A general record of my ongoing battle with all forms of nonsense.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Black Magic Psychic in Leicester

You may have thought that black "magic" was consigned to the Dark Ages or only manifested itself in faraway places such as Haiti. But a man in Leicester who goes by the name of Pandit Harinath Mukya claims he can not only diagnose spells put on you by others, but he can also cast spells to counter them.

I'm always interested in paranormal claims, but was particularly interested in Mukya (pictured), because most self-proclaimed psychics I have previously visited have come from a British cultural background.

It would be interesting to see similar claims originating from an Asian cultural background.

Having said that, I went along expecting readings similar to those I've experienced before – someone making a small amount of money providing simple readings, deluding their clients and themselves into believing their cold reading skills are genuine psychic ability.

What I found, at least to me, appeared very, very different. The entire interaction seemed as if it was designed to separate as much money as possible from the client.

Mukya's operation is run from a terrace house on Paton Street, off Narborough Road, in Leicester's West End.

Having phoned ahead to book a £10 consultation, I arrived to find the bay window decorated with posters advertising his services, and even an A-frame sign outside.

Inside, the front room of the house had been converted into a small shrine. The fireplace was decorated with religious paraphernalia, as was the table we sat at.

Religious posters covered the walls. By contrast, Mukya seemed remarkably unceremonious. He answered the door in jeans and a T-shirt, though he did add what I can only describe as a kind of religious scarf when he sat down.

Mukya's English was poor, but I could follow what he was saying. I was initially sceptical of the professionalism of this operation after he failed to predict my age shortly after I gave him my date of birth.

But it wasn't long before he demonstrated he was serious about this business.

Mukya told me that four of my friends were out to get me, that they were conspiring against me behind my back and this was bringing me bad luck. I had the impression that he was attempting to get me to trust him as the only friend who could help.

It wasn't long before we moved on to the question of money. He could help me but this was going to cost £350. He confirmed that this would take away any bad luck and bring me good luck.

He claimed it was important to start immediately, and asked me how much money I had with me. I opened my wallet to show him that all I had was £15. He suggested that we visit a cash point.

I told him that I didn't have that kind of money – I could only get £200. He said he would help me out, he would use some of his money.

He told me he was my friend – that he was there to help. At the end, he asked me to put all the money I had with me on to the fireplace and we performed what seemed to be some sort of Hindu-style prayer together. He gave me some nice red rice to put in my pocket and keep with me all the time.

Before I left, I confirmed with him that if I returned the next day with £200 all the bad luck would go away. I was there for less than 25 minutes. I was amazed how quickly he had progressed on to such significant money.

I came back the next day and told him apologetically that I could only muster £120. I wanted to drag out this payment as long as possible to enable me to discover more about the operation without parting with much money.

He assured me not to worry, he would help me by using some of his own cash. But we soon reverted back to how much money I could find. He asked how much I could bring the next day, and when I would be able to bring more.

He asked me to come back tomorrow and see how the pooja was going. A pooja is a kind of Hindu prayer or magic spell.

The visit lasted less than seven minutes and I left him with £120.

The third visit was the strangest. After a brief introduction, he immediately guided me upstairs, whereupon a second person started chanting. So far as I could tell, this person only began chanting when he heard us start to ascend the stairs. We entered a room where a man in religious dress was sitting next to a rug covered in what I can only describe as a variety of vegetarian sacrifices. There were a couple of large opened bags of turmeric powder in the centre with some other foodstuffs and the whole rug was circled with about 25 small apples.

This set-up appeared designed to convince me that my money was being well spent on the pooja rather than going straight into his pocket.

When we came back down he told me that he'd performed the same pooja three times already with three more to go and each time the sacrifices were thrown away and replenished. I found that hard to believe.

Again he asked for more money. He tried to convince me again of the costs, saying that they were sure to bring results. In the end, we agreed that I would come back next week with more money. He started hinting at this point that he would just be giving me the names of the people that were conspiring against me rather than removing the bad luck. Once again the consultation was brief. I was there for less than seven minutes.

