I’m speaking at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub on April 14th!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be making a long but hopefully fruitful trip from Liverpool all the way to the south coast to speak at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub on April 14th. My talk is entitled “The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” where I introduce the scientific method, talk about how science gets done, and what happens when you misuse or ignore it. I’ll cover a pretty wide range of topics and I’ll even do some live data analysis (exciting eh?) showing how statistically insignificant data can be skewed to support any desired conclusion.

So please, if you are anywhere near Portsmouth please come down to The Mermaid pub on New Road at 8:00PM on April 14th, I’d love to see you there!
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Ghosts and the scope of skepticism

With Andy Russell, I seem to have gotten in a little hot water with Hayley Stevens over a rather ill thought out and throwaway comment I made in my QEDcon review:

(ghosts don’t exist, move on)

Hayley, if you are reading this I’d like to apologise for the above comment. I know that you do some sterling work in investigating ghosts, and it’s important to dispel myths regarding them, stop people from being exploited and reassure them that they aren’t being haunted.

I’m from a science background, so naturally I’m going to be drawn to the scientific aspects of skepticism. I find it very difficult to even consider the existence of ghosts because the mere notion of anything like a human being in ‘spirit form’ being able to communicate with our ‘realm’, to be ludicrous. People have been wishfully looking for ghosts for such a long time now, and any reported ghost sighting is usually easily explained by rational investigation. That’s why, when it comes to looking for ghosts, I stupidly dismissed it with “ghosts don’t exist, move on”.

However, I’m well aware that some people DO believe in ghosts, but the study of ghosts themselves and the study of the psychology of people who believe in them are two very different things. It is important to try and teach people the scientific method so they don’t become scared by something that doesn’t exist (you could say the same thing about religion).

It’s my own personal view that within the broad church of skepticism (and it is a very broad church, that’s why I love it) the issue of ghost believers, although interesting,  is way down the pecking order when it comes to targets of skepticism. Alt med (homeopathy in particular) gets attention because the NHS wastes millions on it, and it’s use in place of conventional medicine can cause people to die. Creationism is a target because it’s accepted by millions of people and it hinders scientific progress and the public understanding of science. The antivax brigade gets attention because they kill people. In contrast, I don’t see ghost belief to be anywhere near as serious. Put it this way, if ghosts were available on the NHS I’d be furious.

I agree with Kash Farooq‘s take on this, but I’d like to take this opportunity to show how it isn’t easy to dismiss certain issues:

  • “homeopathy doesn’t work, move on” – Like I said earlier, the NHS wastes millions on it and people can die if it’s used in place of regular medicine
  • Betelgeuse will not explode and kill us all in 2012, move on” – Never mind the 2012 conspiracy theorist crap, we might get to see a STAR FUCKING EXPLODE!!!
  • “there are no such things as subluxations, move on” – Chiropractors. Simon Singh. Need I say more?

Anyway, I’d like to conclude byapologising again for my silly comment, no hard feelings Hayley?

Mike Adams the Health Ranger on the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy

As a skeptic, I’ve been waiting for this day for quite a long time. These days, no debate on health or science is complete without a contribution from the sparkling brain of Mike “Health Ranger” Adams. Today, Mike Adams has shared his thoughts on the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy, and my, is it a barnstorming rant of epic lunacy!

Like the homeopath (or ‘homeopathist’ according to 5live) interviewed with Michael Marshall on the BBC, Mike Adams doesn’t get the point of the 10:23 overdose. Convential medicines do something, and work at a recommended dose. If you take to much, you go over that dose and it can be harmful, hence ‘overdose’. However, with homeopathy there is nothing to ‘dose’ on in the first place, making an ‘overdose’ impossible. This is simply because there is nothing in it!

Anyway, Adams argues that we skeptics aren’t ‘sophisticated’ enough to understand the underlying mechanisms of homeopathy. Sadly, us skeptics require evidence to believe things and don’t follow the Mike Adam’s philosophy of ‘making shit up as we go along’. With this in mind, reading his attempts to grasp physics and chemistry are usually as funny as watching James Delingpole wrestle with the concept of peer review:

But homeopathy isn’t a chemical. It’s a resonance. A vibration, or a harmony. It’s the restructuring of water to resonate with the particular energy of a plant or substance. We can get into the physics of it in a subsequent article, but for now it’s easy to recognize that even from a conventional physics point of view, liquid water has tremendous energy, and it’s constantly in motion, not just at the molecular level but also at the level of its subatomic particles and so-called “orbiting electrons” which aren’t even orbiting in the first place. Electrons are vibrations and not physical objects.

Of course, there is no evidence that homeopathic preparations are ‘resonating’ or ‘vibrating’ any more than sugar pills or water, and even if they did, what effect would that have? His understanding of what an electron is gets worse:

For now, they’ve all convinced themselves that electrons are — get this — tiny “particles” flying around atomic nuclei and tremendous speeds which just happen to stay in their little orbits like little perpetual motion machines (which they say are impossible), until all of a sudden, these electron “particles” inexplicably leap to a higher or lower orbit without occupying the space in-between those orbits at any moment. Yep, magic teleporting particles! That’s the “scientific” explanation of these folks. No wonder so many of them are magicians: Believing their explanations requires that you believe in particle magic!

