QEDCon Retrospective Part 2

Myself, Lee Christie, Tannice Pendegrass, Trish Hann, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan discuss day two of QEDCon 2012, a weekend conference of science and skepticism. Highlights included talks by Edzard Ernst, Ian Ridpath, D.J. Grothe, Maryam Namazie and Joe Nickell. Looking forward to QEDCon 2013! The QEDCon theme is copyright Miltion Mermikides and is used with permission.

QEDCon Retrospective Part 1

Myself, Lee Christie, Tannice Pendegrass, Trish Hann, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan discuss QEDCon 2012, a weekend conference of science and skepticism. Day one highlights included talks by Steve Jones, David Aaronovitch, Ophelia Benson, Sarah Angliss, Massimo Polidoro and Richard Saunders. The evenings entertainment featured the first ever Skeptic Magazine awards, as well as stand up sets from Alun Cochrane, Robin Ince and Paul Zenon. The evening concluded with an embarrassing incident involving trousers. Stay tuned for part two! The QEDCon theme is copyright Miltion Mermikides and is used with permission.

Delia Smith

For my latest piece for the award-winning Pod Delusion podcast, I recorded my thoughts on Delia Smith’s position on secularism. You can listen to the podcast here, and below is the transcript of my article. Enjoy!

As a fan of Norwich City Football Club, this report on Delia Smith’s anti-secular stance is rather troublesome for me. For those that don’t know, Delia Smith first found fame in the UK in the 1970’s as a TV cook, and she has gone on to sell over 21 million copies of her numerous recipe books. Her wealth allowed her, along with her husband Michael Wynn-Jones, to become majority shareholders of Norwich City FC back in 1996, a position they hold to this day. They saved the club from bankruptcy, and, in this Norwich fans eyes anyway, have secured themselves a place in the history of the club, and I still think all Norwich fans owe them a debt of gratitude. Since their takeover, the club have had it’s ups and downs (you may remember Delia’s infamous “Let’s be ‘avin you” speech back in 2005) but they are currently riding high in the Premier League, and right now it’s a great time to be a Norwich fan.

So, imagine my displeasure when I woke up on the Sunday morning of the recent QED conference to find my Twitter stream awash with messages from fellow skeptics keen to point out Delia Smith’s position on secularism. On her website deliaonline.com she’d launch an appeal for lent, aiming to raise money for the Catholic charity Cathod so that they can deliver clean water to the needy. No problem there you might think, but it’s the following paragraph that has got so many people’s backs up:

There is a running battle going on in the press, and militant neo-Atheists and devout secularists are busting a gut to drive us off the radar and try to convince us that we hardly exist.

As a proud secular humanist, I do despair that someone I admire so much could hold such, well frankly, deluded views. Delia appears to be jumping on the same bandwagon as Tory MP Nadine Dorries, convinced that Christianity is in some way under attack from atheists and secularists.

Is there any meat to Delia’s claims? When she says atheists are trying to “convince us that we hardly exist”, she made it clear in a recent interview that she was talking about a survey carried out by Richard Dawkins. The survey in question was carried out in response to the recent census, which asked the rather poorly phrased question “What is your religion?”. The British Humanist Association’s Census Campaign highlighted the problems with this question, and Dawkin’s IPSOS-MORI poll attempted to straighten it out. The 2001 census came back with 72% of the UK population being Christian, whereas Dawkin’s poll put the number at 54%. More than this, Dawkin’s poll went into detail and looked at WHY people ticked Christian. I think the most interesting finding was that when people who ticked Christian were ask “Would you turn to your religion for moral guidance”, only 10% said yes! This is not, as Delia Smith would seemingly like to to think, an attempt to convince Christians that they aren’t Christian, but an attempt to show that Christianity is not as influential as some people believe, therefore there is less justification for the religious privileges that are enshrined in UK law (Bishops in the House of Lords being a good example). It’s not a fight with atheists pitching themselves against Christians, rather an attempt by secularists to fairly represent reality.

So, what of secularism? Judging by her comments, it seems that Delia thinks that secularist’s want to do away with the Christian festival of lent. What her evidence for this is I have no idea, but I think it’s worth examining what secularism is. According to the National Secular Society, “Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”. In other words, it’s separation of church and state. It guarantees freedom of religion, ,which logically means that it allows freedom from religion. So, in a secular society you are free to be an atheist, or to follow any religion you choose. In fact, Delia Smith should be profoundly grateful that we live in a secular society, as she was baptised in the Church of England, and converted to catholicism at the age of 22. If the UK was a protestant theocracy she would not have been able to do that, however we are a secular society, so she could. In fact, you could say that any religious person who values their religious freedom should stand up and be proud to be a secularist.

