Archives for posts with tag: medicine

Imagine tending to a very sick patient who was about to die. Imagine having, on one hand, a doctor or nurse working with the patient to make their remaining time as comfortable as possible, and comforting the family in their grief. On the other hand, you have a preacher telling that patient that they must immediately convert over to Jesus before they passed away, unless they wanted to go to Hell. Who would you choose?

Or imagine going to university, taking geology or botany or zoology, and having two classes for each subject – one that presented the scientific view, and the other threatening students that they must deny evolution and accept an 8,000 year old Earth, in order to pass their final exams.

Not appropriate, right? But this is the problem we seem to be increasingly facing these days – one of ideology over expertise.

There was a debate on the radio a few days ago where there two worlds came clashing together in an interesting way. The subject was vaccinations. On the one hand, you had people arguing from scientific and medical perspective, while on the other hand, you had people with strongly anti-vaccination worldviews. (They prefer to call themselves “vaccine informed, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? In the end, it amounts to the same thing).

If you were a parent, concerned about nasties such as whooping cough, rubella, measles and the flu, whose advice should you listen to? Your doctor, who, has the training, clinical expertise and direct experience working in the community with patients? Or perhaps some random person with none of this experience who tells you to ignore or distrust the doctors, that they are all shills or dupes, that they have done all their research on the Internet and are therefore more knowledgeable?

This is the choice that people have. And it should be a no-brainer. In fact, for decades it has been a no-brainer. Most people wouldn’t even think about going for the ideologue over the trained expert.

But it seems this is not as much the case today. More people choosing the naturopath over their doctor, choosing detox over vaccines and choosing all sorts of fad diets so they can avoid cancer and live forever. In certain areas, ideology is starting to win over expertise.

Much of it is marketing. Ideologues are getting better at exploiting hopes and fears. There are certain messages they put across that have an emotional impact. Tell people Big Pharma is out to get them. Tell them they only care about profits and not health. Tell them that there are poisons and chemicals being injected into their children. Tell them there is another way, and that it’s being suppressed. Tell them about the brave lone pioneers who have been castigated for their views. These are powerful, emotive messages that can be applied to any situation. They do not need facts to support them, just half-truths, glimmers of hope and a large dollop of fear.

Experts are to be distrusted, according to the ideologues. Experts, particularly individual experts, can sometimes get things wrong, so the ideologues use that against them. Knowledge is often incomplete, as is the way with science, so ideologues will exploit the gaps in knowledge for their own purposes. Companies sometimes do unethical things, so ideologues will use this to portray them in the worst possible light.

But let’s not kid ourselves – when it comes to a fight between expertise and ideology, expertise wins. It has the facts on its side.  Just maybe not the marketing.

Here’s a short story.

Once upon a time people used to get sick a lot. Everything would be fine one day, then bang, the next day you were dying. Young kids mainly. They were lucky to still be alive at age five. Every now and then a big plague would roll through and randomly take lots of people away. A small wound could fester and kill you. Life wasn’t easy.

Doctors weren’t much help. They had this idea that sickness had something to do with too much blood. Often, their treatments were a lot like torture. And no painkillers either. Back then, people rightfully believed that if the sickness didn’t kill you, the doctors most certainly would.

Then, a doctor noticed something odd: something to do with not washing hands. People with dirty hands tended to make other people sick. Another doctor discovered that a small dose of good pox tended to ward away smallpox, that in its day, killed millions. Another man discovered that vitamin C could prevent scurvy. Another man came across a way to reduce pain during surgery. Small, incredible steps, but still lots of kids were dying. Nobody had an answer for it.

Tiny little creatures, smaller than you could imagine. They turned out to be a big part of the problem. Kill them and you could ward off hundreds of diseases. It took a while, but finally doctors found effective remedies. We call them antibiotics. Because of them, we don’t see so much TB or cholera these days. They used to kill lots of people too.

We discovered that our immune system had evolved to find the tiniest of invaders and destroy them. Prime it properly with tiny doses and you could prevent many diseases before they took hold. In this way, vaccines were invented to control deadly diseases such as measles and polio and whooping cough.

Other drugs were found and refined. Drugs that could treat some cancers. Drugs that gave greater pain relief and a better quality of life. And not just drugs, but therapies, health advice, early warning indicators, surgical procedures, and lots more.

And you know what? The number of children dying has been slashed. People don’t often die from simple cuts. Cancer is not the death sentence it once was. We are living longer, healthier lives with fewer bedridden days, choked up in pain.

