Event Review: Elizabeth Pisani @ Liverpool Skeptics in the Pub

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

The evening of Wednesday the 27th of October 2010 the Merseyside Skeptics Society hold one of their regular ‘Skeptics in the Pub events’, set as always in the grandiose Vines pub in Liverpool, a stones throw from Liverpool Lime Street station. The guest speaker was one Elizabeth Pisani, epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores, a controversial book about HIV/AIDS.

Elizabeth took us through her work on the spread and prevalence of HIV, explaining the people who became infected in the 1980’s, how the virus spread, and what could be done to prevent it. Each point was very eloquently made, and well backed up with solid data.

The core of the talk was fascinating, but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the talk as a whole to be completely engrossing. There were many important lessons to be learned. Firstly, we saw that most of data lead to some conclusions that the “Politically Correct” would find pretty ugly. However, Elizabeth wasn’t at all afraid to tell us of these conclusions, simply because they were supported by good evidence. Secondly, we were told that to raise money for HIV research, the whole issue of HIV had to be made politically attractive. In a sense, the science had to be somehow sacrificed to appeal to a wider audience. This was partly accomplished by some sneaky data presentation. I found it amazing how a graph could be made to tell a different story just by changing the X axis from absolute values to percentages!

The Q and A following the talk was very lively, with Elizabeth answering a wide range of questions. Treatment plans, the effect of treatment on the spread of the disease, the role of religion and the destigmatization of AIDS patients were all covered. Elizabeth continued to be charming and engaging throughout.

Overall, I found this to be one of the most intellectually stimulating ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events yet. Highly recommended!

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

PS – Many aspects of the talk reminded me of a brilliant piece of satire on the Chris Morris show Brass Eye. Here’s “Good AIDS/Bad AIDS“.

The World Has a New National Flag: Burma/Myanmar

The unveiling of a new national flag often signifies a dramatic change in world politics. It could relate to the birth of a new country (such as the recently independent Montenegro), or a country looking to move on from it’s dark past, for example Rwanda.

Sadly, the recently adopted flag of Myanmar (Burma) appears to be in no way positive. Burma is currently ruled by a military junta that has been in power since the 8888 revolution of 1988. The military government has placed severe restrictions on personal liberties, and the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under almost constant house arrest since the NLD won elections in the country in 1990.

As part of the government’s wide-ranging constitutional changes, the new flag was ordered to be flown nationwide on October 21st 2010, and the old flags were ordered to be burned, in an attempt to further cement and symbolize the power of the government. The flag itself is three horizontal yellow, green and red stripes, with a large white five pointed star in the center. The colors are supposed to represent (amongst other things) peace and prosperity, but they are in fact the colours of Burma’s flag during the Japanese occupation of World War 2. The star is supposed to represent the unity of the country, but it bears a close resemblance to the stars seen on communist flags, particularly that of Vietnam. The new flag is not to be confused with that of Lithuania.

New flag of Myanmar

The new flag of Myanmar/Burma

Of course, it is my hope that the military government of Burma will eventually make way for a democratically elected government. Once that happens this new flag will most likely be consigned to history, a sign of brutal dictatorship. I can only hope that this day will come soon.

When Uri Geller Failed

When James Randi was interviewed by Robin Ince at TAM, Randi regaled us with a story about Uri Geller appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1973.  He was due to bend a few spoons with the power of his mind, and determine which film can out of ten contained some water using his psychic powers. Carson was keen to test Geller, and so phoned Randi for some advice. Subsequently, the spoons that Geller were due to bend were kept well away from Geller and his people, and each film can was weighed down slightly so the one with the water couldn’t be distinguished from the rest. You can see the clip of this below:

Now, I’m keen on people like Uri Geller who claim to have paranormal powers to be exposed, but you have to give credit to Geller for the way he handles the situation. He knows something is wrong straight away, and rather than ploughing on with the tricks, he starts to play the blame game. He talks about being put under too much pressure by Carson, and complains of having “low energy”.

In the end, this becomes a perfect example of why TV chat shows aren’t keen to expose psychics on live TV. The psychic just goes into a shell, nothing happens, and it makes for excruciatingly boring viewing. And anyway, I’m sure Geller would have appeared on another show the week afterwards and performed his parlor tricks successfully, therefore no-one remembers his appearance on the Carson show. In conclusion, exposing psychics is great, but they are tricky and know that giving nothing is better than failing.

TAM London Review Part 1

The weekend of October 16 and 17th saw The Amaz!ng Meeting come to London. Run by the JREF, it promised two days of “science, critical thinking and entertainment in the heart of the city”. I was a TAM virgin, so my expectations for the weekend were sky high. On the whole, the meeting lived to my expectations with some special moments, but like others I felt that some aspects could have been even better.

After we were introduced to our compare for the weekend Richard Wiseman, Saturday kicked off with one of many performances by the Amateur Transplants, who kept us all entertained with their nerd-inspired versions of pop songs. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will never think of tiny batteries in the same way again!

The first talk of the meeting was from Susan Blackmore, who told us about her research into the paranormal and how it eventually lead to her becoming a skeptic. As someone with a scientific background, I found the start of her story to be very strange, as she described how her quest to detect the paranormal began after a drug-induced episode when she was a student in the 70s. It reminded me of a story from Karl Pilkington, where he said something along the lines of “My mate took some drugs then had a telepathic conversation with someone across the room. How do explain that?”. Easy. Drugs. However, Susan’s talk was entertaining and she did believe the statistical analysis of her experiments, so although she pursued what I would call silly endeavors for a long time, it had a happy ending!

