QEDCon Retrospective Part 2

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.

QEDCon Retrospective Part 1

Myself, Lee Christie, Tannice Pendegrass, Trish Hann, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan discuss QEDCon 2012, a weekend conference of science and skepticism. Day one highlights included talks by Steve Jones, David Aaronovitch, Ophelia Benson, Sarah Angliss, Massimo Polidoro and Richard Saunders. The evenings entertainment featured the first ever Skeptic Magazine awards, as well as stand up sets from Alun Cochrane, Robin Ince and Paul Zenon. The evening concluded with an embarrassing incident involving trousers. Stay tuned for part two! The QEDCon theme is copyright Miltion Mermikides and is used with permission.

Delia Smith

For my latest piece for the award-winning Pod Delusion podcast, I recorded my thoughts on Delia Smith’s position on secularism. You can listen to the podcast here, and below is the transcript of my article. Enjoy!

As a fan of Norwich City Football Club, this report on Delia Smith’s anti-secular stance is rather troublesome for me. For those that don’t know, Delia Smith first found fame in the UK in the 1970’s as a TV cook, and she has gone on to sell over 21 million copies of her numerous recipe books. Her wealth allowed her, along with her husband Michael Wynn-Jones, to become majority shareholders of Norwich City FC back in 1996, a position they hold to this day. They saved the club from bankruptcy, and, in this Norwich fans eyes anyway, have secured themselves a place in the history of the club, and I still think all Norwich fans owe them a debt of gratitude. Since their takeover, the club have had it’s ups and downs (you may remember Delia’s infamous “Let’s be ‘avin you” speech back in 2005) but they are currently riding high in the Premier League, and right now it’s a great time to be a Norwich fan.

So, imagine my displeasure when I woke up on the Sunday morning of the recent QED conference to find my Twitter stream awash with messages from fellow skeptics keen to point out Delia Smith’s position on secularism. On her website deliaonline.com she’d launch an appeal for lent, aiming to raise money for the Catholic charity Cathod so that they can deliver clean water to the needy. No problem there you might think, but it’s the following paragraph that has got so many people’s backs up:

There is a running battle going on in the press, and militant neo-Atheists and devout secularists are busting a gut to drive us off the radar and try to convince us that we hardly exist.

As a proud secular humanist, I do despair that someone I admire so much could hold such, well frankly, deluded views. Delia appears to be jumping on the same bandwagon as Tory MP Nadine Dorries, convinced that Christianity is in some way under attack from atheists and secularists.

Is there any meat to Delia’s claims? When she says atheists are trying to “convince us that we hardly exist”, she made it clear in a recent interview that she was talking about a survey carried out by Richard Dawkins. The survey in question was carried out in response to the recent census, which asked the rather poorly phrased question “What is your religion?”. The British Humanist Association’s Census Campaign highlighted the problems with this question, and Dawkin’s IPSOS-MORI poll attempted to straighten it out. The 2001 census came back with 72% of the UK population being Christian, whereas Dawkin’s poll put the number at 54%. More than this, Dawkin’s poll went into detail and looked at WHY people ticked Christian. I think the most interesting finding was that when people who ticked Christian were ask “Would you turn to your religion for moral guidance”, only 10% said yes! This is not, as Delia Smith would seemingly like to to think, an attempt to convince Christians that they aren’t Christian, but an attempt to show that Christianity is not as influential as some people believe, therefore there is less justification for the religious privileges that are enshrined in UK law (Bishops in the House of Lords being a good example). It’s not a fight with atheists pitching themselves against Christians, rather an attempt by secularists to fairly represent reality.

So, what of secularism? Judging by her comments, it seems that Delia thinks that secularist’s want to do away with the Christian festival of lent. What her evidence for this is I have no idea, but I think it’s worth examining what secularism is. According to the National Secular Society, “Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”. In other words, it’s separation of church and state. It guarantees freedom of religion, ,which logically means that it allows freedom from religion. So, in a secular society you are free to be an atheist, or to follow any religion you choose. In fact, Delia Smith should be profoundly grateful that we live in a secular society, as she was baptised in the Church of England, and converted to catholicism at the age of 22. If the UK was a protestant theocracy she would not have been able to do that, however we are a secular society, so she could. In fact, you could say that any religious person who values their religious freedom should stand up and be proud to be a secularist.