This progress was achieved, not so much by some great idea, but because of many smaller ones, and something else: the learning that came from lots and lots of mistakes. Too much, too little, saw it too late, hit the wrong thing, gave up too soon. All these hard lessons helped doctors find better ways, to refine their techniques. That’s what medicine is: the sum total of what we know, through experiment, failure and hard experience, about what approaches work best when our health is at risk. Not perfect, but compared to 200 years ago, utterly amazing. It’s possibly the greatest achievement of our species since we started walking on this planet.

So why is it, that so many people want to ignore all this, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Why do they hark back to these earlier times, when so many people died? Perhaps it’s because medicine has been too successful, so it’s taken for granted? Perhaps it’s too technical, too elite, therefore creating suspicion? Perhaps there’s a longing for simplicity and simple solutions: a Donald Trump approach, as it were? Perhaps the complexity and messiness of medicine is too much for some? Perhaps it’s a demand for perfection; we cannot abide not knowing? Or maybe it’s all about show and celebrity and charisma these days, and not so much the pedestrian advice of your family GP?

All this is just conceit: at the core is a celebration of ignorance over hard earned knowledge – that our opinions, no matter how poorly thought out, are just as deserving of respect. It’s a voice of privilege, a voice from the comfort zone, ignorant of a time when knowledge, any knowledge, would have been a blessing. We live in strange times.

If we listen too much to the charlatans and ideologues and the crafted media voices, a time may well come where these wrongheaded beliefs take primacy over empirical knowledge. In which case, life could quickly regress to being nasty, brutal and short. With outbreaks of old diseases from communities that refuse to accept modern healthcare, we’re already seeing it. Hopefully it’s not a signpost to the future.

There is a broadcaster in Cork, Neil Prendeville, who has no problem promoting pseudoscience and instilling fear into people during his radio programme. He regularly invites a guest, Michael O’Doherty, whom he calls a healthcare professional, onto his show to expound on vaccines and antibiotics. O’Doherty has no medical qualifications. He is a quack healer whose shtick seems to be that natural is good, that the body is capable of healing itself without the need for modern medicine. 

This stuff is dangerous. It is simply not true to say that our bodies are able to deal with every illness that comes along. The flu, a common disease, kills millions of people every year. Before modern medicine, deaths from smallpox, measles and TB were common. They are much less so now because of vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. Where is the evidence for the great natural panaceas they keep talking about? In the face of an invader, eating berries and taking exercise won’t always cut it. That’s not how human physiology works. 

Another pernicious lie that’s promoted is that when you get sick, it’s your fault. If only you had been thinking properly, or meditating the right way, or drinking the correct drinks, or eating the right foods, you wouldn’t have fallen ill. Sure, some lifestyles are decidedly unhealthy, but healthy people still get sick, all the time, through no fault of their own. Telling people that they are responsible creates unnecessary guilt while scaring them away from treatment options that might save their lives. It’s awful.

Prendeville says he is not anti-vaccinatipn, yet he regularly promotes anti-vaccination views. He promotes a culture of suspicion around medicine and medical practitioners. On a regular basis, he lays into the medical profession while promoting some of the worst pseudoscience imaginable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s endangering people’s health. 

Sure, if you are fool enough to believe him, the argument could be made that it’s your fault. But what of your children or elderly and incapacitated adults that might depend on you? What of innocent bystanders whose kids you might be putting at risk because you won’t vaccinate your children?

But what to do about it? 

Write a strongly worded letter to Red FM? Send a complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland? What will that do, exactly?

Complain to my local TDs? What will that achieve, exactly?

Blog away like I am doing, to the 20 or so people who read this blog?

Write to the Irish Medical council and other healthcare agencies to let them know what he’s up to?

Is it a free speech issue, so better off being left alone? Do I keep quiet and suck it up?

I don’t know. All I do know is that a radio personality is abusing his power and influence to scare people away from practical healthcare, and it feels like nobody cares about it, except for me and my army of one.

Update: here is a link to the show in question. The Gardasil / vaccine discussion starts about 50 minutes into the show.

Update 2: I have amended a statement that Prendeville tells people not to vaccinate their kids, which is not correct. I have also had feedback that he introduces O’Doherty as a healthcare professional. I have corrected this also.



A BBC news report today reported that a woman in the US died from an attack of the measles. While the measles does not normally kill, a small percentage of people who get it can die; others will be left with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. If you are a rational person, measles is not something that you and your children should ever have to deal with.

