. Despite the stated commitment of Awka Ibom State Governor Goodswill Akpabio to rooting out the exploitation of children for the Pentecostal witch industry, people like Leo – who are allies in that cause – are frequently arrested and subjected to other rights violations. Any who have contacts in the Nigerian government, or any other form of influence there, should be aware of this and exert what pressure they can to bring a halt to these attempts to limit Leo in his campaigning for basic human rights in Nigeria.

For some background on Leo’s troubles:

http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/334

http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/409

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/a-violent-attack-on-leo-igwes-family/

ASASA complaint in respect of PowerBalanceSA

The FSI submitted the following complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa earlier this month. Let’s hope that they follow the example set by their Australian counterparts, and request that PowerBalance issue corrective advertising. We are aware that there are a number of similar products on the market – some making even more absurd claims than PowerBalance – and we are working on similar complaints with regard to these products.

Complaint in respect of unsubstantiated claims and misleading advertising on the part of POWER BALANCE SA

The products and claims made:

In South Africa, the PowerBalance corporation currently offer two versions of a product marketed under the promise of offering “Performance Technology”. These products (wristbands in various designs, as well as a range of pendants), can be seen on the South African section of their website:
http://www.powerbalance.com/southafrica/products
The claims made on behalf of these wristbands and pendants are:

The substance of the complaint:

The following words and phrases contained in the promotional website are held to be misleading:

1. Performance Technology: Marketing these products as “performance technology” implies that they have benefits in terms of athletic performance. No evidence to support this claim is provided, and this claim is therefore likely to mislead potential buyers into believing that the products have benefits that they do not have.

2. Natural energy field: The claim that the body has a natural “energy field” is vague and pseudoscientific. This cannot be referring to the sort of energy measured by physicists, but instead seems to refer to undefined “life energy”. We are offered no evidence that such an energy field exists, nor how it can be identified and measured. PowerBalance also provide no evidence for their claim that their product can interact with this (unproven) energy field, and offer no explanation of the mechanism by which it might be able to do so.

3. Balance, strength and flexibility: As above, the claim that these products have any effect – whether beneficial or not – on balance, strength and flexibility are made without any substantiating evidence. The fact that the product might be favoured by certain “elite athletes” is not scientific evidence for the efficacy of the product in question.

4. Holograms: A particular frequency is allegedly embedded into the holograms in these products. This appears to be little more than meaningless technobabble, designed to sound scientific. We are offered no evidence for why any particular frequency is chosen, or for how the imprinting of the frequency on to the hologram takes place.

5. Resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body: The frequencies that are allegedly imprinted on the holograms (see 4, above) are claimed to interact with the frequencies of our bodies (see 2, above). However, “a frequency can’t exist alone but has to refer to a number of repetitions of a periodic process per period of time. What is the periodic process that generates the frequency involved in the bracelet technology ”, and how is it determined that the frequencies chosen are indeed beneficial to humans?

The “Test Video”
An additional element of deception can be found on PowerBalance’s website, at http://www.powerbalance.com/southafrica/test-video . The “test” conducted here is similar to the test that is frequently conducted at points of sale, where potential customers are shown that there are benefits in terms of strength and balance when wearing a PowerBalance product.
However, these demonstrations are simple variants of what is known as “applied kinesiology”, frequently used by stage magicians to produce entirely subjective perceptions of increased strength and balance. Not only has this effect been shown to be entirely subjective and unscientific by peer-reviewed academic research , but it has also been shown to be false in double-blind experiments conducted with PowerBalance products , where a PowerBalance salesperson was unable to correctly identify which participants in the experiment were wearing a bracelet, and which were not.
This test video, as well as variants on this test demonstrated by those hoping to sell PowerBalance products, misleads consumers into thinking that the perceived effects of PowerBalance products are scientifically demonstrable and reliable. In actual fact, the perceived effects are entirely unreliable, unrelated to the product itself, and entirely subjective rather than being a physical consequence of the wearing of any PowerBalance product.

Conclusion
The false and misleading claims detailed above are also reproduced on package design, as well as in retail store promotional material for PowerBalance in South Africa. PowerBalance bracelets are currently sold at various retail outlets around South Africa, including sporting goods stores (Sportsman’s Warehouse), Cape Union Mart and pharmacies. They are worn by a number of professional sportspersons, including members of the South African national rugby and cricket teams.
In all of these cases, as well as in the cases of competing (but similar) companies such as http://powerbalancewristband.co.za/ and http://quantumbracelets.com/index.html, we request that all instances of misleading promotional material be withdrawn.

