Archive for category Skepticism

The problem with volunteering in the Global South

Voluntourism – the act of both volunteering and travelling a new place at the same time – is a booming multi-billion dollar industry; with some sort of trip to the Global South to work in an orphanage or build a well becoming a rite of passage of sorts. This market for Western volunteers is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right or duty, to bestow our benevolence on people. Who cares if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the experience for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like in the country we will be visiting? We want to help, and that’s a good thing.

More harm than good?

Christina and two Ugandan youth activists sitting along with their backs to the wall of a shop chatting

Meeting with local youth activists at a village shop in Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

 

Despite this obvious ethical nuance, and the “Gap Yah” stereotypes of posh kids with saviour complexes, sporting elephant print trousers, I have no doubt that most people who undertake voluntourism do so with the best of intentions. I was one of those people once (sans the elephant print trousers) and I’m pretty certain I am not a horrible person. I was, however, hugely naive, ill-informed and probably as much use as a chocolate teapot. People don’t choose to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life doing more harm than good, but often, being part of a voluntourism scheme can do just that. If you’ll forgive me the religious nod, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

A group of UK and Ugandan volunteers and activists stood together in front of a tree facing the camera

UK volunteers with Zambian volunteers and community activists at a community HIV testing event. Nkumbi, Mkushi District, Zambia

A group of Ugandan young people and Christina pulling faces and waving their arms towards the camera

Filming a music video with a local youth group. Busembatia, Iganga District, Uganda

After school games and songs with local children in Mukonchi, Kabwe District, Zambia

A group of Zambian students all holding a white certificate proudly and smiling at the camera outside in Zambia

Students of Nkumbi Basic School proudly displaying completion certificates for a Peer Leader training event. Nkumbi, Mkushi Distric, Zambia.

We’ve seen this pattern of failing at intervention in the past, with foreign aid propping up dictatorships and fostering corruption and with the dumping of cheap food and clothes collapsing industry and encouraging a dependency culture. This is down in large part to outside actors deciding what is good for people without research or consultation, and yet we appear to have not learnt from our mistakes. Voluntourism has been linked to commodifying children, endangering vulnerable people, encouraging harmful stereotypes and to damaging local economies, as it is often organised by profit driven companies. Being suckered in by a company, who will charge you thousands of pounds to gawp at some poverty porn for a fortnight, brings broad and complex socio-economic and ethical issues. By continuing to support voluntourism trips to countries that have historically been classified as the “third world” we reinforce ideas that countries in the Global South need to be saved by us, which further disseminates a colonial mindset between Western countries and the rest of the world.

Commodifying the vulnerable

Perhaps these issues are best illustrated by means of example, so let’s look at working in an orphanage, which is one of the most popular voluntourism trips. Orphanage programmes, whilst being really good at pulling at the heart strings of travellers, are also hugely problematic. In areas of extreme poverty, people paying money for the chance to interact with orphaned children creates a market for orphans. It has become a good business model to fill orphanages with children with families to tempt tourists in to donating, indeed it is estimated that 80% of children living in orphanages have one living parent. That’s of course not to say that orphans don’t exist, but it does mean that you should be cynical about the opportunity to “help out some orphans.”

A group of Ugandan students all wearing a school uniform of white shirts and navy trousers sat at wooden desks watching their teacher at the front of the class. Many of the students are looking at the camera.

Sexual health class with students of Busede Basic School. Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

But, what if the orphanage was legitimate? I’m pretty confident in saying a short term volunteering stint still isn’t a good idea. For children growing up in orphanages, being able to create long-term, stable attachments to caregivers is paramount and parading twenty-odd, twenty-somethings through for a cuddle every other week does the exact opposite thing. Research shows that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children, with a 2009 Romanian study showing that the institutionalisation of toddlers is one of the biggest threats to early brain development. And that’s before we’ve even discussed the ethical issues of pimping out affection from orphaned kids to strangers who have rarely gone through any comprehensive vetting procedure!

Still want to volunteer?