In reporting on what I think of Delia Smith’s position on secularism, I hope people don’t think I’m being too harsh on her. I think her support of a charity to provide clean water to the needy is extremely commendable, and is only a continuation of her selflessness that we’ve seen in her other charitable work and what she’s done for Norwich City football club. I’d happily support her statement that “Secularists and believers have got to work alongside each other” if only it was made clear that you can be both a believer AND a secularist! I’d like people like Delia Smith to properly consider what secularism is, I think they would quite happily call themselves secularists if they did. Secularism is vital for our society, and I for one will continue to recognise that. By the way, Stephen Fry is a director at Norwich, I’d love to sit in on the next board meeting!

Before I go, I’d like to congratulate the Pod Delusion for winning the Occam award for best podcast at QED, and especially James and Liz who put so much work into this fine endeavor. Saying “On The Ball City!”, this is Tom Williamson for the Pod Delusion.

A Brief Write Up of QEDCon 2012

The second Question Explore Discover Conference (QEDCon) concluded yesterday. It was a packed and exhilarating two days of skepticism and I had an absolute blast! I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks to all the organisers for their very hard work in putting the conference on, and I’m sure many will agree when I state that it was a roaring success. I thought I’d write a very brief overview while it’s all still fresh in my head.

I rolled into Manchester on Friday evening, and found the mixer in the bar to already be in full swing. I had a great time chatting with lots of people who I’d previously only known through Twitter (although I didn’t get round to seeing everyone, sorry about that!) and I plucked up enough courage to make an iPadio recording, having a natter with a few attendees. Highlights for me included watching one of my copies of the Giant Book of Fantastic Facts being worshipped by an Australian (Hi Keiran!) and the one and only Joe Nickell inspecting my trilobite (not a euphamism). In fact, the general consensus on my Moroccan trilobite was that it’s real, which just made me even more smug!

The Saturday started with Deborah Hyde talking about werewolves. She was followed by the legend Professor Steve Jones, whose talk I had been particularly looking forward to. He didn’t disappoint, giving a confident and sometimes controversial (especialy if you are a psychologist) talk on evolution. I’d brought my copy of “The Language of the Genes”, a book of his which I purchased about 12 years ago before I went to study biochemistry and he was kind enough to sign it, which really made my day! I then had to make my first tough decision: see the excellent David Aaronovitch talk about his book Voodoo Histories or go the the British Humanist Association room and see the “science versus skepticism” panel. I’d done a little bit of blogging for the panel so I plumped for that. To my surprise, Steve Jones had agreed to be on the panel at the last minute, and we spent a fascinating hour discussing various matters pertaining to science. My only criticism was that it could have gone on for another couple of hours!

After lunch, I took in Ophelia Benson‘s thought-provoking talk on religion, where I embarrassed myself in the Q and A over my ignorance over the US constitution. I then did my shift on the book store which meant I missed Sarah Angliss (whose talk on ‘Voices of the Dead’ received high plaudits from everyone I spoke to), before going back to the BHA room for the Pod Delusion recording, where yours truly opened with a piece on the Planet Vulcan. You should be able to hear that in the not-too-distant future! That session featured what I thought was the most controversial opinion of the weekend, I didn’t think I’d hear a gay man arguing against gay marriage! Certainly food for thought. The afternoon was rounded up with the wonderful Richard Saunders from the Skeptic Zone podcast regaling us with his many tales from Australia, including his role on “The One” show and the inevitable demise of Power Balance bracelets.

I was a member of the elite who had paid for the gala dinner, so after a nice meal we were in a prime location for the evening’s entertainment. An early highlight for myself was seeing the Pod Delusion win a Skeptic award for best podcast, it was very richly deserved and a huge endorsement for James, Liz and everyone else involved in putting the show together. Richard Wiseman was effortlessly entertaining as compère, and all the comedy acts were side-splittingly funny! After partying late into the night, I went to bed very happy and contented with an excellent first day.

Some sore heads were pretty clear to see on Sunday morning, which started with Edzard Ernst telling us about his career researching alternative medicine, and his many battles with woo-pusher extraordinaire Prince Charles. Ernst received a huge round of applause for his tireless work, and the crowd were even prepared to forgive his use of Comic Sans! Ian Ridpath followed with a talk on UFOs, which included some sage advice on how to fake them (which I might try to do at some point). After lunch JREF president DJ Grothe gave a very clever and introspective talk on skepticism which dismissed the myth that Americans don’t get irony! Maryam Namazie followed with a talk on secularism and religious freedom. She repeatedly had to stop for applause, and I got quite riled when I heard that Unite Against Facism sided with an islamist group rather than her secularist group at a recent rally. After an unexpected bonus of Colin Wright, Joe Nickell gave the last talk of the weekend, telling us about his many adventures in the world of paranormal investigation.

