In support of the Merseyside Skeptics Society Psychic Challenge

This weekend, the Merseyside Skeptics Society held their annual Halloween Psychic Challenge at Goldsmith’s College, London. I think the challenge is a great idea, and I for one am eagerly awaiting the results on the 31st. However, some aren’t so keen, and have had a bit of a dig at the society and skeptic societies in general. I’ve made a car vid talking about these concerns. Enjoy!

QED tickets on sale today!

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

Merseyside Skeptics put Shuzi to the test

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!

Staying out of the “Skeptidrama”

A few days ago I announced on Facebook that I was vowing to stay out of what has been dubbed as “skeptidrama”. For those of you who read that status update, the purpose of this post is simply to reiterate what I said on Facebook on my blog, so there is no need to point out that I’m writing about skpetidrama, thanks! :) My vow went as follows:

Have decided for good to stay out of the “skeptidrama”. There is so much more to skepticism than a few bloggers bickering. I don’t want to be a part of that any more, so please, if you see me talking about it tell me to STFU.

Of course, this leads to a really annoying Catch 22 situation where saying “I’m not going to talk about skeptidrama” is itself talking about skeptidrama. You can’t win!

If you don’t know what “skeptidrama” is, then good, you don’t want to know. Trust me, you really, really, don’t want to know. At first I thought getting involved would be a good idea. I mean, everyone involved is supposed to be a skeptic, so what harm could be done by pointing out the error of people’s ways? Quite a lot as it happens. You end up becoming a target yourself, and the more you try and resist it, the more you make yourself a target and you just go down in certain people’s opinions. I think it works in a very similar way to trolling, as it happens.

So, for me, there will be no more! I won’t be reading certain blogs, I won’t be engaging with certain people, I will just leave them to it. This is not something that comes natually to me, as I’m used to engaging with people, especially if they call themselves skeptics. So, if you see me engaging in “skeptidrama” after you’ve read this, then please, tell me to SHUT THE FUCK UP! Cheers! :)

A video about myself

I thought I’d made a video about myself so that everyone can see what I look and sound like. In it, I explain how I got into skepticism, and how I operate in regards to criticism. Cheers!

Dealing with trolls

There is still much talk in the skeptical community about “trolls” and what to do with them, most notably from Sam Harris. For those of you not familiar with the concept of trolling allow me to give a short introduction. On the Internet, a “troll” is someone who makes comments on forums/blog posts etc with the intent on disrupting discussion, usually winding people up. The “trolling” phenomena has been around since the early days of the Internet and persists until this day.

Trolling varies hugely in nature. It can be rather innocent and frivellous. For example, someone might read this blog, see that I support Norwich City, and leave a comment saying that Ipswich Town are a much better team in an attempt to rile me (of course that wouldn’t work right now as Norwich are in the Premier League and Ipswich have been linked with Emile Heskey). However, all too often it is completely vicious and repugnent, with people issuing rape threats and encouraging people to commit suicide. It’s serious stuff.

So, how to deal with trolls? It’s kind of hard to find any data on them (if it exists, please let me know). I’ve had an idea for a randomised double blinded controlled trial to test methods of combating trolls, but that’s another story. In the meantime, I’d like to illustrate exactly how I feel you should NOT deal with trolls through the medium of Rage comics:




Although it can be very tempting to engage with trolls, doing so will only cause you hassle. You are not going to teach them the error of their ways, and by giving them any sort of publicity you are giving them what they want, and this only encourages more trolls. The best thing to do is not engage with them at all.

Depending on the medium, you will have ways to report them. Although trolls can hide behind the anonymity provided by the Internet, there are ways of tracing them. If you are on a forum or blog, report them to an admin if you can. Users’ IP addresses can be tracked, and if the troll is stupid enough to not use a proxy then they can get banned.

I do speak from a small amount of personal experience on this issue. If you’ve been following my blog you may remember I went to Leeds Skeptics in the wake of them cancelling a talk by known misogynist Steve Moxon. We had a very interesting, thorough and open debate, which I decided to write up. Ophelia Benson at FreeThought Blogs picked up on it, and linked to my blog. A few commenters flew in, and left some comments which were largely unconstructive dismissive statements or just plain insults. Rather than feeding these people who I considered to be trolls, I simply didn’t publish the comments. None of them came back screaming “WHY DIDN’T YOU PUBLISH MY COMMENT?!?” and no-one aimed accusations of censorship at me. This is my blog, and I will moderate the comments as I see fit. The Heresy Club have spelled out their policy, and for future reference mine is pretty much the same.