If you still really want to volunteer in the Global South, and there are lots of reasons why you should, there are a few questions you can ask yourself, and a few measures you can try to put in place to avoid doing more harm than good:

A Ugandan teacher and her young students gathered around a blackboard while a young girl writes on the board.

Pre-school class in orphanage near Bugagali, Jinja District, Uganda

 

  • Why are you doing this? Are you going overseas to help, or to look good or forward your career? Be introspective about your motives and avoid saviour complex.
  • What are the intentions of the organisation you’re working with? As we’ve learnt, even if your intentions are well meaning, that might not be the case for the organisation you’re working with/for. Don’t be afraid to look in to their financial breakdowns, impact reports, the types of marketing they use (and why!) and whether they offer community led initiatives, which are often much more sustainable. If in doubt, don’t give them your money.
  • Are you the right person for the job? Would you be trusted to do this work in your own country? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not the right person for the job in another country, either. A popular activity for many volunteers is building, but if you’re not skilled in building then you could be putting people at risk and stealing work from community members who do have the experience that you’re lacking. The kind of volunteering you do should depend on your skills and qualifications, not just what you’d like to do.
  • Do you have the time needed for this project? It should go without saying that longer term development projects tend to be more sustainable and effective than flash in the pan initiatives. If you’re going to be volunteering as a teacher then a week is probably not long enough to have any real impact, however, perhaps it could be enough time to do some skill sharing and peer training with a teacher in the community, so do look at other “less hands on” ways to support.
Walking down a populated street in Uganda, a group of Ugandan and UK volunteers with their backs to the camera

Group of volunteers in Jinja Town, Uganda

 

Better ways to help

Perhaps after asking yourself the above questions you’ve realised that voluntourism isn’t for you, but you probably still want to do something. Luckily, there’s lots of ways you can influence change without hopping on a plane and parting with huge amounts of cash. You can volunteer at home, in person and online, on campaigns that will directly impact the issues you care about. You can also vote with your money by buying ethically, donating wisely and supporting entrepreneurs with microfinance loans.  Finally, you can start to dismiss some of these stereotypes about the Global South and how much voluntourism really helps, maybe sharing this blog could be a good conversation starter with your networks?

 

Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a UK wide dementia charity, and Trustee for a women’s focused refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality in both the UK and across Sub-Saharan Africa. In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. She tweets as @ChrissieBM, but can make no apologies for her endorsement of terrible puns online.

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 GUTS! Does the GAPS diet cure autism?

The clean eating world is obsessed with guts! Your guts, my guts, your child’s guts…..even your dog’s guts. The recurring theme in clean eating dietary advice and health claims is that an unhealthy gut = disease. If you ‘cleanse’ your gut, either through diet or a course of enemas you will prevent and, more importantly, cure disease. One example of this sort of advice, and the reason I became interested in this particular area of pseudoscience, is the GAPS diet.

I first became aware of the GAPS diet after reading a blog post by ‘The Angry Chef’, where he dismantled some of the nutri-nonsense claims made by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley (Ayuverdic tongue scrapers, Biodynamic eggs etc. Let’s not even go there today) and mentioned the GAPS diet being behind a lot of their ‘bone broth’ recipes and food philosophy. It piqued my interest so I decided to google it, and to be honest I wish I hadn’t. I went further and further down the ‘gut flora’ rabbit hole and ended up in a pretty scary place full of baseless claims, pseudoscience, anti-vax and bad science.

Text reading "mind the gap" from a train station platform

The GAPS diet

The GAPS diet was invented by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride after her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. She took matters into her own hands having decided that conventional treatments weren’t helping. GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome and follows the premise that a wide variety of health problems (particularly psychological and behavioural) are caused by an imbalance of gut microbes, or ‘gut flora’. Dr McBride claims that an imbalance in your gut will lead you towards disease, she claims that autism and ADD, OCD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and many other conditions are all digestive disorders, but offers a ‘cure’ in the form of her diet plan.