Measles is one of the three diseases, along with Mumps and Rubella, that the MMR vaccine is effective in preventing. Vaccines like MMR act by priming the immune system with a weakened version of the virus. This allows your body to create antibodies, so that when the real disease comes around, the body is ready to defend itself. The mechanics of how vaccination works is not new: it was pretty much understood by the 1940s, and as the graph above shows, it has proven itself over and over again to be highly effective against the types of diseases that destroyed the lives of so many people throughout history.

The woman who died was immunocompromised, which means she was unable to take any vaccines because of a health condition. Small babies and people like this woman depend on vaccinated people to stay free from these diseases.

The choice to remain unvaccinated is therefore not a simple personal choice. If you or your children do not take vaccines, you put people such as this woman at greater risk of being exposed to the measles. While measles might be unpleasant for you, you could be directly harming their lives. This goes beyond personal choice. It makes you a menace to public health. Expect lawsuits to arise in this case against the people who put this woman’s life at risk by not vaccinating. If they had been more responsible, she would be alive today.

You will see a lot of websites, alternative practitioners and some celebrities preaching the benefits of not taking vaccinations. They are wrong. The studies they use to support their beliefs are poorly thought out, incomplete, and in a few high profile cases: fraudulent. They have confused the idea of personal choice with what is good for society at large. They condemn “big pharma” and the “sickness industry” while forgetting that executives and employees of these organisations get sick too. They talk about poisons while conveniently forgetting that almost everything is a poison – it’s the dosage that matters. They cherrypick from anecdotal information and they exaggerate the dangers in order to frighten parents of small children. Not one major medical organisation agrees with them. Not one. They are manifestly wrong and they are putting lives at risk.

Ultimately, vaccines are a lot safer than the diseases they prevent. Less than a hundred years ago, people used to die, routinely, from smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, cholera, polio, tetanus and diphteria to mention just a few. Nowadays nobody does, or at least they shouldn’t. The reason is vaccines. While there can be side-effects to taking vaccines, they are usually minor and transient.

If I could recommend one link to take a look at, it’s this one: it shows clearly the difference that vaccines made when they were introduced. The evidence could not be clearer than this.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Wall Street Journal

The bottom line: if you are scared by all the scare stories out there, talk to your doctor. Vaccines are safe, effective and help save lives; not just yours, but others who need vaccinated people like you to keep them alive.

Other resources:

Lots of people around the world do not take any homeopathic treatments. Lots of people do. Both groups tend to live to similar ages and are largely prone to the same conditions as they go through life.

You can think of it as a kind of thought experiment. On one hand, you have people who tend to see illness as something to wait out. Most illnesses – sniffles, coughs, pains, lows, wheezes – they come and go. It’s often a matter of tolerating them until they eventually die down and disappear. Maybe an analgesic, if necessary, will temporarily ease the symptoms. On the other you have people who, at the first sign of a cold or an ache, it’s off down to the homeopath for a dose of oscillococcinum, or whatever you are having yourself.

This intrigues me, because as far as I can see, in both cases the outcomes are pretty much the same. It’s just that in one case, there is this persistent belief that some kind of external remedy needs to be taken. This belief is always confirmed once the symptoms die down, as they normally do.

That’s why I regard homeopathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You see, every time it’s called on, it seems to work. The prescribed remedies actually seem to do the trick. Until one day, they don’t.

The normal, non-homeopathic person will then trot off down to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The homeopathic person has so much invested in their beliefs that they will wait it out, possibly consulting their homeopath a few times, thinking they need something else. All the while, time is ticking away. The old reliable sheep has suddenly revealed itself to be a wolf, and yet the patient is oblivious to this. They convince themselves, until they have no choice, that the growl they hear is just a new kind of bleating.

I don’t think this is healthy. Homeopathy, because it appears so successful for lesser ailments, works against people when they actually need to go to the doctor. It works against their pets, their kids and other family members. Not only do you have to contend with a change of health, you have to deal with a change in your belief system, and that might just be too difficult to accept.

Better, I think, to leave the pills out. It’s not true to say they don’t do anything. While they certainly don’t do anything good, they have the strong potential to make situations worse.

Of all the delusions out there, homeopathy is one of the worst. On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but dig deeper and you find that it messes with people’s heads.

Homeopathy is dangerous to your health. Homeopathy is not herbal medicine. It’s not really alternative medicine either, because you can’t really call it medicine at all. Ignoring the last 100 years of medical advances entirely, it’s a mystical, quasi-religious approach to human health that states that substances become potent the more dilute they are. Homeopathic substances are normally so dilute, that not one molecule of the original substance remains in the finished product. Every single homeopathic remedy on their shelves is therefore exactly the same treatment. For every single ailment, you are receiving water dropped onto a sugar tablet.