Furthermore, we believe that customers who have purchased such products will, in the majority of cases, have done so under the false belief that these products offered genuine benefits to their balance, strength or athletic performance in general. Given that these products are sold for as much as R500, the misleading and false claims made by PowerBalance have resulted in a not-insignificant material harm to many consumers. It would therefore be appropriate for a full refund on the purchase price to be offered to any consumers who have purchased these products.
There is a precedent for both the retraction and correction of the advertising material in question, as well as for the reimbursement of consumers who have purchased these products. On December 22, 2010, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ruled that PowerBalance should:

• only make claims about its products if they are supported by a written report from an independent testing body that meets certain standards
• publish corrective advertising to prevent consumers from being misled in the future
• amend the Australian website to remove any misleading representations
• change the packaging to remove any misleading representations
• offer a refund to any consumers that feel they have been misled, and
• remove the words “performance technology” from the band itself.
http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/964074

The Australian section of the PowerBalance website now includes a corrective advertisement, acknowledging that there is no scientific evidence for their claims relating to the products, and offering refunds to customers (http://www.powerbalance.com/australia/CA). However, the same website’s South African section, as well as all their other promotional material, continues to make the false and misleading claims detailed above.

PowerBalance is distributed and marketed in South Africa by:
SPT
PO BOX 6296
Walmer, Port Elizabeth, 6065
South Africa
Tel: 041 373 8576
Fax: 086 620 5590
[email protected]

Homeopathic ‘Overdosers’ Announce Global Challenge

Consumer rights activists worldwide are being challenged to participate in a global ‘overdose’ on homeopathic pills, in order to raise public awareness that the remedies are in fact worthless.

The ’10:23 Challenge’, scheduled to culminate worldwide in February 2011, is a follow-up to the protest staged by the 10:23 Campaign in the UK, which saw almost 400 demonstrators take to the streets across UK to voice their concern at the sales of the pills in leading pharmacy ‘Boots’, and the support for such ‘remedies’ on the NHS.

Michael Marshall of the 10:23 Campaign explained the plans for 2011: “This year has been a great year in the UK for raising awareness of homeopathy – with doctors, pharmacists, politicians and – above all – members of the public speaking out against this discredited ‘treatment’.

“However, the case against homeopathy extends far beyond the UK – all around the world, people are being told that homeopathy is a valid form of treatment, and often with tragic consequences. It’s a global problem, and it requires global action.

“This is why we’re announcing the 10:23 Challenge for 2011 – we want to show global unity by gathering protesters from more than 10 countries, and more than 23 cities. Our aim is to have more than 1023 activists publicly gathering over the weekend of 5th-6th February, to make a statement: Homeopathy – There’s Nothing In It.

“Of course, safety is our number one concern – not all homeopathy is prepared as honestly and cleanly as the manufacturers state, and can include real ingredients which could be potentially dangerous. With this in mind we urge anyone wishing to get involved to prepare their own homeopathic remedies, or contact the 10:23 Campaign for more information ([email protected])”.

While International participation is yet to be announced, the challenge will culminate in a demonstration in Manchester on February 6th, at the ‘QED: Question. Explore. Discover.’ event, with over 300 protesters participating the largest ever single demonstration against homeopathy.

The 10:23 Campaign is an international movement headed by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, which aims to raise awareness of homeopathy, a multi-million pound industry based on a long-discredited 18th century ritual, selling remedies to the public which have no scientific basis and no credible evidence for their efficacy beyond the placebo effect.

While dispensing sugar pills may seem harmless, in reality the endorsement of homeopathic potions by leading health providers can have grave consequences. In September 2010, a BBC investigation discovered registered homeopaths administering ineffective ‘alternatives’ to the MMR vaccine, and in 2002 9-month old infant Gloria Sam died from serious infections after her eczema – a condition commonly treated by homeopaths – was treated with homeopathic remedies.

Mr Marshall concluded: “Homeopathy has had more than two centuries to prove itself a useful remedy, but the results consistently come back negative. In the meantime, people are being fooled into believing these pills work, often causing genuine harm. This is unacceptable, and on February 5th, we’re going to demonstrate how strongly people feel about this issue.”

For more information about the 10:23 Challenge, visit www.1023.org.uk or contact [email protected].