In reporting on what I think of Delia Smith’s position on secularism, I hope people don’t think I’m being too harsh on her. I think her support of a charity to provide clean water to the needy is extremely commendable, and is only a continuation of her selflessness that we’ve seen in her other charitable work and what she’s done for Norwich City football club. I’d happily support her statement that “Secularists and believers have got to work alongside each other” if only it was made clear that you can be both a believer AND a secularist! I’d like people like Delia Smith to properly consider what secularism is, I think they would quite happily call themselves secularists if they did. Secularism is vital for our society, and I for one will continue to recognise that. By the way, Stephen Fry is a director at Norwich, I’d love to sit in on the next board meeting!

Before I go, I’d like to congratulate the Pod Delusion for winning the Occam award for best podcast at QED, and especially James and Liz who put so much work into this fine endeavor. Saying “On The Ball City!”, this is Tom Williamson for the Pod Delusion.

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!

Why Professor Brian Cox can dismiss ghosts from his armchair

In my last post, I praised Brian Cox for standing up for science and brazenly criticising the “woo-merchants” who promulgate its misunderstanding. This prompted an exchange on Twitter from Fortean UK about ghosts, which you can see below:

Twitter ghost conversation

I’m firmly of the opinion that you can dismiss the existence of ghosts without the need to investigate ghost claims. Please allow me to make my point with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that you get a phone call from a very excited friend, claiming that they have drawn a four sided triangle. You know from your school mathematics lessons that a triangle has to have three sides, not four, so you can safely conclude that your friend has not drawn a four sided triangle as claimed. What do you do next? Here are a few options.

  1. Launch some profanities at your friend and point out how stupid they are before slamming the phone down
  2. Politely explain to them why they can’t have drawn a four sided triangle
  3. Ask them to explain what they have drawn so you can tell them the reality of the situation

Clearly, option 1 could be argued as being correct but rude and not in the least bit helpful. Option 2 is much more preferable, as it gives you the opportunity to educate your friend. However, best of all is option 3 as it will set everyone straight, but it requires the most effort.

So how does this relate to ghosts? Firstly, we need to consider what a ghost is supposed to be. I know that there are differing opinions, but for argument’s sake I shall define a ghost as a manifestation of a dead person. Let’s consider how preposterous this is. The mind of the person would somehow need to keep living even though their body is dead and cold. Science tells us that the human mind is the product of brain activity, so no living brain, no concious mind. That fact alone should make the very concept of ghosts laughable, but even if there was some sort of medium for the mind to be independent of the brain, that mind would somehow then have to manifest itself. How could a ghost appear to and communicate with someone? The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. I would even go so far to say that anyone who thinks that there is a possibility of ghosts existing (at least according to my above definition) is either totally ignorant of science or they lack respect for it, just as someone who believes a four sided triangle can exist is either ignorant of or disrespectful towards mathematics.

To that end, ghosts are a four sided triangle.

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!

An unexpected guest at the Merseyside Skeptics Society: Jesus!

Last Thursday, John Walliss from Liverpool Hope University gave a very interesting talk on “end of the world” cults (although I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong word for them). However, the guest of honour was in fact not John, but none other than Jesus Christ himself! In a superb and blatantly obvious piece of pareidolia, the face of our Lord and Saviour appeared in the hair of MSS member Jo Fairburn! Check it out:

jesus on jo

Look on the left, who is that in Jo's hair?

In support of Project Barnum: see psychics coming!

Project BarnumRecently Project Barnum, a group campaigning against psychics, was launched by RI podcast host Hayley Stevens. I totally agree with the aims of the group, and I’ve signed their petition calling for theatres to consider the evidence and think twice before allowing a psychic to perform at their venue.

There’s been some debate in the skeptical community on whether petitioning theatres to stop hosting psychics and mediums is the right thing to do. Deborah Hyde, editor in chief at The Skeptic Magazine, has argued that it’s illiberal to “restrict information or services” and that it’s “a proposal to suppress the distribution of a certain worldview”. I couldn’t disagree more.