On my fourth and final visit, I approached with the remaining £80 and looked forward to seeing the names of my four friends who were conspiring against me.

This time inconsistencies started to creep in. Initially, he had told me that he would be able to get the names of my enemies after I had ceremoniously thrown an item into moving water. Then it seems that he had forgotten this, and it no longer seemed important. Secondly, when he revealed the names of the four friends, it turned out that there were only three – and that two of them were not my friends after all, but people who simply knew of me.

The name of the friend was simply given as "John" with no surname. I think I know about 10 Johns.

It was then that the subject turned to money. In order to reverse the pooja, more money was required. I was told that some of the rituals could not be performed in this country for legal reasons and the man I previously saw upstairs had already flown out to India to begin the next stage.

I tried to push him to give me a price for this next stage but he flatly refused.

He did, however, appear to want to prepare me for significant costs. Obviously, if someone needs to go to India, I should be expecting a large figure.

But then he started telling me that the three people conspiring against me had already spent £28,000. The implication was clear – if they'd spent £28,000 I would need to at least match it.

I've visited a few other self-proclaimed psychics in Leicestershire and although I thought none of them demonstrated any real psychic ability, I did get the impression that they believed in what they were doing. I didn't once get that impression with Mukya.

I'm not sure how many people have gone through this operation, but even one person progressing to the next stage would be deeply concerning.

The rented house on Paton Street seems to be dedicated to this purpose, and full colour leaflets are being distributed as far as Oadby, so if nobody had paid money into the scheme, it is unlikely to be financially viable over a period of time.

I brought an audio digital recorder to each of my visits and the sound quality is crystal clear. The recordings have been passed on to trading standards.

The Difficulties with Psychic Photography

My recent article in the Mercury exposed a Leicester psychic attempting to scam a punter (well, me) out of a lot of money. We had a bit of an adventure trying to get a photo for the piece.

The Leicester Mercury sent along a photographer who I met at the end of the street a couple of minutes before my appointment. Our strategy was fairly basic: he'd hide behind a car across the road and I'd knock on the door. When the door was answered, I'd bend down to tie my shoelaces so he could get a clear shot of the guy over my head.

It didn't work. The guy was extremely cautious, first checking at the window before answering the door, and then staying way back in the house when he opened the door. Our photographer just couldn't get a clear shot.

I managed to get this quick shot below while inside. The psychic had asked if I could return for another appointment on Monday, and while I "checked my calendar" on my iPhone, I took this snap.

But we needed better quality for the paper. At this point, I owed him £80 for the fine "work" he'd done so far. To give our hidden photographer another chance, I told him I'd left my wallet in the car. As he opened the door so I could pop back and get it, the photographer tried again. Same problem; the guy was too far back in the house.

The photographer and I met up at the end of the street and hatched a second plan. The operation was being run from a terrace house. The street was one-way and with cars parked on both sides and there was only room for one car to drive down the gap in the middle. The plan was for me to drive back to the house and stop outside the house with the photographer following in the car behind. I'd stop to deliver the money and just when the psychic answered the door, the photographer would beep his horn to get me to move. I'd try and draw the psychic out by saying the cash was in the car. When he came out, the photographer would snap him from the car behind. Hopefully he wouldn't be noticed and our undercover photography mission would be complete.

It didn't work. As soon as I tried to draw the psychic out he got suspicious and hid back into the house, closing the door promptly.

I moved the car and pulled over at the end of the street. The photographer overtook and parked round the corner. A couple of minutes later, the photographer walked back towards my car and shrugged his shoulders to signal that he couldn't get the shot. At this point, I noticed the psychic had come out of the house and was walking towards my car. In a panic, I signalled to the photographer "that's him!". Our undercover photography mission lost some of its clandestine value when the photographer proceeded to take multiple pictures of him using a lens the size of a scuba tank from a distance of approximately two metres.