The diet plan is complicated and long, it is recommended to be followed for years, rather than your typical ‘fad’ diets which are often crash diets lasting days or weeks, but it isn’t any less restrictive. There are 8 steps to the diet, the first one being the most restrictive. Step one consists of room temperature water, probiotics and bone broth (which must be made from scratch, you can’t use any store bought stocks, they contain all those nasty toxins and stuff). A worrying line in the introduction to the diet refers to side effects when introducing new foods. It states that if you experience black, sticky diarrhoea, pain or any other digestive distress stop eating the new food, leave it a week and try again. It is important to note that black diarrhoea can be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding and a possible medical emergency. It should never be ignored, or left for a week! The introduction to the diet also recommends a ‘sensitivity test’ for new foods. Here you place a small amount of the food onto a patch on your wrist and see if there is any reaction…..seems legit.

After the initial stage you can slowly start to introduce other foods, beginning in stage 2 with eggs, but, they must be raw and they must be organic (yummy salmonella), along with homemade yoghurts and fermented fish. I barely have time to make myself a bowl of cereal in the morning, let alone having constant homemade broth, yoghurts, soups and stews on the go all week! And so the stages go on until stage 7 when you’re on the most permissive GAPS diet where some, unrefined starches are allowed.

a cracked raw egg on a black surface with an egg beater in the background

The GAPS diet is based on that classic nutri-nonsense idea of ‘detoxification’ of the body. The idea that our lifestyles and the food we consume are clogging up our bodies and minds, making us sick and fogging up our thought processes. By ‘flushing us out’, these diets can help our body to heal.

It is widely known that the liver and kidneys already do the ‘detoxifying’ bit. It’s kind of their job, and McBride does acknowledge this, but she thinks we need to give our body a helping hand in the shape of a few gallons of meat water, or by starving ourselves, which she believes helps to redirect our bodies energy to fight off disease….

So that’s the GAPS diet in a nutshell……but not a nutshell…because you can’t eat nuts on GAPS……so, in an avocado skin?…….or a chunk of hollowed out cow’s femur? Anyway! There isn’t much scientific evidence of this kind of restrictive diet being able to cure disease, or complex psychological disorders. In fact, there isn’t any evidence. There are no published studies on the GAPS diet and Dr McBride hasn’t produced any research or published anything backing up her claims. It is a dangerous way to go, advising people who are sick to go on such a restrictive diet, but she does, and there’s more.

McBride also believes and claims the following:

  • Children with autism are born perfectly healthy. Abnormal gut flora develops due to diet, and microbes passed from the mother, and makes them ill.
  • Breastfeeding is essential. If you are physically unable to breast feed your child use donated breast milk or a wet nurse. Bottle fed babies are going to develop abnormal gut flora and develop problems.
  • The contraceptive pill has had a ‘devastating effect on gut flora’, she doesn’t explain why.
  • She recommends smearing live yoghurt around and inside your vagina during your third trimester when pregnant to help ‘prepare the birth canal’ with beneficial bacteria. She also recommends doing the same to the armpits and breasts.
  • Big Pharma!
  • You should avoid vaccinating your child until they are around 4-5 years old, and even then, only if the child has a healthy, balanced gut flora.
  • Black elderberry is one of the most powerful anti-viral remedies known to man.
  • Using volcanic rock dust in organic gardening improves nutrition, and if used on a global scale, it would enable the soil to absorb enough excess atmospheric carbon to stabilize global climate change.

The upper arm of a child with a pink t shirt sleeve and a hand holding a syringe to the arm.

As previously stated, there is no published scientific evidence that any of the claims made by Dr McBride are true. The science is shaky and inaccurate. All the ‘evidence’ I’ve seen of the diet working has been purely anecdotal, from people on various forums singing the diets praises and attributing it to their improved health or the health of their child. Which brings me onto my main issue with this, the issue that made me wish I hadn’t investigated all this in the first place. The diet is directed predominantly at children. Children with complex behavioural and psychological problems, the thought of subjecting a child to this incredibly restrictive diet is worrying to me. You are essentially starving your child (albeit for a short period during stage 1 of the diet plan). Even when you reach stage 7 of the diet plan the diet is still extremely restrictive. A healthy balanced diet needs a bit of everything in moderation. Starving the body of sugar for example (unrefined or otherwise) is not beneficial.