Overall, a fantastic weekend and a great opportunity for the skeptic community to get together. I’m already looking forward to QEDCon 2013, assuming the world doesn’t end this year of course.

When scientists go woo – in preparation for the “Science versus Skepticism” panel at QED

The Question Explore Discover conference (QEDcon) is merely days away. Last year’s was a fantastic spectacle of science, skepticism and having a laugh with friends old and new. If you want, you can hear some recordings I made, where I’m mostly jumping around like an excitable puppy. This year should provide more of the same (except I’ve calmed down a bit), but there was one panel in the schedule which particularly caught my eye: the “Science versus Skepticism” panel.

I read the title and straight away thought “Hang on, science VERSUS skepticism? Surely skepticism is based on the application of the scientific method?”. Then, I read the blurb and realised that throughout history, many scientists have and do hold views that are in contradiction of scientific evidence. In preparation for the panel, I thought I’d go over some of these historical figures and where they venture into the realm of woo.

Luc Montagnier

Luc Montagnier

Luc Montagnier

In 2008 Luc Montagnier (along with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Harald zur Hausen) received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV. His role in our understanding of the virus was pivotal, and helped greatly in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

However, in 2009 Montagnier produced a couple of very controversial research papers which reported the detection of electromagnetic signals in highly diluted and agitated solutions of DNA. Of course, homeopathy sympathisers like Dana Ullman jumped all over this, even though it offered no support for homeopathy. Critics such as PZ Myers pointed out the many flaws and suspicious circumstances of the research, including the fact that there were just between 72 hours between submission and publication and that the chairman of the editorial board of the journal in question was Montagnier himself!

Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis

Pretty much every biologist who has worked in a lab for the last 20 years should know who Kary Mullis is. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith (I’ve worked in a building bearing his name) for the development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Through this technique, it is possible to amplify specific DNA sequences. This ability has made a myriad of techniques possible, such as DNA fingerprinting, and PCR machines are ubiquitous throughout labs around the world.

Outside of the lab, Mullis has dabbled in various pieces of pseudoscience, from his belief in astrology to climate change denialism and AIDS denialism. He even wrote the foreword to “What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?” by Christine Maggiore, a very tragic case.

Baroness Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield

Susan Greenfield is a scientist who specialises in brain physiology, researching diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. She sits in the House of Lords as a cross bencher, and was director of the Royal Society from 1998 to 2010. She has done much for the public understanding of science, and has presented the Royal Society’s Christmas Lectures.

Recently, Greenfield claimed that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were bad for children’s brains. Ben Goldacre quickly pointed out that it’s wrong to make that kind of claim without evidence and submitting to peer review, especially when the claims are on such a grand scale.

Brian Josephson

Brian Josephson

Brian Josephson

Hopefully you’ll have seen a pattern by now! Brian Josephson is a Nobel laureate, receiving the Nobel prize in physics in 1973 for predicting an effect that now bears his name.

Yet, when he was asked to write for the Royal Mail about a set of stamps to commemorate the centenary of the Nobel prize, he took the opportunity to mention that physics may one day explain telepathy. He has also leant his support to the ‘E-cat’ machine, which is supposedly a thermonuclear reaction that fits on a coffee table.

Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling Book

The cover of the book in which Linus Pauling endorses Vitamin C megadoses

Linus Pauling is perhaps the most famous case of a high-profile scientist turning to the dark side of woo. There’s no way I can do his achievements justice in a few short paragraphs, but hopefully you’ll get an idea of his greatness when I say that he’s the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes. His contributions to chemistry are too numerous to list, and he was also a great peace activist, winning the Nobel Prize for a study that showed the damage overground atomic weapons tests were causing.

Sadly, as he got older he fell for the woo of megadosing on Vitamin C. This involves ingesting huge quantities of Vitamin C in the belief that it can ward off colds and even treat cancer. Although Pauling published papers to support his ideas, clinical trials conducted by the Mayo Clinic provided evidence that Vitamin C was in fact no better than placebo at treating cancer. Despite this, Pauling continued to research and promote the use of megadoses of Vitamin C, starting the quackery of orthomolecular medicine.

What causes respectable scientists do delve into quackery? I’m looking forward to this and other questions being discussed at QEDcon!