There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up the claims of homeopathy. And yet, millions of people swear by it. So, what is happening? Essentially it’s a trick, exploiting the placebo effect and the fact that most illnesses get better after a time. It goes like this: you go to a homeopath, they spend time talking to you about your problem, they prescribe you a remedy, and after a time you get better. Because you are primed to connect the improvement to the prescribed remedy, the likelihood is that you will think the potion made you better. Other factors – better sleep, more rest, less stress – are discounted in favour of the stated remedy.

To me, the placebo effect is a bit like telling a small child to suck their thumb when they get upset. Thumb sucking can calm a child down very quickly. In the child’s mind it is an immediate solution to their problem. They will report less pain and less distress, depending on the severity. If you are reasonable, you would not prescribe thumb-sucking for a more serious ailment: tooth pain, the measles, or a bad burn, for example. When you are prescribing homeopathy, you are doing exactly that: telling someone to do the adult equivalent of thumb-sucking, despite the severity of the ailment. Homeopaths get away with it because, fortunately, most ailments are not severe. When they are, you hope better advice is listened to.

In a recent discussion on homeopathy, I was asked if I had ever taken gone to a homeopath for treatment, the implication being that if I had never gone to one, I could not possibly comment. This is the equivalent of saying that people who never smoked cannot comment on whether tobacco use is harmful, or that sceptics cannot criticise the Nigerian 419 scam if they have never themselves been defrauded by one. When a philosophy or treatment sounds like bunk, when almost every scientist and most medical professionals say it’s bunk, when there is a long list of people who have been damaged by bad advice from homeopaths, it’s up to the homeopaths to prove it otherwise. Telling us that it’s not up to them – it’s up to us – is ridiculous. Personal anecdote, no matter how honestly felt, is not very useful because we are all subject to bias and manipulation. Objective scientific studies are much better because you can follow a larger number of subjects, you can see how they were constructed and you can control for bias.

When it comes to scientific studies, homeopathy scores very poorly. At least 12 major reviews, examining hundreds of studies, have all concluded that it is not effective and that it does not provide any benefits beyond placebo. Homeopaths like to cite the Swiss Study, but as you will see from this linkthis link and this link, the Swiss report is not without significant objections. David Shaw, of the University of Glasgow, has called it a case study of research misconduct, concluding that it was “scientifically, logically and ethically flawed”.

Homeopaths have been known to advertise treatments for measles, AIDS, autism and cancer. Many homeopaths are avowedly anti-vaccine. There are homeopaths in West Africa right now who believe that their magic pills are curing Ebola.

You know what? This madness needs to stop.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Today I came across a website dedicated to a young Irishwoman who has been fighting cancer throughout 2011. Hannah Bradley was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year, and since then she has been in and out of hospital, undergoing surgery and radiotherapy in an effort to keep the tumour at bay. It has truly been a terrible time for everyone involved.

Honestly, I cannot imagine how I would react if I were in such a position. When treatment options are limited, people are motivated to help as much as they can. There is clearly a strong desire to keep her alive, to not lose hope, and for this they must be commended. 

On Hannah’s website, the desired course of action is the clinic of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski in Houston, Texas. Burzynski advertises treatments involving “antineoplastons”. These are molecules, so the claim goes, that attack cancerous cells, leaving healthy cells alone. Unfortunately, there is no proper scientific evidence that these treatments work, and Burzynski has not shared the data with the wider medical community in order for the treatments to be validated. Furthermore, his treatments have not been approved by US regulators. Burzynski is getting around this by presenting the treatments as experimental. This would possibly be ok, except for the surprisingly and stupendously high cost of such an experimental approach. The bottom line is that his clinic exists on the fringes of the medical world. Instead of working with scientists and oncologists to prove for once and for all whether his course of treatment is scientifically valid, he has rejected it all in favour of direct approaches to patients and the use of slick marketing and testimonials. Burzynski presents himself as the lone genius who has challenged the might of the medical establishment. This would be fine if he had properly controlled, peer reviewed evidence, but so far, he has not been able to provide this. The burden of proof clearly rests on his shoulders.

Over the past few weeks, challenges to Burzynski’s methods have been met by a barrage of legal threats from an individual who appears to be associated in some way with the clinic, including a personalised attack on a 17 year old blogger that beggars belief. This is not the right way to meet such challenges. The right way would be to provide the facts, and to let these facts speak for themselves.   

