The Skeptic Canary

The blog of Dr Tom Williamson, atheist, humanist, skeptic and Norwich City fan!

Archive for the ‘campaigns’ Category

Merseyside Skeptics put Shuzi to the test

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The guys at the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) have been busy with some world class skeptical activism! The people that brought the ludicrous nature of homeopathy to the world’s attention with the 10:23 campaign have cast their eyes on a wristband made by the company Shuzi. The band makes all sorts of claims, similar to Power Balance bracelets (and we all recall what nonsense they were).

Unimpressed by Shuzi’s claims of it’s “Nano Vibrational Technology” being able to “unclump” and “improve communication” in your blood, the MSS devised a simple but comprehensive protocol to test the Shuzi band. They enlisted the help of a rugby player, who was tested to see how many kicks he could make when we was wearing either a genuine Shuzi band, or a “sham band (a Shuzi band with the “chip” removed). He attempted 50 kicks with and 50 without the band, but what I found impressive about this test was the blinding. In this sort of test, it’s hugely important to remove as many biasses as possible. The bands were covered by a sweatband, so the rugby player did not know which was which, and the identity of each band was kept a secret from the experimenter. The results were unsurprising. When wearing the real band, the player scored 26 out of 50, and with the “sham” band he scored 22. Although he scored more with the real band, this difference is not statistically significant. I’ve taken the liberty to illustrate the results in a graph.

Shuzi graph


As you can see, the above graph is pretty dull, not really showing much of a difference between the two tests. However, imagine I am a marketeer for Shuzi and I want to make this graph look as good as possible. I could do something like this:

shuzi exciting


Look at how much better this is! It’s the same data, except it’s in 3D, the Shuzi bar is a gold colour, and most importantly I’ve changed the axis so that the Shuzi bar is so much bigger than the sham bar. See how a little creative presentation can make your data look so much better than it is?

Anyway, it has to be said that they’ve got a good deal of press coverage from this. It’s appeared in the local Liverpool Echo, and even made it onto the Daily Mail of all places, making a nice change from the pseudoscientific guff we are all used to. Job well done guys!

Written by Tom

September 4th, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Review of “Are your kids contagious” Tonight special on the Liverpool measles outbreak

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MMR VaccineLiverpool is in the midst of a measles outbreak. Worryingly, there are currently over 7,000 unvaccinated under 5s on Merseyside. This prompted ITV’s “Tonight” show to film a special entitled “Are your kids contagious?”.

The details of the program are available here.

Overall, I was very impressed with the show. Right from the start, it was clear that the makers of the show knew about the scientific evidence, and the take home message was a firm “Get your kids vaccinated people!”. It was very refreshing to see a lack of BBC-style “false balance” in the show.  All through the show, it was taken as read that vaccines work and were safe, effective and required to stop diseases. They didn’t interview Andrew Wakefield, go to America to talk to Generation Rescue or Australia to talk to Meryl Dorey.

However, I did have a small gripe regarding their coverage of Andrew Wakefield. While they made it clear that his research on MMR was flawed and not accepted by the scientific community, they did say “Wakefield’s work did not agree with the scientific consensus and he was struck off”. Now, this makes it sound like a scientist can be dismissed from his position if he comes up with work which does not agree with the current consensus. This is not the case. Rather, Wakefield was struck off the medical register for a multitude of sins, including non-disclosure of a conflict of interest, paying children for blood samples at a birthday party, and worst of all, conducting painful investigations like colonoscopies and lumbar punctures without approval from his ethics committee.

The closest they got to false balance was to interview a couple of non-vaccinating mothers. Although they tried to argue in a subtly “Mumsy” way, they’re ill-informed selfishness was clear for all to see. I’m sure they only wanted what was best for their children, but they seemed to be in denial that their children could end up being contagious and passing diseases on to others. I thought the program did well to point this out.

The most moving part of the show was a feature on Dawn and Dave Benson, whose baby daughter died from whooping cough. I thought they were incredibly brave and selfless to appear on TV to tell their story, and I congratulate them for it. It was also a reminder that for whatever reason, some people cannot be vaccinated. This is why herd immunity is so important, as for everyone to be protected, as many people as possible need to be vaccinated.

Also, I think we all owe thanks to the many doctors, nurses and health workers who do a great job in administering vaccinations. Overall, I felt the program was well-researched and well balanced, with only a few small errors. A good example of what a documentary can be like without false balance!

 

Written by Tom

April 18th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

The referendum on AV approaches

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Here in the UK, we are being given an historic opportunity to vote in a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) this Thursday, May 5th. It will decide how our MPs are elected in future, and the result will determine whether they are elected with AV or if First Past The Post (FPTP) is retained. As I’ve explained in a previous post, I am very much in favour of adopting AV over FPTP, so in this article I’ll try and address a few important issues that I’ve seen.