After a couple of seconds, the photographer realised that he had just been photographing a professional fraudster who most likely was not going to be particularly happy about having his picture taken. Looking around, the only clear route for escape was to jump in the passenger seat of my car. However, being equally worried myself, the doors of my car were firmly locked.

For about 5 seconds the I kept trying to unlock the doors while the photographer prevented me from doing so by franticly pulling on the handle. Eventually he got in and the psychic ran off.

We got a nice, clear shot:
(reduced quality for web publication)

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Trust Boots

This is a repost of my article in the Leicester Mercury. I wanted to repost it here so I could fix the messed up text. When they copied and pasted it they lost all the formatting and most importantly the scientific notation. I've fixed it below.
“Trust Boots” is the tagline that has been offered by the high street pharmacist since 2005. According to Boots’ 2006 Corporate Responsibility Strategy, “Everything we do that builds trust is good for our business; anything which could compromise it, a risk we can't afford to take.” So have Boots shown themselves to be worthy of our trust?

On the shelves of their pharmacy on Gallowtree Gate in Leicester you will find a small section devoted to homeopathy. Many people I meet are confused about exactly what homeopathy is – some thinking it is simply a type of herbal or natural medicine.

Allow me to explain.

The first principle of homeopathy is what they call the “law of similars”. Homeopaths look for a chemical that produces a similar symptom to the disease they aim to treat. For instance, caffeine causes you to stay awake, so homeopaths may decide to use this in a remedy to treat insomnia. Another example is hay fever. Hay fever causes runny eyes and so do onions – so some homeopaths will treat hay fever with a preparation of onions. I realise that all this may sound a little bit unconventional, but please bear with me – in a moment it’s going to sound even more so.

Turning a chemical such as onion juice into a homeopathic preparation involves a process of “dilution” and “succussion”. To create the centesimal or “C” remedies they sell at Boots, the homeopath takes one drop of the chemical and mixes it with 99 drops of water (dilution). In centuries past, this was then banged against a leather covered board or book, often a bible, although in modern times the shaking is often done by machine. This shaking is called "succussion". This is now a 1C homeopathic preparation. It contains 99% water and 1% “active ingredient”.

To turn this into a 2C remedy, the process is repeated. One drop of the solution is taken from the 1C remedy is mixed with 99 drops of water and then shaken. The 2C remedy now contains 99.99% water and 0.01% “active ingredient”. Repeat the process again to create a 3C remedy at 0.0001%, and so on. Homeopaths believe that the higher the level of dilution, the more powerful the remedy.

Many homeopaths will use the solution directly, but Boots and many others prefer to sell homeopathy as pills - or pillules as they call them. One pillule is meant to contain the equivalent of one drop of homeopathic solution.

We can calculate approximately how many molecules of “active ingredient” get into the one drop that makes it into the pillule. A drop of water contains about 1,700,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules. Scientists write this as 1.7x1021. That’s a 17 with 20 zeros after it. Boots sell remedies at 6C and 30C. A 6C remedy will contain around 0.0000000001% “active” ingredient – which works out at about 1.7 billion molecules of active ingredient. But what about when we dilute this further? By the time you get to 10C, there are only 17 molecules of active ingredient left. And at 11C, you only have about a one chance in 6 of finding a single molecule.

The branch of Boots on Gallowtree Gate in Leicester display a guide, provided by the manufacturer, that states a Bryonia 30C remedy “Relieves the symptoms of a dry painful cough, pressure and dehydration headaches” and that a Kali Bich 30C remedy “Soothes the symptoms of sinusitis”.

30C. I already explained that at 11C, you only have about a one in 6 chance of finding a single molecule of active ingredient. At 12C, there is only about one chance in 600 that you will find a molecule and at 13C just one chance in 60,000. By the time you get to 30C, you have more chance of winning the National Lottery jackpot five weeks in a row than you do of finding a single molecule of active ingredient.