Hannah’s friends have clearly decided that Dr. Burzynski holds the keys to her recovery. Data is emerging throughout the Internet each day that this is not the case. I understand that Hannah’s team will feel that they have invested themselves on a course of action – that perhaps it is too late to change course – but for Hannah’s sake, they need to take this new information into account. It will make for very uncomfortable reading and there will be a natural tendency to rationalise it away as the product of some very mean and nasty individuals. The people who are presenting this information are not bad people. Many of them work closely with cancer sufferers, and many of them will have lost family and close friends to cancer. If Team Hannah were to reach out to some of these critics, I expect they would be listened to sympathetically and provided with second and third opinions. The question “what would you do?” can always be asked.

I know that the medical establishment can sometimes appear cold and arrogant. I know that there are limits to what is known and that doctors can sometimes give patients a message that they never want to hear. It is heartbreaking to have someone say “We can’t do any more”. The natural inclination is to say that they are not trying hard enough. Sometimes, perhaps they aren’t. But, no matter how inadequate doctors may seem, there is a world of a difference – a universe of a difference – between medical science and outright quackery. 

Cancer is shit. Real shit. It’s the plague of our times. Some day, hopefully, our children or grand children might look back on the world today and ask how we managed through it at all. The hard, thankless work of medical researchers will continue to push the frontiers forward. They have already accomplished wonders, but much more needs to be done. Given time, there will be enormous advances. Unfortunately for some, time is running out.

I wish Hannah the very best. I hope she can get through this nightmare of a year and emerge with this awful thing in remission. If her doctors can still help her, I hope they are doing everything within their powers to give her the best possible chances. I don’t know from her blog if the cancer has metastasised, whether chemotherapy has been tried or even if it is effective against such a cancer. If options within the medical literature are still available, then I expect they have already been seriously considered by all concerned. If options no longer seem to exist then yes, it’s heartbreaking. Being there, at such a time, possibly trumps doing something. I wish her the very best.


a) The False Hope of the Burzynski Clinic (Andy Lewis)

b) Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R. (David Gorski)

c) Antineoplastons (Skeptical Health)

d) Burzynski The Movie: Hitting you over the head with pseudoscience (Orac)

Professor Austin Darragh spoke to Marian Finucane on the radio last Saturday. Professor Darragh, now in his eighties, is one of the most esteemed members of the medical profession in Ireland. His prolific career, spanning 6 decades, is a case study in productivity and enterprise. He has been a pioneer in both the academic world and the business world. More recently, he has devoted significant time to understanding crippling issues such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

In a wide ranging interview, he made two claims that had me scratching my head.

He is concerned about immunisation, particularly in children. He believes that a lot more work needs to be done to understand the linkage between the whooping cough vaccine and allergic syndromes such as asthma and eczema.

He believes that antibiotics are a principal cause of CFS. The thinking goes like this: our cells contain mitochondria, which are bacterial organisms. Mitochondria generate energy that feed the cells. Antibiotics kill bacteria, and therefore, while killing “bad” bacteria, they will kill mitochondria too. Therefore the cells do not get the energy they need. Therefore people feel fatigued. Therefore, CFS.

I am not an expert in medicine, and I have not done any research into these issues, but to my mind these are pretty serious statements. If they are completely factual, backed up by proper scientific research, then these are hugely important medical breakthroughs. The CFS claim is truly revolutionary, as I have not heard anything like this from mainstream scientific commentators: in fact, I have frequently heard the opposite.

If the claims are not backed up by proper evidence, then what he is saying is enormously irresponsible. Both areas: childhood immunisation and CFS, are fraught with stratospheric levels of emotion and an almost zealous disregard for the truth. The science behind the claims of the most vocal of the advocates is either non-existent or flatly contradictory. Children throughout the developed world have fallen ill and died as a result of the questioning of immunisation. Fear mongering about the use of antibiotics, on the basis that you might get CFS, could have equally serious consequences. Making public factual claims about things that are merely hypotheses, serve as a huge distraction and may divert badly needed resources and time from more promising areas of research.

On the claim that CFS is called by the death of mitochondria, then how come we all don’t have CFS after a course of antibiotics? How come chronic users of antibiotics don’t all have CFS? How come you can safely administer antibiotics to small children and the elderly? What is the research? What alternative views exist and what research has been conducted into alternative claims? None of this was explored in the interview, but it would be interesting to know more.

I encourage you to listen to the radio programme and to draw your own conclusions. The relevant part of the interview begins at the 26:16 minute mark.

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.


Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.


So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

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