A really stupid thing to do

Do NOT do this. I repeat, do NOT do this.

First off, I need to address a potential problem from a few people who want the Single Transferable Vote (STV) instead. Personally, I would prefer STV to AV, but this is not a choice on offer. There is a Facebook group recommending that people write in “STV” on their ballot papers. I cannot stress how stupidly naive this action is. Such papers would be regarded as ‘spoiled’ and not counted, which would only serve to decrease the number of ‘Yes’ votes and therefore help to ‘No’ campaign.

Some would make the argument that voting ‘No’ on Thursday will somehow further the cause of STV. It won’t. A ‘No’ result on Thursday will not be interpreted as ‘People voted against AV so they must want STV’, it will be spun as an endorsement of FPTP, which will kill off any thought of future referendums. If we get a ‘Yes’ vote, it will show the politicians that there is appetite for voting reform in the UK, and it could be a stepping stone for further reform in the future.

Second, the nature of the referendum means that the ‘Yes’ camp needs all the votes it can get, whereas the ‘No’ campaign can win just by encouraging people to stay away. So, by doing any of the following, you are inadvertently supporting the ‘No’ cause:

  • Staying at home
  • Spoiling your paper
  • Writing ‘STV’ (or anything else) on your paper (see above)
  • Trying to be funny and putting a ’1′ instead of a cross on your paper

To get a ‘Yes’ result, we need as many people to vote as possible. It’s very rare that we, the British public, get a chance to vote in a referendum (the last one was to keep EEC membership back in 1975), so make use of the opportunity and vote!

Written by Tom

May 3rd, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Posted in campaigns,politics

BHA’s Census Campaign hits Liverpool buses

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Whilst out and about in Liverpool today, I spied a few much-anticipated adverts for the BHA’s Census Campaign on the sides of a few buses. It’s always great to see humanist causes championed, but immediately I noticed something wrong. Rather than the snappy, humorous phrase on their website:

If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so

I was instead presented with the rather blander:

Not religious? In this year’s census, say so

Apparently, The BHA have done this after being advised by the Committee of Advertising Practice that the adverts had the potential to cause offence. However, Dr Emma Chung and the Leicester Secular Society have decided to go against the BHA’s decision by keeping the adverts on Leicester buses with their original wording.

Now it may seem a little silly to argue over some wording, but there are bigger issues here. You could argue that the BHA are right to er on the side of caution. After all, no-one wants to fight any unnecessary legal cases. But, the rewording certainly gives the adverts less impact, and anyway, how likely is it to offend? After all, the CAP is merely advising, not adjudicating.

Personally, I think the BHA are wrong to make the change, but I can certainly see why they did. I am a firm believer of “You don’t have the right not to be offended”, and I’m with the Leicester Secular Society on this issue. However, let’s not forget the point of the campaign: if you are not religious, then for God’s sake say so when you fill out your census forms!

Written by Tom

March 5th, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Posted in campaigns,humanism

10:23 announces global homeopathic ‘overdose’ challenge

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In the latest move in their campaign against the quackery of homeopathy, 10:23 have announced their plans for next year: a global “overdose” of homeopathic products, scheduled for February. This will follow up the original overdose event from last year, which saw around 400 people take part in a somewhat spontaneous worldwide ‘overdose’, intended to show that homeopathy has ‘nothing in it’.

I was lucky enough to take part in the Liverpool event, and I made a little video with the help of Rachel Stephanie Waller, Helen Wynn and the Merseyside Skeptics Society. Hope to see you all with your deadly 30C sugar pills in February!

Written by Tom

December 1st, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Posted in campaigns,homeopathy

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

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Free Speech is not for saleEver since Simon Singh made an appearance at Liverpool SitP, I’ve been a keen follower of the Libel Reform Campaign. The libel laws in the UK are hugely biased towards the accuser, as the defendant has to show that they have not been libelous. In effect, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. Libel laws could be seen by some as a way for quacks to silence criticism, for example Singh vs. BCA, Goldacre vs Rath, and Wilmshurt vs NMT.

To highlight this problem, the kind folks at libelreform.org have put together a “Mass Blog” event, which I am happy to take part in. I’m Tom Williamson, the Skeptic Canary, and I approve this message. I am not a witch.

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Written by Tom

November 10th, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Supporting the BHA’s “Census Campaign”

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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!

Written by Tom

October 13th, 2010 at 7:23 am

Posted in campaigns,humanism