The GAPS diet is an extreme, damaging, and potentially dangerous response to a problem that there is no evidence even exists. As with all clean eating fad diets, it preys on peoples’ fears, and offers a solution that seems too good to be true. Unfortunately, it nearly always is.

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

 

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Unsexy Kale as a Superfood?

As a scientist I’m not particularly impressed with ‘superfoods’ and the idea that certain products have special properties above and beyond conventional nutritional value. Over recent times the diet industry and media has advocated that amongst others, goji berries, beetroot, blueberries or green tea will provide incredible health benefits. The NHS website has looked into superfoods and states that although many of these foods are a healthy option the scientific evidence for any ‘super’ claims is not strong. A well balanced diet is much more important than eating any particular single item.

One such superfood that piqued my interest is Kale, a particularly unsexy plant that appears to sit apart from the other more trendy (and colourful?) foodstuffs. Therefore I was interested to read a recent meta-analysis of the published data about the potential of Kale as a superfood.

Brassica Breeding

Kale is subspecies of Brassica oleracea that has been bred to have more leafy, errr leaves. This species of Brassica is remarkable as other subspecies include a fellow superfood candidate broccoli, hated Xmas ‘treat’ brussel sprouts, boring cabbage and cauliflower, each of which have been bred for different beneficial traits.

a diagram showing the evolutionary background of cabbage, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, brocolli and cauliflower which all derive from Brassica oleracea

The supposed ‘super’ characteristics of Brassicas result from a high level of glucosinates and antioxidants. Indeed Beneforte Broccoli has been bred to contain higher levels of glucoraphanin. However even their home website will only stretch to a ‘might’ when considering its benefit on cardiovascular health (3).

Kale has been an important part of the human diet for millennia and although it contains many important phytochemicals (plant chemicals) any ‘extra’ beneficial effects in humans have had very limited testing.

The Science

Many ‘superfoods’ are defined by their high levels of antioxidants. These chemicals act as important scavenger molecules that ‘mop up’ damaging free oxygen molecules (termed free radicals) that are produced are part of regular cellular processes. These radicals can indiscriminately damage DNA, which can lead to the formation of cancer if the damage occurs in certain important genes.

A study from 2008 showed that Kale has a higher amount of antioxidants when compared to other Brassicas, including broccoli. However it is extremely challenging to decipher whether it has anti-cancer properties as performing these type of studies in humans is very tricky! A useful proxy test comes from the study of the plant extracts on the growth of tumour cells in a petri dish. Some of these studies have shown that where extracts from Kale, as well as from sprouts and cabbage, have no effect on the growth of normal human cells they will reduce growth in some cancer cell lines. This indicates that they do indeed alter the growth of cancerous cells. However in these studies Kale is no different to other Brassicas or for that matter, members of the onion/ garlic family.

A photo of green, leafy kale leaves on a white background

On a larger scale, Kale also might have legitimate benefits on gut and heart health by either altering potentially damaging stomach microbes or being able to reduce levels of harmful proteins that circulate in the blood.

Eat Kale but not ONLY Kale

The overall conclusion of this analysis is that the authors agreed that Kale, alongside other Brassicas, does have health benefits. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly there is no study that sets Kale apart from any other species of Brassica!

Overall it will come as no surprise to those skeptical about superfood claims that any benefits of Kale come from the fact it is a vegetable and not because it has some super-plant-power.

In short, keep a balanced diet and you can’t go too wrong!

