The Skeptic Canary

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

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QEDcon episode of The Skeptic Canary Show now available

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Well, what can I say about QED? As expected, it was absolutely superb. The talks were varied and fascinating, the panels were engaging and at times unintentionally hilarious, and it was wonderful to meet up with so many great members of the skeptic community (apologies if I didn’t get the chance to talk to you, there were just so many people there)! Huge thanks to the organisers and everyone involved.

In the latest episode of The Skeptic Canary Show, myself and fellow QEDcon attendee David James discussed the event with Paul Hopwood, who sadly for him didn’t get a ticket in time (hopefully next year Paul!). Keir Liddle from the Edinburgh Skeptics was kind enough to call in, as was Rob McDermott who made history by being the first person to swear on the show! Don’t worry though, the recorded version has some hasty censorship applied. Go and have a listen at the link below.

The Skeptic Canary Show Episode 3 – QEDcon

Incidentally, I couldn’t resist posting this pic of myself at Richard Dawkin’s table at dinner. Cheers to Richard Cooper for taking it!

Written by Tom

April 18th, 2013 at 1:11 pm

QED tickets on sale today!

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QED logoToday at the appropriate time of 10:23am, tickets for QED 2013 go on sale! QED is a two day convention of science and skepticism taking place at the Mercure hotel in central Manchester on the weekend of April 13th 2013. The last two QEDs were absolute blasts and I’m sure things will be no different in 2013. What’s more, full price tickets are just £99, and students can attend for £59, a total bargain!

I’ll be standing by with my credit card and finger over the F5 key at 10:23 today, as I don’t want to miss out on the dinner, which sold out within about a day last time. Hopefully many of you will be doing the same!

www.qedcon.org

Written by Tom

September 20th, 2012 at 8:21 am

Posted in events,skepticism

Leeds Skeptics debate “Dealing with controversy”

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Leeds Skeptics caused some controversy recently when they booked Steve Moxon to give a talk entitled “Why aren’t there more woman in the boardroom?”. Moxon has, to put it kindly, a chequered history. He first came to light as a Home Office whistleblower who revealed that immigration checks were being waived, but more recently he’s been kicked out of UKIP for comments regarding the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik. More to the point, he’s written a book about gender roles (which I’m not going to link to), which I am informed cherry-picks a study by Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who happened to be at the debate. Some people complained about the talk, and after some consideration by Leeds Skeptics the talk was cancelled.

The talk was replaced with an open debate called “How should Skeptics Deal with controversy?”. I went along, so I thought I’d give it a write up.

David Icke

Should David Icke speak at skeptic events?

The first question to be asked was “what sort of speakers are acceptable at skeptic events?”. I put forward my position, which is that speakers who want to lecture to skeptics should themselves be skeptics, or at least be sympathetic to the skeptic cause, for example someone who uses the scientific method to arrive at their conclusions. It was suggested that speakers who deliver the standard “skeptic fare” such as “homeopathy doesn’t work” or “it wasn’t aliens” can be dull and just preaching to the converted, and to be interesting speakers should be presenting evidence which is controversial but well researched. However, it was pointed out that although people who can do that do exist (such as David Nutt or Elizabeth Pisani) they are like gold dust. The overlap on the Venn diagram between “controversial speaker” and “speakers who back up their claims with good evidence” is vanishingly small!

So, in order to be interesting and challenging, should Skeptics in the Pub groups invite non-skeptic speakers, as Leeds have done in the past with the Zeitgesit Movement and We are Change? The case was argued for this position, and while I can sympathise with it, I certainly don’t agree. I’ve been to talks by non-skeptics, and found them incredibly frustrating. Everyone bites their tongue for pretty much the entire talk, thinking “when will this nonsense end?”, and the speaker gets eviscerated by the angry skeptic mob in the Q and A. I don’t think this is fair on anyone. It’s not fair on the audience who are expecting an interesting and informative talk, and it’s not fair on the speakers themselves who are invited to talk in good faith, only to be ripped to bits afterwards. I don’t see who benefits from inviting non-skeptics to talk at skeptic events.

After that, the debate moved onto the question of “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”. My answer was a strong and unequivocal “no”. Skepticism by it’s very nature is based on questioning. If someone puts up a barrier saying “you cannot question this” I find that to be an affront to skepticism. Also, I find that some people confuse the idea of questioning something with a desire to challenge and reject it. For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist. I think we need to bear this in mind when asking tough questions, and skeptics should not feel like there are any questions that cannot be asked.

Following that, there was the issue of offensiveness. Should a speaker not appear because they have views that some find offensive? The consensus of the room was “no”, with the usual statements of “you do not have the right to not be offended” being brought out. Although I don’t consider a speaker’s potential offensiveness to be a problem, I argued that you have to look beyond offensiveness and into hurtfulness. I gave the example of the Ricky Gervais “monggate” controversy. A while ago, comedian Ricky Gervais started using the word “mong” on his twitter account, claiming that it was no longer used as a derogatory term for people with Downs syndrome. Why he thought that I have no idea, but in my experience people with Downs syndrome DO get referred to by that term, and by continuously using it, Ricky Gervais could only add to the acceptability of that word, and that in turn is hurtful. So if Steve Moxon did turn up and try and spread the idea that women are inferior to men, someone could take that and use it to enforce their prejudices. The hypothetical I gave during the debate was the idea of a company director taking Moxon’s views as fact and saying “Right, we have new evidence that women are inferior to men, therefore I’m going to make it my policy to only employ men”. It’s a hypothetical situation, but it shows why I have a problem with the propagation of baseless, hurtful notions, irregardless of their offensiveness.