Following Susan was the speaker I was most looking forward to, one Richard Dawkins. His talk was based on his belief that evolution should be considered the new classics, to replace ancient Greek and Latin.  The base of this belief is that evolution touches on pretty much any subject you can think of, from biology to history. Whilst I agree that an understanding of evolution is absolutely essential to comprehend life, I disagree with the classics analogy on a couple of points. Firstly, classics is often seen as the preserve of the more exclusive schools, whereas the teaching of evolution should be readily available to everyone. Second, it is a bit unfair on classics itself! Nevertheless, Dawkins was highly engaging and not at all aggressive, it was a very entertaining and educational talk.

Next on was Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and co editor of the site Boing Boing. He looked resplendent in his bar code inspired suit and spoke very eloquently, but his talk was on copyright law. Now, I know that copyright law is a hot topic for many skeptics, and I’m all for the liberalisation of it. Cory used an evidence based approach to defend his position, which was great to hear, but I really struggled to maintain interest over the 50 minutes. Moving on…

Jim Humble renames Miracle Mineral Solution

My personal highlight of TAM London 2010 was Rhys Morgan receiving an award for his campaign against Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS). In case you don’t already know, Miracle Mineral Solution is nothing but a 28% solution of sodium chlorite. Users are instructed to mix it with citric acid. This produces chlorine dioxide, a powerful industrial bleach. Of course, drinking bleach is a very bad idea, and government agencies such as the FDA are coming down hard on MMS.

The inventor of MMS, one Jim Humble, has decided to slightly rename MMS to MASTER Mineral Solution (my emphasis). He may have done this to try and throw off the FDA, but how stupid does he think they are? He may at least have clocked on to the fact that science doesn’t deal in ‘miracles’ (sorry ICP), but to me, the word ‘master’ sounds pretty ominous. This quote from Humble is particularly chilling:

“Someday, hopefully soon, there will be dozens of master minerals and MMS will just be one of a line up of Master Minerals. Until that time comes, however, MMS remains the most important mineral known to the human race.”

That suggests he has more in the pipeline. Who knows what toxic substances he will sell to vulnerable people next? Don’t be fooled people. Jim Humble knows exactly what he is doing. MMS needs to be eradicated, whether it’s called Miracle Mineral Solution or Master Mineral Solution. One question: why isn’t Jim Humble (or perhaps Jim Scumball) in prison?

Photos from TAM

I got to meet lots of friends and people I admire at TAM, here are a few photos.


Update 18/09/2015: this page used to feature a picture of myself with Graham Linehan. However, it has been brought to my attention that Graham Linehan has recently publicly supported a self-confessed paedophile. I utterly detest and deplore paedophilia in all it’s forms, so I feel it is not at all appropriate for the photo to remain on my site.

TAM lives up to it’s name!

Wow, The Amaz!ng Meeting has just finished, and what an amazing meeting it was! With one notable blip, it was wall-to-wall critical thinking, combined with some genuinely inspiring moments. I’ve just got back, and obviously cannot do the event justice right now, but I’ve taken plenty of photos so stay tuned for more detailed write-ups.

Highlights for me included getting to meet some of my heroes old (Graham Lineham) and new (Rhys Morgan), participating in a live Skeptics with a K, and seeing Rhys Morgan win an award for his ground breaking grassroots skepticism. And of course, hearing from the great man himself, James Randi. Thanks to everyone I met and chatted with, you were all wonderful!

I’m off to TAM

Well, the time has come for me to head down to that London for The Amaz!ng Meeting. I’ll be there for the whole weekend, so please say hello if you bump into me. To give you an idea of what I look and sound like, here’s a video I made shortly after the 10:23 protest about the packaging of Boots brand homeopathy. See you at TAM!

I’m giving my talk on the Scientific Method next Tuesday

Liverpool talkThis Tuesday, the first one after TAM London, I will be giving my talk on the Scientific Method at the Liverpool University Guild of Students. I’ve been invited by the HASA society, and the talk is the same one I gave to the Leeds Skeptics a few months ago.

I don’t want to give too much away, but my talk will cover the scientific method itself, how people like quacks and creationists abuse it, and what can happen when it isn’t followed. I also cover randomized double blinded controlled trials, and show how seemingly random data can be manipulated to support outrageous claims.

The venue is right next to the Metropolitan Cathedral, and it would be great to see you there!

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Supporting the BHA’s “Census Campaign”

The good BHA (the British Humanist Association) are campaigning for a change in next year’s national census. The problem? The question “What is your religion?” leads to a very distorted picture of the state of religion in the UK.

As the BHA explain on their website, asking “What is your religion?” implies that you DO have a religion, and it prompts people to tick a religion, regardless of how strongly they hold their beliefs. For example, someone who goes to church every week may tick the same box as someone who was baptized but never thinks about church. Consequently, people of religion are hugely over-represented, and all thanks to this one biased question.

This over-representation of the religious population has been used to justify various detrimental religious policies, including the expansion of faith based schools and keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right. To help stop this, if in doubt choose ‘no religion’ in 2011!