 

Dr Geraint Parry, PhD

Geraint is the national coordinator for GARNet, which is a network that supports uptake of new technologies and knowledge dissemination amongst UK and international plant scientists. He is the science communication manager of the EU INDEPTH COST Action (https://www.brookes.ac.uk/indepth/) as well as being the secretary for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee. He tweets for GARNet from @GARNetweets and personally @liverpoolplants

 

 

 

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Merseyside Skeptics Society Charity Riverside Walk 2018

The annual, Merseyside Skeptics Society Charity Walk is upon us. This year it will take place on Sunday May 20th and will follow our usual route from Otterspool Promenade alongside the river Mersey ending at the beautiful Liverpool Waterfront. Here’s the fundraising link.

You can find details of the event on Facebook and Meetup.

Last year we raised £336.54 with Gift Aid for MerseyAid refugee support which we matched with a donation to The Whitechapel Centre supporting homeless people in the Liverpool area.

Previously we have raised £487 for Mind the Mental Health Charity, £929 for Alzheimer’s Society and £343 for North West Cancer Research.

Each year, selecting a worthy charity to donate to is difficult. We want to donate to a worthy cause but we also want to see the money we raise being used as productively as possible. So, this year, we have selected a charity that considers multiple factors then uses the evidence to decide where donations are most useful.

GiveWell are a charity who undertake in-depth charity analysis and identify top charities which are “evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted and underfunded”. GiveWell are completely transparent and make all of their research available to the public. Their criteria include selecting charities whose work have evidence of effectiveness, charities who use donations to support the best outcomes in the most effective way and charities who won’t be overwhelmed by an increase in funding. GiveWell also follow their top charities and publish reports on how they are doing transparently and are continually striving to improve their own charity through regular transparent reporting on their strengths, weaknesses and aims for improvement.

Some of GiveWell’s current top charities include:

  • Malaria Consortium – treatment to prevent malaria in children in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Sightsavers – Supporting deworming programs in low-income countries.
  • Helen Keller International – Vitamin supplementation to prevent child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • GiveDirectly – Distributing cash to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda.

You can find out more about GiveWell on their website where you can read all about the charities they recommend and the research that they do.

You can donate to our event fundraising page here.

We look forward to seeing you at the walk!

 

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Britt Hermes Legal Costs Fundraising Campaign

You may know that Britt Hermes, who is an international skeptical campaigner about naturopathy, and former speaker at our QED conference. You may not be aware, however, that Britt is currently being sued for defamation.

Britt used to be a naturopath herself, but she now spends a lot of time and effort exposing naturopathic practices, including on her blog “Naturopathic Diaries”.

She’s been taken to court in Germany by US-based naturopath ‘Dr’ Colleen Huber, who is claiming that Britt has defamed her on her blog. Huber is a critic of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in cancer treatment. Instead, she uses ‘natural’ therapies that include intravenous infusions of vitamin C and baking soda.

The international skeptical community is concerned that the case against Britt may have the effect of silencing a major campaigner against unproven and disproven ‘medical’ practices, through the imposition of considerable legal costs.

For this reason, the Australian Skeptics have set up a fund-raising campaign to help cover Britt’s legal costs.

If you would like to contribute to the fund, or want more information, then go to www.skeptics.com.au/BrittHermes.

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Merseyside Skeptics Society raises £260 for Young Legal Aid Lawyers Liverpool

Emma McClure, on the subject of forensic faux pas (Photo Credit: Chris Malburn)

Emma McClure, on forensic faux pas

Last night, Merseyside Skeptics Society member and prison lawyer Emma McClure gave a fascinating, funny and frightening talk on the way forensics can be misused or mishandled by police investigations, and the terrible miscarriages of justice that can occur as a result. It was a brilliant talk, in front of a packed audience, and a hugely enjoyable evening.

Given that Emma is one of our own members, and therefore had minimal expenses, we decided to use our normal collection as an opportunity to fundraise for a worthy cause: Young Legal Aid Lawyers Liverpool.

Young Legal Aid Lawyers Liverpool is an organisation close to Emma’s heart, campaigning to ensure justice is accessible for all, not just for those who can afford it. Due to the generosity of our members and attendees at last night’s event, we are able to donate £260 to the group.

We are delighted to support this important cause, and would like to thank once again everyone who donated last night.

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