On that first point, it’s important to realise that true psychic abilities, especially talking to the dead, are impossible. Therefore, anyone who charges money and gives out what both they and their customer genuinely consider to be messages from dead relatives, is committing fraud, plain and simple. Now I would describe myself as a liberal, that doesn’t mean I support letting anyone do what they want when they want at any time. In my opinion, it’s not illiberal to protect people from fraud.

Secondly, I find the idea of “suppressing the distribution of a certain worldview” to be a bit of an odd point. I’m more used to hearing the term “worldview” from creationist circles, where the phrase “only in your worldview!” is trotted out to dismiss the theory of evolution. I can’t see how it’s justifiable to protect a fraudulent act by describing it as a “worldview”.

Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics does a great job in spelling out the case against psychics on Deborah Hyde’s blog, and Mike Hall has written an excellent piece, pointing out the parallels between Project Barnum and the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy.

As far as I’m aware, Project Barnum was brought to life following allegations of fraud against Sally Morgan, when someone claimed to see her being fed information through an ear piece during a show in Dublin. Now, I can’t say whether the allegations are true or not, and as a skeptic I’m aware that anecdotal evidence is the worst kind of evidence, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I believe that something like Project Barnum is long overdue, but if the Sally Morgan incident is a good catalyst for it, then so be it.

So, what are my issues with psychics? I’m aware that it’s quite a broad church, so for simplicities sake I’ll stick to the supposed ability to communicate with the dead. Now, I’m hoping that this is one of those situations where I don’t have to explain how ridiculous this concept is. Either way, no one has ever demonstrated a genuine ability to talk to the deceased under controlled conditions. If they could, it would turn our understand of nature on it’s head, and the psychic in question could easily walk away with $1 million from James Randi. As it is, we can safely conclude that the ability to talk to the dead is an impossibility of fantastic proportions, and anyone charging money for it is a fraud.

Although psychic abilities are either impossible or incredibly unlikely, it is possible to employ trickery to give the illusion of psychic abilities. I’ve no problems with people like Derren Brown using techniques like cold reading in his stage shows, as he makes it clear that it is a magic trick. I believe that cold reading can almost be an art form, and it can take it’s place in any magic show. It’s only when people claim it as a genuine skill that I have a problem with.

So what is “cold reading”? It’s a series of techniques that can be used to convince someone that the reader knows much more about them they actually do. The following clip of Sally Morgan shows her making a huge and pretty funny basic error, but it also shows a very simple attempt at cold reading:

She starts off with the word “barn”. Although that sounds quite specific, it is in fact ironically the beginning of several “Barnum statements” (statements which at first glance look pretty specific, but under scrutiny  they can apply to many people). A barn would mean something to anyone that has ever worked on a farm, anyone who has ever visited a farm, anyone who has seen a film with a barn in it etc etc. She then tries to cast the net wider by expanding it to the names “Bernard” and “Barnard”. Finally, she tries to get the subject to do the work by taking the form of a distressed puppy and asking “Why would he say that?”. So, in those short seconds she exhibits three techniques of cold reading: a Barnum statement, casting a wide net, and attempting to get the subject to do the work. Classic cold reading that anyone can do with some training.

Joe Power

Joe Power

Of course, I couldn’t write about cold reading without mentioning that great friend of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the man who pops to the toilet, the man who can’t sense child abductors even if he stands next to them, the man who calls skeptics paedophiles, “Psychic” Joe Power. He’s a medium from Liverpool, who made a total fool of himself on “Derren Brown Investigates”. The show includes a detailed explanation of the techniques of cold reading, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who’s keen to know how psychics commit their fraud. It’s available on 4od.

In conclusion, I’m supporting Project Barnum as I believe something needs to be done about psychics.

Catch me on the Pod Delusion talking about Four Lions

Pod DelusionFollowing Channel 4’s screening of Four Lions at the weekend, I thought I’d contribute a report to the Pod Delusion on the film and it’s surrounding controversy. You can listen to it here. As well as myself, the show features reports on the 50p tax rate, abortion counselling, racism and synchotrons, and there is an interview with Robin Ince. Good stuff, go and have a listen!