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Thursday, October 21


I didn't quite get yesterday. It wasn't a day of things making sense.

Work had me reading a bunch of 150 page documents where people promised the world and I was left wondering whether they really could deliver. This is way too dull and melted my brain a fair old bit. I think my brain grew during the process, but only in the sense that it became inflated by the hot-air it was forced to process. This is figurative... and rather unintelligible - a tribute to the documents I was reading.

During the day I went online and noticed a discussion on Rhys Morgan's blog on homeopathy, which is one of my bete noirs. The simple fact is that there's no active effect of homeopathy in itself. There are three effects that make people believe in homeopathy:
  • Placebo - belief can heal, apparently, which is great, but no proof of a medical treatment method - arguably, you could replace homeopathy with smarties and get the same effect
  • Return to mean - the fact that people can sometimes get better for no singular reason, or because their illness has run its cause outside of any intervention
  • Confirmation bias - the idea that "I was doing this when that happened, and I thought this would cause that, so this causes that"
I made some reasonable points about an anecdote on the above blog, and got into a dialogue with a contributor, doing the classic well it worked for me argument about this hocus pocus. His parting shot was "Would you rather be right, or get better?" made me spit my dummy out... a little.

Confirmation bias is fascinating in its own regard. I have noticed people flashing their lights at traffic signals to make them turn green. Do you think that flashing your light at a red light can make it change? If you do, then maybe you have a reason for it... don't emergency services, with their flashing lights, make lights change in their favour? Haven't you seen someone flash at a signal and then it changes to green? We have a plausible mechanism and a bit of anecdotal evidence there. My ex-girlfriend first taught me about this trick - making the traffic lights change by flashing them... mind you, it doesn't always work. So, is this a real thing? or is this confirmation bias making us believe a rumour, coupled with the fact that if you flash enough, the lights will eventually change (regardless of your flashing)?

I emailed the highways agency to find out. I'll tell you their answer later on.

On the way to the gig last night I was discussing all these crazy beliefs with my in-car companion. I was explaining some of the wacko treatments out there, like Cranio Sacral therapy, which I think boils down to "your head's a bit out of whack, let me screw it on properly for you". I explained the term "Woo" as the name for the practioners of alternative medicine. I think it may have other origins, but for me it comes down to the fact that the people who haven't got any clinical evidence and proven mechanism behind their so-called treatments have, ultimately, to answer questions on how it works by basically saying "Woooooooo!".

Punter: So you manipulate my head and then what happens.
Head witch doctor: Well, we align your energies and then, wooooooo, it sort of teaches your body how to tune into not-being-ill-FM.
Punter: How?
HWD: [waving hands and fingers around like a poor conjuror] Ooooooooh.

Simple fact. If alternative medicine actually worked, with proper evidence, and plausible mechanisms, it would be called medicine. In other words, it's an alternative to what is consider effective and logical. If you want to get better, you want the most effective treatment, not the most bold empty promise.

We got to Windsor and had a long pre-gig warm up. We played the biscuit game. Not that one. The game where you make biscuits into films. I had Breakfast at Tiffin-ys. But that may not be a biscuit. Running late, the gig got started.

I then discovered, bantering with the audience, that there was not one, but TWO Chiropractors in the audience. My head exploded. It was too early in the gig for me to know I'd have the audience behind me if I launched into them. To me, these guys might as well have been dressed as witch-doctors with hats on that said "Give us your money for our dangerous and ignorant treatment". I asked them their opinion on Simon Singh, and they hadn't even heard of him. If you haven't, then I recommend reading Trick or Treatment (not that I've read it myself, but I've read the reviews, seen the aftermath, and read his other work, so I'm happy that it's a good recommendation). Eventually, I made a joke about not having a go at Chiropractors because it might "get their back up". What was interesting was that they were sitting with an NHS Primary Care Trust worker. Who knows what they've been up to. I had bantered with this guy and made jokes about NHS cuts. I didn't think to set up an expectation about quackery in that discussion, it would have been gold.

I'll explain about set-ups in this situation. If you're bantering with someone, I've realised that it's a good thing to create a big expectation. You can declare, from the evidence in front of you, that someone is very very manly, for example, then ask them a question about their manliness; their answer will either meet or confound expectations - a laugh either way.

So, in the spirit of "turning back time" (thanks RH) here's a re-script.

[What sort of happened]

Me: What do you do?
Man 1: I work for a PCT, in the NHS.
Me: You don't have to clarify that it's the NHS - I know what a PCT is. Maybe the audience don't know, though. Anyone not know? [some murmur] do you want to tell them?
Man 1: It's a Primary Care Trust, hospital management.
Me: Oooh, these cuts must be affecting you a lot. How's your job?
Man 1: Yeah. Not good.
Me: 16% tougher, eh? What's your favourite... cut...?
Man 1: No comment.

[Things that should have happened]

Me: Perhaps if the government forced the NHS to cut all the quack treatments they pay for, there'd be more money for proper medicine. These quacks, they're stealing your livelihood. Sorry for your bad luck, mate. [turns to person next to him] So, what do you do?
Man 2: I'm a Chiropractor
Me: Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. You pretend to cure people by giving them a back rub. Do you do NHS work? [audience laughter]
Man 2: [Murmurs of indignation]
Me: Sorry. I didn't mean to get your back up. Your sort believe that the back is the seat of all medical problems and that you can re-align the back to cure stuff. How would you deal with a back injury?
Man 2: [Mumbles some more]
Me: Sorry. I'm sure you're highly qualified at this made up treatment. Is it right that you don't need to read the inside of the textbooks in Chiropractic, as you can just look at the spine. Sorry. I don't mean to your your nose out of joint. That would hardly be relevant. I'm sure you're a well-meaning guy who's trying to help people. At least there aren't that many Chiropractors out there. [To next man] So, what do you do?
Man 3: I'm a Chiropractor
Me: Oh, this is awkward... Nevermind, what's your name?
Man 3: Zeno. [That was his ACTUAL NAME and the next bit happened]
Me: That's unusual, where's that name from
Audience member: It's a greek philosopher
Man 3: It's not a greek name.
Me: It's not like Xenu, the thing from scientology is it? No, you wouldn't be involved in any woo beliefs, would you...

By scripting the bits that didn't happen, I've learned that I need to be more on the ball in setting up expectations, as there were some remarkably jaw-dropping moments that could have genuinely happened if I'd been a bit more manipulative with the conversation... sorry to pull back the curtain a bit on how I do MCing, but it's all about cheating in conversations. I was actually quite thrown by having these two quacks in the audience that I got a bit giddy and off-centre. The first act had to use the full extent of his calm and centred delivery to take control of the room, for which I'm truly impressed and thankful.

The gig was hard work, but a lot of fun in the end. We'll see how show 2 goes next month. I dropped off my co-comedian and then went home. I had, by this stage, already received an email from the highways agency saying that the majority of traffic signals do not respond to flashing lights, and that there are other ways for signals to be changed for emergency services. Some can respond to strobing, but only at a certain frequency, which could not be simulated by someone manually. At a red light on the way home, I flashed my lights and it went green. Woooooo!

I had an abortive attempt to record episode two of The Roadcast yesterday. The simple fact was that I stopped being in the mood after the gig, so didn't record the journey home. The journey to the gig was recorded, but the in-car chat with James might not have been good enough in terms of levels (it was good in person). I'll have to have a review. I may use some of the blether, but may have to do some serious editing to get much out of it.

And that was a big bag of confusing yesterday.


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