Amazing! Note how Mike Adams tries to justify homeopathy by invoking ‘resonances’, but massively misunderstands and rejects understood notions of electron behavior. Do we have an ‘electron denier’ on our hands?

Following on from this, Mike reveals that he has his own version of the 10:23 challenge: we should all overdose on real medicine. Although he’s oblivious to the fact that this would prove the point of the overdose, he comes up with my favourite line in the article:

What really drives the skeptics crazy is that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to kill themselves. To be so out of touch with the beautiful, loving and holographic nature of the universe around us is to retreat to a self-loathing worldview that can only be resolved through self destruction.

Let’s ignore the fact that we skeptics aren’t trying to kill ourselves, and look at his description of the universe. How does Mike Adams accept the ‘holographic principle’ of the universe when he doesn’t believe in electrons?

For the rest of the article, Adams bashes out the same tired old canards about chemotherapy killing people, acquiring repeat business (of course, no one ever visits a homeopath more than once), and that vaccines lower IQ. His final words on homeopathy and the 10:23 campaign is this sober thought:

So if you’re looking for safe medicine, definitely take a look at homeopathic remedies. They so safe that even the critics can’t overdose on them… but you have to admit the attempt makes for great entertainment.

Ah, ‘safety’. Yes, homeopathy is safe, in the same way that sitting on a comfy sofa is safe. Unfortunately for homeopathy, the comfy sofa is just as effective in treating disease.

He ends the article by revealing that the nonsense on naturalnews.com is about to be raised by another power. None other than one of twitter’s rudest members, Dana Ullman is joining their ranks! Rejoice!

Antivaxxers attempt a scientific survey and fail

An oft-repeated chant of the antivax brigade is that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Of course, this link has been debunked in countless studies, including a Danish study which compared 400,000 vaccinated children to 100,000 unvaccinated children and found no difference in the autism rate between the two groups.

Unsatisfied, some antivaxxers try to move the goalposts, claiming that completely unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated. In an attempt to get some data to support this claim, the website vaccineinjury.info has set up an online survey. Clearly, anonymous data submitted to a website has no scientific validity, and now you have the chance to show the antivax community why.

I’ve made my own small contribution by filling out the form myself. According to their records, there exists a child in the UK by the name of “Steggles X. Williamson”. This child has never been vaccinated, only treated with homeopathy, but has pretty much every disease and neurological disorder you can think of. He can’t even sit still for Barney the Dinosaur. I invite everyone reading this to flood the form with silly data, much like you would crash a creationist poll. A couple of minutes of creative fun for you, a headache for the antivaxxers!


Reflections on QEDcon

Well, what on Earth can I say to convey my thoughts on QEDcon? It was an amazing weekend for so many reasons. The speakers, the events, the organisation, the venue, everything contributed to an experience that all who were there will never forget. I’d like to sincerely thank everyone involved for such a great time!

The Friday night mixer was a real eye-opener, everyone was so friendly and it was great to put lots of names to faces that were previously just words preceeded by ‘@’ symbols! Immediately the atmosphere was jovial, warm and friendly. It gave me a certain energy, which I think can definitely be heard in the first iPadio ‘phlog’ I recorded at the conference. That carried on throughout the night, I even got to have a chat with one of my scientific heroes Eugenie Scott of the NCSE, before finally retiring to the hostel with 7 other skeptics who I’d met an hour beforehand!

So after a fair amount of alcohol and little sleep, I approached the first day of QEDcon on a haze of adrenaline and enforced insomnia. After a viewing of the collaborative intro video and a hearty welcome for host George Hrab, the first talk of the day was given by Professor Bruce Hood. Entitled “Hugging Murderers and Stabbing Teddy Bears”, it gave a fascinating insight into certain aspects of psychology. I don’t want to give too much away, but Bruce equally enthralled and surprised the audience by dropping a hand grenade as part of a demonstration! I was so impressed by the talk that I bought a copy of his book Supersense from the stall. I wasn’t the only one, as the book was sold out by day 2!

Up next in the main hall was Kat Akingbade, who told us about her families experience with religion, while a panel discussed skeptical outreach in the breakout room. I was torn between the two (always a good sign at a conference) and plumped for Kat’s talk, but I was kept updated with the panel’s activity thanks to constant tweets on the #qedcon hash tag. Following Kat was a panel on ghost hunting. I’ve never got the skeptical ghost hunting thing (ghosts don’t exist, move on), so I popped upstairs to watch a little bit of The God Who Wasn’t There, a documentary on the historicity of Jesus.