Or think about it this way: how much water would you need to contain one molecule of active ingredient at 30C dilution? According to my calculations, the body of water would weigh 5 billion times more than the planet you are standing on. If you want that in pillule form, you'd need to buy 6x1038 pillules (a 6 with 38 zeros after it). At Boots' retail prices, that would cost you 35 trillion trillion trillion pounds. That's a rather expensive molecule.

These pills do not contain any active ingredient.

To my way of thinking, homeopathy is entirely implausible, but science is incredibly open-minded to seemingly implausible ideas. Ideas such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum theory are utterly bizarre, but once they were demonstrated to be true with fair tests then scientists accepted them.

Testing for a pill is essentially simple. Take a large number of people with a particular disease and randomly divide them into two groups. Give one group the pills you want to test and the other group some placebo pills that don’t contain anything. Neither the patient nor the researchers working with them can know which patients were given which pill. After an agreed period of time count how many people in each group got better.

So what do the trials show? Actually, that’s a little complicated. Some of the poor quality trials where the patients were told which drug they were getting, or had very small sample sizes showed an effect. But those effects could easily be down to the placebo effect or random variation due to the small sample sizes.

But when the experiments are done properly with larger numbers of patients, the vast majority do not show homeopathy to be any better than a placebo. A quick search of Cochrane articles leads us to reviews of homeopathy for the treatment of dementia, chronic asthma and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They all end in similar conclusions: “No evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating dementia”, “Until stronger evidence exists for the use of homeopathy in the treatment of asthma, we are unable to make recommendations about homeopathic treatment.” and “Overall the results of this review found no evidence of effectiveness for homeopathy for the global symptoms, core symptoms or related outcomes of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

But what do they tell you in Boots? When I popped into their Oadby branch and asked about homeopathic treatment, the pharmacist tried to politely steer me away from the homeopathic remedies citing the lack of evidence. Fair enough.

But a pharmacist at the Gallowtree Gate branch was not so off putting. Despite a couple of points in the conversation where I felt she certainly gave the impression that she did not believe in homeopathy, she was still happy to say things that I would never expect to come out of the mouth of professional pharmacist, by explaining that homeopaths “don't just treat the condition, they look at the whole person” and “If you want absolutely spot on accurate treatment you need to see someone who is a qualified homeopath."

Boots' professional standards director Paul Bennett was asked about homeopathy at a parliamentary science and technology sub-committee on the 25th October: "Do they work beyond the placebo effect?" He replied, "I have no evidence before me that they are efficacious and we look very much for the evidence to support that."

I think it's unlikely that Boots don't know where to look for medical evidence. So what we're being told by Boots' professional standards director is that they've looked around, found evidence - but he hasn't found any that show homeopathy to work.

He was asked to clarify with the line, "You sell them, but you don't believe they are efficacious?" He replied, "It's about consumer choice for us."

If it is about consumer choice, I personally believe that Boots should be ensuring that their consumers are properly informed to make a choice. Their labels should clearly state "the best evidence shows that these products work no better than placebos." But their labels don't say that. The information on their shelves makes claims such as "Relieves the symptoms of a dry painful cough." Selling this quackery may well be about consumer choice. Making these claims of efficacy is most certainly not.

Is this likely to lead you to “Trust Boots”?

Saturday, 5 December 2009

GCC extends complaints to cover all dubious claims

My complaints to the BCA focussed on claims to treat colic. I chose to just complain about colic claims for reasons of simplicity. It was easy to search the pages for one word and gather the evidence. When you’re submitting 55 complaints, it makes sense to go for the easiest method possible.

The GCC has now sent me copies of the responses to my complaints. What's interesting is that it appears that the GCC’s investigating committee has gone further than asked. They have manually gone through the Chiropractor's web pages looking for other claims.

Where they existed, the chiropractor will be investigated for those claims too.

I’m not sure of the GCC’s motivation is to make life easier for themselves in the knowledge that they will soon be needing to deal with Zeno’s 500+ complaints, or if this is a genuine attempt to properly regulate the profession. Either way, this is a positive step from the GCC and should be applauded.