It was also suggested that if Moxon was invited, then Leeds Skeptics should have also invited a prominent speaker with an opposing view to challenge him. The problem I had with this idea is that it would entirely change the nature of the event, from a talk/lecture to a debate. If that was going to happen, this would have to be very clearly advertised! The point was also made that for a debate, the people involved have to be open to opposing ideas and be able to change their views based on the evidence presented to them, something it was believed that Steve Moxon would not be capable of. At the end of the day, I think the consensus of the room was that cancelling Steve Moxon’s talk was the right decision, and I agreed with it.

Overall, I thought the debate was very positive, thoughtful and civilised. It made a very nice change from Internet debate, which always decent into name calling and accusations of “trolling”. I had a very good time, and I’d like to thank Leeds Skeptics for putting the event on. Cheers!

Written by Tom

July 22nd, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Posted in events,skepticism

All set for Ignite Liverpool 10

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Ignite LiverpoolTomorrow night sees the return of Ignite to Leaf on Bold Street, Liverpool. All the speakers get 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about anything they want. I’m talking about my experiences of being a skeptic (don’t worry, it’s going to be positive!) and there is also someone talking about the paranormal, so things could get very interesting! The evening starts at 6pm and it’s free. If you can’t make it, a live stream of the talks is available from the Ignite Liverpool website. Hope to see you there!

http://igniteliverpool.com/2012/07/line-up-announced-for-ignite-10/

Written by Tom

July 17th, 2012 at 8:03 am

Posted in events,skepticism

Limited activity

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I’ve just moved house, so updates to my blog will be even more sporadic than usual as I am currently lacking an Internet connection. Still, I hope to see some of you at my talk at Stoke Skeptics on Wednesday!

Written by Tom

June 1st, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Posted in events

My talk on the Planet Vulcan at Ignite Liverpool

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I love Ignite events. As a speaker they are very challenging, you get just 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about whatever you want, and as a viewer you get to learn about a huge range of topics. I’m very keen on communicating science, and for this reason my last Ignite talk was on the planet Vulcan, a non-existent planet whose story encompasses the transition from Newtonian physics to Einstein’s theories of relativity. Enjoy!

Written by Tom

May 29th, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Posted in events,talks

“I wish to affirm” – my experiences of jury service

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Last week, I finished fulfilling one of my civic duties by answering the call of jury service. Now, before I go any further, I need to stress that I’m not allowed by law to talk about any cases I was on, so if you want to hear about any juicy murders or arson attempts you’ve come to the wrong place! I just wanted to write about my experiences of jury service from a secular point of view, in the hope that others can be prepared for the challenges it represents.

First off, you get randomly chosen for jury service from the electoral register and are informed of your summons by post. Then comes the potentially tricky part of working out how you are going to take time off. I was lucky in that my employer was very cooperative and sympathetic, but I do realise that being away from work for two weeks can be a massive inconvenience for some people.

I entered the court on day one with mixed emotions and a whole bunch of questions. What will it be like inside? What sort of case will I be put on? Will I even be put on a case? After going through an airport-style security scanner and into the main jury waiting room, most of my questions were answered by a 15 minute video and a chat with a member of staff. Then came the waiting. A lot of waiting. All you can do is wait for your name to be called out. It’s like waiting for a plane that never arrives!

Eventually, I was called and made my way upstairs with the prospective jury. Whilst waiting to be called into the court room, I experienced the only awkward moment of my jury service. The clerk asked “Is everyone OK with swearing on the Bible”? Myself, being an atheist, was not, so I put my hand up and said “I wish to affirm”. This was met with an “OK” from the clerk, followed by an “Anyone else?”. With that, 4 other hands went up! I do wonder if they would have if I hadn’t said I wanted to affirm.

For those not au fait with the concept of being sworn in on a jury, allow me to explain. Before a trial can start, each juror (12 in the UK) has to swear that they will do their duty as a juror. For most religious people, this involves swearing an oath while holding their holy book. The Judeo-Christian oath is as follows:

I swear by almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Other oaths are available for other religions, but they are essentially just reworkings of the same words with a different deity in place of God. However, if you have no particular religious affiliation, you can (as I did) choose to affirm instead:

I solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Now, as you might expect I have several problems with the current set up. When you go into court as a juror, the default position is that you will be a Christian who is happy to swear on the Bible.  While this is most probably demographically correct, I don’t see any reason why Christians (or any other religious people) can’t affirm, as the oath and the affirmation carry equal legal weight. In fact, there are several religious groups who don’t believe in swearing oaths and choose to affirm instead. Therefore, affirmation should be the default position. If you choose to affirm, you have to make a positive decision. You have to go against the default. I’d love to hear from a psychologist on this, but it’s my understanding that standing up and saying “No, I want to do something else” is something most people would rather avoid. At present, the system only serves to embed Christianity into the legal system, something I think should be discouraged.

That said, I didn’t detect any prejudice from the courts or my fellow jurors towards my atheism, and I did on the whole find jury service to be a positive experience. You get to examine a lot of evidence and make some very important decisions. I went into it hoping to make the best of it, and I believe I did. I’d recommend it to anyone who gets a summons.

I also got a glimpse of the British National Party as I went in one morning, who were there to protest against a paedophile ring who were being sentenced that day. I wanted to shout “Nazi scum!” at them but I thought I’d better not as I was there in an official capacity. Fortunately someone else did 5 seconds after I walked past!

Written by Tom

May 20th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Posted in events,scum

QEDCon Retrospective Part 2

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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.

Written by Tom

March 31st, 2012 at 10:51 pm

A Brief Write Up of QEDCon 2012

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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.

Written by Tom

March 12th, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Posted in events,qedcon

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

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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!

Written by Tom

March 7th, 2012 at 7:56 pm