After lunch I was once again forced to choose between two excellent events: Jim Al-Khalili talking about time travel or a live recording of InKredulous. I figured that I could listen to InKreduolous when it comes out (hopefully not in 4 months this time Andy!) so I watched Jim Al-Khalili take us through some complex but fascinating physics of spacetime, focusing on the problem of paradoxes. He came up with my favourite quote from the weekend: “Why does everyone say ‘what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather?’, why not kill your mother and have done with it!”.

He was followed by Chris Atkins of Starsuckers, Taking Liberties and the “Urban Fox Hunters” hoax fame. His talk focused on his most recent film Starsuckers, where we were treated to some behind the scenes footage, but he also talked about his analysis of Bob Geldof’s role in subduing coverage of the Edinburgh ‘Make Poverty History’ march, and showed us unseen footage of the ‘Urban Fox Hunters’. It turned out to be made in a hilariously amateurish way, which included faking footage of a ‘fox’ by strapping a rug to a dog!

After that I had to man the stall for an hour so I missed Chris French, but it was a joy to see Steve Novella (speaking in the UK for the first time I believe) take to the stage afterwards to talk about brain development and behaviour. He was very eloquent and concise, a great talk and an excellent way to wrap up the first day.

In between the talks and dinner, I experienced my personal highlight of the weekend. I’d charged myself with the duty of ‘phlogging’ (I’m still really not sure about that term) using iPadio, recording semi-live interviews. In the crowd I spotted Jon Ronson. He signed my copy of ‘Them‘, we had a chat and he agreed to do an on-the-spot interview! I was as nervous as Gillian McKeith before a bush tucker trial, but Jon was incredibly kind and couldn’t have been a nicer interviewee. I sat next to him at the gala dinner too, where he regaled us with tails of his experiences with Insane Clown Posse, eccentric American generals and the like.

As the evening’s entertainment kicked off, we sadly learned that Robin Ince had to cancel for family reasons. However, in his stead was Helen Keen, one of the great surprises of the weekend. I don’t want to give too much away, but she gave a great stand up set based on the Space Race, splitting the room up into Americans and Russians. We even got a unique John F. Kennedy ‘impression’ from MSS treasurer Andrew Johnston! Matt Parker followed up with a set that included an impromptu recreation of the Dr Who title sequence, and a great dismantling of wingnut website conservapedia.com. He revealed that some Christians are so anti-science as to come up with moral objections to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which almost gives credence to the Family Guy quote “Christians don’t believe in gravity”. The final act for the night was compare George Hrab, who entertained us with his skeptical songs before John Tatlock hit the decks. I retired to the bar and managed to recording a very rambly phlog before ending the day in a very tired but happy state!

Day two started with this year’s 10:23 campaign against homeopathy, Michael Marshall updating us with events from around the world. I was amazed to find out that someone in Antarctica had taken up the challenge, but my favourite photo came from a group who had managed to put a 10:23 cap and tshirt on a statue of the founder of homeopathy Sam Hahnemann! Geo counted down to 10:23am, and with much crunching we downed our 31C bella donna with no ill consequences.

Following the conclusion of 10:23, Wendy Grossman took to the platform to talk about unfortunately widespread policy-based evidence, before Simon Singh gave his talk on big bang cosmology. He also addressed the tricky problem of what to call people like James Dellingpole. ‘Climate change denier’ seemed too strong, whereas ‘climate change sceptic’ was just completely wrong, so Simon Singh suggested that we refer to Dellingpole and his ilk as being ‘climate numpties’, a fairly trivial and mocking term with I think fits rather well. It was happily refreshing to see Simon talk about something other than libel reform!

After lunch it was the turn of the aforementioned Jon Ronson to take to the stage. He gave us a few slightly worrying (in a good way) glimpses into his forthcoming book, entitled ‘The Psychopath Test’. Geo was accused of meeting the criteria, which he took with good humour! Jon inevitably played the video for Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles“, and it was great to hear several hundred people chant the tagline “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” in unison!

After Jon came another great surprise in juggler Colin Wright. Again, I don’t want to give much away, but his appliance of number theory to juggling gave results which were both enthralling and extraordinarily clever! The closing lecture was given by Eugenie Scott, who gave a summary of the global state of the anti-science of creationism. She was kind enough to sign my copy of her book “Evolution versus Creationism: An Introduction” which left me one happy skeptic!

The weekend was bought to a close by Mike Hall, one of the tireless organisers of QEDcon. I think he got the biggest cheer when he thanked his girlfriend for dumping him a few months ago, giving him time for some serious organising! As the organisers got together for a photo-op, they received a well deserved round of applause from the audience for a job well done!

Although QEDcon may be over for now, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. As I type, the #qedcon hashtag on Twitter is still active, and there are lots of podcasts to look forward to, including InKredulous, the Pod Delusion and Strange Quarks, which will feature an interview with Eugenie Scott. As QEDcon was an immense event, hugely important for UK skepticism, I’m already looking forward to QEDcon 2!