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!

Thank you Hackney Skeptics, Ignite Liverpool and York Skeptics!

A little while ago I blogged about going on a ‘mini tour‘, giving talks at Hackney, Liverpool and York. Well, it’s now all done and dusted, I had a fantastic time, and I hope everyone who came to see me enjoyed themselves!

On November 28th I was very privileged to have the honour of speaking at the very first Hackney Skeptics in the Pub. Alice and James did a great job of hosting the event, and it seemed like a great crowd to be a part of. It was held at the Hackney Attic, a very nice venue with some very good food. The group will have a bright future, I highly recommend it!

Ignite Liverpool 8 was held on December 1st, and I volunteered myself to give a 5 minute talk on ATP. I was a little nervous this time, as I did try and introduce a lot of tricky concepts (like enzymology and active transport) all in just 20 slides! The whole evening was fun and informative, if you missed it you can view a video of the entire event here.

This Monday (December 12th) I took my “Scientific Method” talk to the York Skeptics. Once again I was well looked after, and as it was a bit of a homecoming for me (I did my first two degrees there) I got to catch up with friends old and new. Big thanks to Rob, Drew and the rest of the organising committee for putting the event on. They’ve got Simon Singh coming up in January, so keep an eye on their web site.

It has to be said that the star of the evening in York was my old mate Paul Hopwood. Rob had revealed on Twitter that he was bringing some placebo bands, so I asked at dinner if anyone knew the ‘applied kinesiology’ tests. Paul revealed that he’d demonstrated them the day before, and was happy to do it in front of an audience. He commanded the stage with aplomb, and carried out the tests pretty much flawlessly on a willing victim volunteer. Hopefully Paul will demonstrate his skills again at an open mic night!

As I’ve still got some strong ties to York, and one June Tranmer engaged in a debate on acupuncture on the event’s Facebook page, I thought I’d take a look at alternative medicine in York. It was slightly depressing to see just how much woo there is there. Obviously there are the ghost tours, but they are all about theatrics, drama and storytelling. They are an art form and not masquerading as science, so I don’t have a problem with them. The same can’t be said for June’s clinic. They offer 27 (count them) different therapies, covering all sorts of evidence-free ‘treatments’. My old university isn’t free from it either. I looked into the Complementary Medicine Research Group, and found their opening paragraph to be rather pro-woo. Not only that, I learned that Dr Hugh MacPherson from the group also works as an acupuncturist. At that point, someone in the crowd offered up a very telling anecdote about Dr MacPherson, but I won’t repeat it here in case it’s libelous!

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone involved in all the talks I given over the last two weeks. I’m always available to do more, so if you’d like me to speak about science at your society just drop me an email: tom at skepticcanary.com. Cheers!

Catch me ‘on tour’!

It’s just dawned on me that I’ll be at three speaking events within a fortnight. They are all in different places throughout the UK, so if you were feeling generous you could broadly call it a speaking tour! Dates and events are as follows:

November 28th 2011: “The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” at Hackney Skeptics in the Pub

December 1st 2011: “ATP: Nature’s unsung hero” for Ignite Liverpool

December 12th 2011: “The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” at York Skeptics in the Pub

I’m hugely looking forward to all of these. Hackney will be my first talk in London, and it’s also their very first event! York will be a bit of a homecoming for me, as I did my first two degrees there (some guy called Chris French giving their first talk!). The Ignite event should be a very interesting affair. I did a talk at the last one, and the 5 minute format makes for a rapid and engaging evening!

Looking forward to hopefully seeing lots of you at these events!

Catch me speaking about the scientific method at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique

This coming Tuesday, October 11th, I’ll be giving my “Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” talk at Liverpool Cafe Scientifique. It’s held at the Hope Street Hotel, and will be kicking off at 7:30pm. I believe anyone who turns up gets 10% off at the bar!

In the talk I will cover the scientific method itself, various scientific frauds and how they were uncovered. I’ll also talk about how medical treatments are tested with double blinded randomized controlled trials, and how it’s possible to manipulate meaningless data. I’ll need a few volunteers for this, so turn up early if you want to get involved. Hope to see you there!