A copy of one of the letters is below.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Homeopathy Maths Quiz: My Answers

Here are the answers to my previous maths quiz. At the end, I've added some notes including an argument showing the "memory of water" idea spouted by homeopaths to be invalid.

1. What is the probability of there being a single molecule of active ingredient in a 30C homeopathic remedy? Assume no contamination and pure water.

Molar mass of water = 18.01528 grams.
1 drop of water approx = 0.05 grams.
=> 1 drop of water = 0.05/18 = 0.0027 moles
=> 1 drop of water = 6 * 10^23 (Avogadro constant) * 0.0027 = 1.66*1021 molecules

Number of molecules in a 30C preparation:
= 1.7x1021 (molecules in a drop) / 10030 (level of dilution) = 1.7*10-39

As this is less than one, it is the probability of finding a molecule.

Answer: 1.7*10-39

2. What is the probability of winning the National Lottery 5 weeks in a row. You get one ticket per week of course.

There are 6 balls drawn out of 49 and you can pick 6 numbers.

Probability that your 1st number will match any one of the 6 drawn = 6/49
Probability that your 2nd number will match any one of the remaining 5 drawn = 5/48
Probability that your 3rd number will match any one of the remaining 4 drawn = 4/47
Probability that your 4th number will match any one of the remaining 3 drawn = 3/46
Probability that your 5th number will match any one of the remaining 2 drawn = 2/45
Probability that your 6th number will match any one of the remaining 1 drawn = 1/44

Probability that all 6 match = 6/49 * 5/48 * 4/47 * 3/46 * 2/45 * 1/44 = 7.15 x 10-8

Or, about 1 in 14 million.

Probability of winning 5 weeks in a row = (7.15x10-8)5 = 1.87 x 10-36

3. Which is more likely?

Comparing 1.7*10-39 and 1.87 x 10-36, you can see that winning the national lottery 5 times in a row is about 1,000 times more likely.

Unless of course, there was some contamination during the process.

4. How much would it cost to buy enough pills that you'd expect to have one molecule of active ingredient? Note: At Boots, they're about £5 for 84 pillules.

To get one molecule, you'd need 10030 water molecules (1060).

Molar mass of water = 18 grams.

1060 molecules would therefore weigh 18x1060/6x1023 = 3.0 × 1037 grams

One drop of water weighs approx 0.05 grams

So you'd need 3.0 × 1037 / 0.05 = 6 x 1038 pills

At £5 for 84, that will cost 5/84 * 6 x 1038 = £3.57 * 1037

A Trillion is 1012. Trillion Trillion Trillion = 1036

So that's about 35 Trillion Trillion Trillion pounds.

Other Notes

David P made a good point when he pointed out that the mother tincture may not be pure. Obviously the mathematics above assumes it is.

Another point I realised while I was doing this is that there is another argument here against the "memory of water" bollocks" spouted by homeopaths.

At 12C, there are no molecules of the mother tincture remaining. So the only molecules in the final preperation that could have been in the same mix as any of the original ingredient must come out of this mix.

So by the time you get to 24C, there are not only no molecules of original ingredient left, but there are no molecules of water that have ever been in the same mix as the original ingredient left.

Even the water has memory argument therefore breaks down at dilutions beyond 24C. At best, homeopaths would need to argue that water not only has memory, but that water is capable of passing this memory on.

Are homeopaths going to come to the conclusion that a 30C remedy works because the water contains the memory of a rumour passed on by other water molecule that remembers the mother tincture?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A quick maths quiz

Here's a quick maths quiz. Post your answers, ideally with your working and I'll be able to see how well they compare to mine.
  1. What is the probability of there being a single molecule of active ingredient in a 30C homeopathic remedy? Assume no contamination and pure water.
  2. What is the probability of winning the National Lottery 5 weeks in a row. You get one ticket per week of course.
  3. Which is more likely?
  4. How much would it cost to buy enough pills that you'd expect to have one molecule of active ingredient? Note: At Boots, they're about £5 for 84 pillules.
I'll post my answers tomorrow.