Nastiness on Reddit: a result of unlimited free speech?

You may have noticed that Reddit, in particular the “subreddit” r/atheism, has been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community. That’s not that surprising given that Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, regularly dealing with around 67 million hits per day with an Alexa rank of 124. The atheism subreddit is currently readily accessible from the Reddit front page.

The concept of Reddit is quite straightforward. It’s described as a social news website, where users find or generate content that they think is interesting and post it to one of the many “subreddits”. Other users can then add their own comments and either “upvote” or “downvote” the posts. The most popular posts appear on the front page of Reddit, which Reddit itself refers to as the front page of the Internet. As you might expect, any post which ends up here receives a huge amount of traffic!

Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Reddit carries the burden of a gigantic double-edged sword: it is almost completely uncensored. As a result, pretty much anything is available on Reddit. Have a look at the highly NSFW /r/spacedicks to see what I mean. Actually, don’t.

As a result of this lack of moderation, Reddit can be an uninhibited playground of ideas where you can criticize any world religion or batshit crazy post without fear of censorship. However, it’s infested with various idiots, bigots of all kinds, and probably the most prevalent of all, trolls. Although a lot of these people on Reddit repulse me, I have a coping mechanism.

Firstly, I never expect too much. I know that if I need advise on any serious matter, I’m not going to get it on Reddit. After that, I set my default position on Reddit to “meh”. In other words, I need a good reason to care about something I read if I see it on Reddit. If it’s an insult, I’ll ignore it. If it’s a weak pun that Steve Wright would be proud of, I’ll ignore it. If it’s funny, insightful, intelligent etc I’ll read it and take it on board. As an example, I made a Rage Comic a little while ago after a mildly traumatic experience in the shower:

I’m a big fan of anything that grabs people’s imaginations and develops organically, so I’m right at home with the sillyness and general flippancy of Rage Comics. It took me about 30 seconds to make this comic, and it received quite a lot of upvotes and a fair few comments. They ranged from the utterly ridiculous but imaginative to the insulting:


Only fags and women use conditioner. Let’s hope you’re a woman.

Nice eh? I know people have experienced much worse than that, but the point is I didn’t react (yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing about it here). I just ignored them and carried on, the trolls remained unfed. Unnecessary drama avoided. If you are being trolled/insulted on Reddit, the best thing you can do is rise above it and ignore it.

At the end of the day, if you want the level of free speech Reddit offers, you’re going to have to accept that it also extends to people who you wouldn’t cross the road to save. As you can’t get rid of them, the best thing you can do is not encourage them. Don’t feed the trolls.

Nancy Malik shows us how NOT to conduct a poll on homeopathy

For those not aware “Dr” Nancy Malik is one of the more prevalent Internet homeopaths, happily promoting the anti-science quackery we know as homeopathy. She attracted the attention of skeptics with a very long (and now defunct) Google Knol which supposedly contained hundreds of peer reviewed articles which provided evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. Despite pretty much every link being scrutinized and rubbished by the wonderful Xtal Dave, Malik has moved the list to her new blog, amusingly entitled “Science-based Homeopathy” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one).

Malik has come up with a poll about medicine, presumably in an attempt to gather evidence on the popularity of homeopathy. However, as I type this it’s not looking too good for homeopathy.

As you can see, conventional medicine is currently surging way ahead of all the alternatives to medicine. Ironically, if Malik wanted to set this poll up to get the result she wanted, she’s done pretty much the opposite of what she should have done in all cases. Let’s have a look at some ways to knobble a poll, and where she’s gone wrong.

1. Ask a leading question to point the responder towards the answer you want them to give

Malik asks “Which medicine you prefer when fall ill”. Apart from the embarrassingly bad use of English, it doesn’t steer people towards homeopathy. For example, a lot of quacks say things along the lines of “if you’ve tried everything else, why not try homeopathy?”, so why doesn’t Malik’s question attempt to represent that?

2. Place the answer you want people to give at the top

The answer presented first will obviously be the one that the respondent looks at first, so if you want a certain answer to come out on top, put it before all the others! Malik fails here by putting ‘conventional’ first, the answer that she presumably does not want people to pick.

3. Present the options you do not want people to pick in an unfavourable light

As mentioned above, Malik uses the term ‘conventional’ medicine. Alternatively, you could term it “evidence based” or “science based” medicine (which both sound good), but if you were a devious homeopath set out to discredit it you could call it something else. Homeopaths often like to call conventional medicine “allopathic” (treating like with non-like), as if it was some sort of polar opposite to homeopathy. You can also confuse people who don’t know what ‘allopathic’ is by doing this, something that Malik fails to do.