To sum up, I’ve come up with another Rage comic which shows how I deal with trolls, I suggest you do the same.

Leeds Skeptics debate “Dealing with controversy”

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!

All set for Ignite Liverpool 10

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/

Sorry, this is not the drama you are looking for

Hello. If you are reading this, chances are you’re expecting to read about some Internet drama from over two years ago. Well tough, you can’t. I don’t get involved with that kind of thing anymore.

Look, the ESA has just landed a spacecraft on a comet. That’s amazing, awesome and important, why not go and read about that? Perhaps you could sign a petition to stop some local landmarks in my current home city of Liverpool from being demolished? Why not donate some money to charity? If you wanted to, you could listen to my shows where I spend an hour chatting to interesting people about interesting stuff. Or, how about turning the computer off and doing something real? Perhaps you could do that bit of washing that you’ve been putting off, or maybe stop procrastinating and finish your PhD thesis? You could do something even more radical and go outside! Check it out, its in 3D and everything!

OK, OK, OK. I believe in openness and not memory holing things, so if you really want to read about some Internet drama that my foolish younger self got involved in, just keep scrolling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Really? You really want to read about drama? OK, just keep going…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I mean, come on! You could do something fun! GOG just released X-Wing and TIE Fighter!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still here? OK, just a little further to go…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How about kittens? You’re on the Internet so you like kittens, right? This place has loads of them!

 

No? OK then, it’s just a little further, I promise…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK then, here it is. Five minutes of your life that you will never get back. You were warned…

 

Sigh. The skeptidrama doesn’t stop. I don’t feel happy writing about it, but something has gone down that I feel is serious enough that I just have to write about it. Please, if you’d rather not get involved (and I would have every sympathy if you didn’t) please stop reading now.

PZ Myers is someone I’ve always greatly admired. I’ve loved his fights against creationism and intelligent design, and I’ve admired his brazen no-nonsense approach to things like Eucharist desecration. I was very happy to meet him at TAM London 2010.

PZ Myers

Myself being a pathetic fanboy back in 2010

But now, a fellow skeptic has been incorrectly labelled as someone who uses vulgar gendered insults (specifically c**t) against Rebecca Watson, and PZ is largely to blame. Coffee Loving Skeptic (henceforth referred to as CLS) has given his version of events, complete with actual evidence of what was said and when. PZ Myers has responded with his version, lacking such evidence. Seeing as Rebecca Watson’s tweet was a reply to one of mine, I feel compelled to give my version of events.

I saw a tweet from CLS saying that PZ had blocked him. Seeing as Twitter is a public forum, I thought I’d ask PZ why he did that. Although he was under no obligation to do so (I don’t usually expect a response from celebs on Twitter), he replied saying that he didn’t believe that he had. With two people who I tend to trust saying conflicting things, I thought it might be a Twitter bug (certainly not unknown) and asked CLS to check again. He then provided conclusive evidence that PZ was blocking him. In the meantime, Rebecca Watson had replied to PZ saying that CLS was the guy who called her a c**t, and after he begged to be unblocked called her a c**t again. This is clearly untrue, and possibly a case of mistaken identity. CLS then wrote his blog post where he clearly showed that he DID NOT call Rebecca Watson a c**t. PZ then produced a few tweets mentioning “entitlement”, and went on a rather baffling blocking spree more reminiscent of the climate change denier James Delingpole.

So, why do I care? Why don’t I treat this as a piece of tit-for-tat that just isn’t worth my attention? I care because someone has pretty much been libelled as someone who calls women c**ts, firstly by Rebecca Watson to her 24,000-odd followers, and then by PZ Myers with his 100k followers, when he retweeted her. So combined, Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers have let it be known to about 125,000 Twitter accounts that CLS is someone who uses gendered insults against women, when this is clearly not the case.

It’s also very frustrating that all that’s required from Rebecca Watson (at least if she wants to be civil), is a quick acknowledgement of her error and an apology. Instead, PZ has repeatedly obfuscated the issue by trying to make out that it’s about “entitlement” and moaning about being blocked on Twitter. This is dishonest and evasive. I’ve amended the Twitter exchange to show the sort of thing that would make things so much better:

  • PZ Myers: Don’t know that I did. He has a protected account, apparently. RT @skepticCanary: why did you block @TPRyan007 ?
  • Rebecca Watson: @pzmyers That’s the guy I blocked for calling me a cunt. He emailed begging me to unblock, then called me a cunt again when I didn’t. Ha ha
  • Rebecca Watson (if she was being civil): Sorry everyone, @TPRyan007 did not call me a cunt

Is that really too much to ask?

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:

fag

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.