A fascinating evening from Ignite Liverpool and the Merseyside Skeptics

Ignite LiverpoolLast night saw a fantastic double header of speaking events in Liverpool, kicking off with Ignite 7 and ending with Stuart Ritchie giving a critical analysis of pornography at the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

The Ignite format was new to me, each speaker gets 5 minutes to give a 20-slide slide show on any subject that they think will interest the crowd. I volunteered to give a talk, and I thought I’d step outside of my comfort zone of science and talk about flags, another one of my interests. I was trying to show what the flags of the UK tell us about our own country, and I believe that if you apply a bit of skepticism to the topic you can unearth some very interesting stories. To my surprise I was put on first! It’s an odd experience as the slides advance automatically after 15 seconds, so it’s easy to lose your place. Not only was the event streamed live, but the talks were recorded and should be up on youtube soon. So, if you want to see me frantically talking about the flags of the UK, watch this space!

The Ignite talks were very diverse and I enjoyed them all, but my highlights were Lydia Bates talking about etymology, Alistair Haughton with a whistle-stop tour of the world’s cathedrals and Phil Moneypenny sharing his experiences of studying in Antarctica. My favourite talk was Barry Kushner, who in 5 minutes managed to very clearly and elegantly explain the state of our economy, and why we are going in the wrong direction with it. I even gave a little whoop of approval at the end! The next Ignite Liverpool is scheduled for December 1st, and I can highly recommend it for anyone who is passionate about public speaking. I’m already planning my next talk, I’m thinking about doing it on the flags of revolutions, or I could go back to my comfort zone and talk about ATP, arguably one of the most important molecules in nature.

Stuart Ritchie

Stuart Ritchie

Once Ignite had finished, I hurried on down to the Head of Steam to catch the monthly talk from the Merseyside Skeptics Society. I turned up about half way through the talk from Stuart Ritchie, who was taking us through the evidence for whether pornography was harmful or not. Obviously it’s a pretty taboo subject for a lot of people, but I thought Stuart spoke with great aplomb and it was a very credible academic presentation. What made the talk extra interesting however, was the presence of a handful of people who I gathered were anti-pornography campaigners. They seemed angry that Stuart hadn’t properly considered some anecdotal evidence against pornography at the start of his talk, and it made for some nice, stimulating discussion afterwards. I always enjoy a good debate, and it was a welcome and somewhat unexpected change of pace compared to most other skeptic nights. Good stuff!


A trip to the brand new Museum of Liverpool

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to get an invite to an evening reception at the brand new Museum of Liverpool. Not being a native Liverpudlian, I found it very informative to learn about the history of the city, and overall I was very much impressed. Highlights include a scale model of what the original catholic cathedral was meant to be like, the views from either end, and numerous exhibits on the art, culture, history and sports of the city of Liverpool. I can highly recommend a visit! Here are a few pictures.

Model of Everton

4 models of West Everton through the ages. I've only taken this picture because you can see our flat in it! :)

Union Flag

Obviously I couldn't resist taking this picture! A Union Flag dating from the first World War.

View from the the north window

A splendid view from the north window4 models of Wet Everton through the ages. I've only taken this picture because you can see our flat in it! :)View from the south window

View of the north window

View of the north window

Boxing weight

The sports section has an area dedicated to local boxers. you can weight yourself, I just about creep into the heavyweight category!

Painting of Liverpool

A huge parnoramic painting of Liverpool, found on the top floor

QEDcon raised over £5k for charity, back next year!

I’ve just received news that I’ve been hoping to share since February: following on from the great success of this years event, it’s been confirmed that the Question Explore Discover conference (QEDcon) will be back in Manchester on the 10th and 11th of March next year! As if that wasn’t exciting enough, they’ve also revealed that because of QEDcon, £5,262 will be winging it’s way towards Sense About Science and the National Autistic Society. For a first conference, I think that’s outstanding! I for one will be keeping an eye on qedcon.org, and I’ve subscribed to their mailing list. I’m really looking forward to seeing who will be speaking there next year!

If it’s anywhere near as good as this year’s QEDcon, it will be an absolute blast! I loved the variety of the speakers, the entertainment, the focus on grassroots skepticism, the value, and most of all the general good atmosphere and bon ami. It was a great oppurtunity to have a chat with so many people who before only existed on Facebook and Twitter! It was where I cut my teeth on recording with iPadio, my biggest scoop being a chat with Jon Ronson.