4. Split the vote of the options that you don’t want people to pick

A simple tactic, splitting the vote involves presenting more options than necessary for those that you don’t like. For example, say that you were out with friends and you wanted to get a cup of coffee, whereas your friends fancied a pint of beer. If you were to vote on where to go, you could present one coffee house and six or seven pubs. That way, everyone who wants a beer will vote for different pubs, but those who want a coffee will all vote for the same coffee shop, increasing the proportion of the ‘coffee’ votes.

So, for Malik’s poll, she could have quite easily presented all the non-evidence based practices as one option, perhaps calling it “alternative and complementary therapies”, and split up ‘conventional’ into several options, but once again this was not done. Another fail!

Taking all that into consideration, here is how I would have presented Malik’s poll if I was looking for a result that favours homeopathy:

“Which form of medicine would you prefer to use?”

  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Allopathy
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • High street drugs

With this poll, I’ve tried to apply the rules mentioned above to get a result in favour of homeopathy. For a start, I’ve rephrased the question to ask people what they would prefer to use, rather than what they actually do use. Who wouldn’t prefer to use lovely natural plants and gentle sugar pills? Second, I’ve placed the CAM option at the top to give it the most prevalence. I’ve also avoided using the term ‘homeopathy’ altogether, instead lumping all the alt med guff into “Complementary and alternative therapies”. That sounds nice doesn’t it? On the other hand, for conventional medicine I’ve tried to split the vote by using the terms “allopathy” (hoping that people won’t know what it is and therefore not check it), pharmaceuticals (scary big pharma) and “high street drugs” (no one likes the sound of “drugs”, especially when in close proximity to the word “street”).

Perhaps Nancy could use this for her second poll?

Anyway, I suggest you vote in Nancy’s poll before she takes it down!

How I would make millions by ripping off children with cancer

Please don’t be worried by the title of this post. I haven’t turned evil, this is simply a thought exercise.

First off, I’d do the hard part and get a medical degree. I’d follow this up by getting a qualification that isn’t quite a doctorate, but I’d say it is anyway so that I could write Ph.D after my name as well as MD. I’d then follow this by researching at a university for several years, trying to find a simple chemical in urine that I could patent as a cancer cure. Once I had this patent, I’d open up my own clinic to treat cancer patients with it. Of course, I’d need to get around the fact that my drug wouldn’t work or have any sort of official approval. To do that, I’d treat patients as part of a ‘clinical trial’. Also, there would be nothing to stop me using real cancer drugs at my clinic, I just wouldn’t draw attention to that! I’d charge patients huge amounts of money for my treatment, and I wouldn’t feel bad at all about charging the parents of terminally ill children hundreds of thousands of dollars. Who knows, perhaps some famous comedians would put on charity gigs to pay for my treatments!

Of course, some people in this world would want to see some evidence that my treatment worked, and they wouldn’t be happy that I was selling their children false hope for extortionately high prices. In an attempt to placate them, I would fine some patients that have been lucky enough to survive my treatments, and put images of their beaming, smiling faces on my website. Everyone loves a testimonial, especially if it’s from a cute child! For those that want some actual scientific evidence, I’d occasionally write a piss-poor paper about my research and submit it to a desperate, crappy journal somewhere. I’d also present my work at a conference from time to time, and reference those presentations as if they were papers. Most people won’t know the difference! It wouldn’t matter if other scientists could not replicate my results, and I’d pay no heed to the opinions of cancer charities.

Now, with the scientific evidence for my ‘treatment’ being either flimsy or non-existent, I’d need a well-oiled propaganda machine in place. Once again, I’d resort to my testimonials as evidence. I’d say that the authorities are part of ‘big pharma’, who don’t want people to be treated by my amazing cure as it means they will lose money. I’d also rally against the establishment, claim that other scientists know nothing and declare myself a ‘maverick’. Once I had a dedicated following, I could even get a film made! Anything to get more people through the doors to line my pockets!

But, what to do with my detractors? I wouldn’t follow the normal scientific procedures and address criticism in the peer reviewed literature, I’d hire a lawyer to bully anyone who dared speak against me with threats of libel. I’d have plenty of money by then, and could easily absorb any costs involved. I’m counting the money in my head right now!

Fortunately, I will of course never do this because I’m not a shameless, manipulative greed-driven monster.

By the way, this has nothing to do at all with the Burzynski clinic. Nothing whatsoever.

Nadine Dorries using flawed logic against humanists

Nadine DorriesYou’ve just got to love Nadine Dorries. The conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire has been in the sights of people like Tim Ireland for quite awhile now, thanks to her irrational stances on issues such as abortion, and for claiming that her own blog is “70% fiction”.