In conclusion, I’m sure QEDcon2 (or whatever it decides to call itself) will be great. Just as an afterthought, does anyone know how much the last TAM London raised for charity?

Thank you Portsmouth Skeptics!

portsmouth skeptics in the pubLast Thursday I was very kindly invited to Portsmouth to give my talk on the scientific method to the Portsmouth ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ group. I had a great time, and I think that the subject matter certainly got people talking. I’d like to thank everyone who was very welcoming, my ‘test subjects’ during the evening, and especially to Giles and Trish for looking after me. There are a couple of write-ups of the event here and here, and I understand that it was recorded so perhaps I’ll post that when it’s available. They have a very good set up in Portsmouth, with an interval quiz and free chips, so if you’re on the south coast, I’d recommend going there for their next talk, which is by Chaz Shapiro & Dr Paul Curzon. I’m still keen to give my talk to other skeptic/science groups, so if you’d like me to speak at your event just drop me a line!

So what if 9-11 was a conspiracy?

George W Bush

Capable of a coverup?

Before I address the deliberately provocative title of this post, I’d like to let people know that the videos of the Conspiracy Debate at MMU are now available on We Are Change Manchester’s YouTube channel. They were filmed by WACM, and show the debate between Steve and Paul which I covered on an earlier blog post. The videos contain one anomaly which I’m sure is perfectly reasonable, but I’d just like to ask: why is Steve’s bit audio only? I know there were a few technical problems so I can understand a bit of editing, but why cut out the video altogether, especially when Steve used lots of video evidence? Paul’s part is there in it’s entirity, and Steve obviously has no problems with being identified as he’s sat there quite clearly on Paul’s segments. Can anyone form WACM help me out on this one?

Anyway, the point of this post is to ask this question: if 9/11 was a conspiracy, what difference would that make? Say George W. Bush crawls out of Crawford and holds his hands up saying “The Truthers were right all along, 9/11 was an inside job. We planted explosive in the Twin Towers and WTC7”. What would happen after that? What would it mean for the global conspiracy? What would it mean for the planet? Answers below please!

Lib Dem councillor promoting homeopathy and ear candling in Manchester

This Saturday morning (April 2nd) sees a Holistic Health Fair come to the Levenshulme Inspire Centre in south Manchester. A variety of bunkum will be on show, including reiki, ear candling, and of course, homeopathy.

Homeopathy needs no introduction from myself (I’ve already given my take on it here) but I’ve not mentioned reiki or ear candling before. Reiki is a form of alternative medicine that is literally hand-waving. Reiki practitioners use the palms of their hands to transfer healing energy (ki) onto their patients, supposedly. Needless to say, a 2008 systematic review from Edzard Ernst concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition”.

Ear candling

What's wrong with this picture?

So, onto ear candling. This really is one of those alternative ‘treatments’ that defies belief. During an ear candling treatment, the patient lies on their side and a hollow candle is placed vertically over their ear canal. The candle is then lit and allowed to burn. At the end of the treatment, the patient is shown the contents of the burnt out candle so they can see how many ‘impurities’ have been removed from their ear. Unsurprisingly, these impurities are just residue from the candle itself! The practise of ear candling is pretty dangerous too, the hot wax can drip into the patient’s ear and cause damage. There is also the issue of the name. One manufacturer in particular, Biosun, refers to them as “Hopi” ear candles. It won’t surprise you to hear that there is no evidence that the Hopi tribe (who can be found in Arizona) have ever used ear candles.

Anyway, it’s bad enough that this event exists in the first place, but what makes it even worse is the fact that it is being plugged by local Liberal Democrat councillor Simon Ashley. I’ve been a long-term supporter of the Lib Dems, so it’s sad to hear that there is a non-skeptical “it worked for me” woo merchant amongst their midst.

As far as I’m aware it’s free, so if you intend to go you can reply on their facebook page. Sadly I can’t make it, not because I can’t be bothered to get up and get to Manchester for 10am on a Saturday, but because it clashes with the return to 6 music of Adam and Joe (yay!).

EDIT: Hat-top to @janisbennion