As a result of Dorries stance on abortion and her position on sex education, New Humanist magazine have included her as a nominee in their annual Bad Faith awards. Naturally, Dorries hasn’t taken too kindly to it, and the other day squeezed out a short post on humanists on her blog:

I am not sure why anyone would admit to being a humanist and part of an organisation which has such extreme views. A humanist recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life.

At first, it looks like Dorries is basing her opinion on a rather large group of people based on nothing but rumour (and I’m not editorialising, that one quote is about half of the whole blog post). Obviously it’s easy to tell the glaring logical errors Dorries is making at this point, but it gets worse. Dorries felt the need to clarify her position and even name the person in question as the philosopher Peter Singer:

In 1979 he wrote, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

In 1993 he stated that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot.

OK, a few issues here. Firstly, this is Peter Singer we are talking about, it’s very involved and complicated philosophy, it’s not something you can dip your feet into and cherry pick as Dorries has done. I can’t claim to be particular au fait with Singer’s work, although some of you might know that I’ve criticized his stance on animal rights in the past. Second, Dorries says that “a humanist recently commented”, and the most recent citation she comes up with is from 1993. She also tells people they can read more on Singer and directs them to the Christian Research Institute, an evangelical apologetics group. Quite a source!

So far, so much fiction. However, my main beef his her extremely warped thought process. Even if Singer did advocate infanticide, why does that mean that all humanists would agree with him? I find it amazing that Dorries can get away with this stance, because I believe that if she tried it with a religious group she’d be in very hot water. Imagine if she’d said something like this:

How can anyone subscribe to Judaism when Baruch Goldstein was Jewish? He committed a massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs. It’s scary to think how many people out there hold such extreme views.

Yet when an MP such as Dorries has a go at humanists, no-one bats an eyelid. Perhaps it’s time for us humanists to get just a little bit pissed off?



Power Balance bands: the “Dumbo’s Feather” of the 21st Century

Dumbo's featherOne product has really got skeptics worked up recently: the Power Balance bracelet. In case you are not familiar with it, the Power Balance bracelet is merely a silicone bracelet with a hologram in it. The makers claim that the hologram “work’s with your body’s natural energy field” and is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”. Of course, the manufacturers offer up no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up these claims.

The Power Balance website contains at least one huge contradiction: due to a ruling by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Power Balance were forced to retract claims of efficacy in a corrective advertisement, admitting that “there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974”. However, they released a statement addressing this on their website, where they use an amazing double negative:

Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has made no claims that our product does not perform.

So, it is clear that there is no evidence to suggest that wearing a hologram would improve your supporting performance, so why on earth would a professional sportsman wear a Power Balance bracelet, yet alone endorse it?

Quite simply, Power Balance is all about exploiting the psychology of the customer. It starts by relying on the placebo effect, where the athlete in question thinks “I’m wearing something that should make me perform better”, so they EXPECT to perform better, and consequently may feel they are performing better, even if they are not (or in the case of England cricketer Paul Collingwood, getting worse).

I would compare this effect to the feather that the eponymous hero of the Disney film Dumbo carries. Just in case you are not familiar with this character, allow me to explain: Dumbo is a baby elephant with extraordinarily large ears. He gets given a feather by his mentor (who happens to be a mouse, of course), which he’s told is a ‘magic feather’. This gives Dumbo the confidence to use his ears to fly. The feather itself does nothing physical, but it is exerting an effect on the psychology of Dumbo, much like the Power Balance exerts a psychological effect on the people who wear it and believe it works.

Why does Power Balance seem to work as a placebo? There are several important factors:

  • It’s shiny
  • It’s got the word ‘Power’ in it’s name
  • It’s very expensive for a piece of plastic ($29.95)
  • It’s sold through a glossy website
  • Sportsmen use and endorse it

That last point is worthy of particular attention. Once one sportsman wears it and thinks it works, they influence other sportsmen. This reinforcement continues until the product becomes a familiar and accepted sight. For example, it’s clearly visible many times amongst the members of the England test cricket team.

Why should we care?

It’s very easy to dismiss Power Balance and say “Why should I care if a rich idiot wants to spend £20 on a piece of plastic?”. However, I always find myself asking the same question when I come across something like this: “If you believe in Power Balance, what else do you believe in?”. Power Balance should serve as an example as to what can happen if you let woo into your life. If you’ve wasted money on Power Balance bracelets, what else have you spent on exploitative crap?

On top of that, Power Balance makes about $35 million per year. Is it at all ethical that a company should make that much money by exploiting people’s lack of critical thinking?

What can be done?

Power Balance relies on endorsements from sports stars to further it’s profile. I would love to see a sports star stand up to them and say “Listen people, Power Balance is just a piece of plastic, it does nothing!”. I know that’s highly unlikely, because there is no monetary incentive to do such a thing. Still, I can dream…