Sunday, 19 July 2015

Skeptical About Drug Laws - Part 1

Phil Walsh at the Open Mic
On May 27th 2015 I decided to try my hand at giving a talk at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub  (SitP) open mic night.  SitP have regular guest speakers who come to give presentations relating to an area of their expertise centred around dispelling misconceptions about a particular topic and focussing on good scientific enquiry.  Their open mic nights give us mere mortals a shot at presenting a topic of our choosing.

The presentation I gave was based on the current drug laws regarding certain compounds, and how these laws prevent vital medical research being carried out, and as such prevent treatments for some very serious medical conditions being available to those who need them the most.  I felt this was relevant to the spirit of SitP since skeptics by nature are very keen to dispel myths regarding bogus “miracle cures” and charlatans selling false hope, or worse, driving people to actually cause themselves harm.  My argument was that we don’t need to look far to find bad science regarding medicine – we have it right on our doorsteps governed by law right this moment, and that fact is worthy of equal scrutiny.

Typically we are asked to give a 15 minute talk, I think I was clocking in around 25 minutes before I threw myself off stage as it wasn’t fair to the other presenters that evening to hog all the stage time.  And I still had plenty of slides left.

With this in mind, I thought I would provide an overview of the topics covered in my presentation in blog form – this will allow me to go a little more in-depth on some parts, so that those that didn’t have a chance to attend the evening won’t miss out on what was presented, and those that were in attendance get a refresher with additional material.

To keep this interesting I will break the article into 3-4 parts, which should hopefully allow some time to reflect on the information being presented before the next part goes live. Without further ado, here is:

Skeptical about drug laws, Part 1:  The Current situation.

Currently in the UK, when British law states that a particular drug or compound is illegal, it is classified into both classes and schedules.  Classes you’ll likely be familiar with – these dictate the degree of punishment dealt if a person is found to be in possession of, producing, trafficking or distributing a particular drug.  Schedules however state the potential harm, and any medical utility of a given drug.

Schedule 1 drugs are described as such:
Drugs belonging to this schedule are thought to have no therapeutic value and therefore cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed. These include LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) and cannabis. Schedule 1 drugs may be used for the purposes of research but a Home Office licence is required
Schedule 2 drugs are described as such:
Can be prescribed and therefore legally possessed and supplied by pharmacists and doctors. They can also be possessed lawfully by anyone who has a prescription. It is an offence contrary to the 1971 Act to possess any drug belonging to Schedule 2 or 3 without prescription or lawful authority. Examples of schedule 2 drugs are methadone and diamorphine (heroin). Schedule 3 drugs include subutex and most of the barbiturate family

Schedule 4 drugs are prescription only, and schedule 5 are over-the-counter medications and so require no prescription.

What we are concerned with is the statement for schedule 1 compounds Schedule 1 drugs may be used for the purposes of research but a Home Office licence is required.

What this means is that in practice, conducting medical research using schedule 1 compounds is virtually impossible, because obtaining a home office licence is a lengthy and arduous process.  And here’s why:

In order to obtain a home office licence, you must:
  • Apply for and pay for a home office licence this costs between £3000-5000 and lasts for 1 year. 
  • Adhere to the necessary storage and security requirements the compounds require storage in a designated secure location with careful management of who has access to them.
  • Carry out DBS checks for all personnel its not good for your application if your lead researcher happens to have a raging drug addiction after all!

So far, so good – these requirements aren’t unreasonable, and I don’t think anybody is suggesting that these compounds available on a free for all basis, but it should be noted that each of these adds to the administrative burden and cost of obtaining the licence and performing research.

The problems begin to arise when:

  • Additional costs come in the form of import licences – the majority of compounds will be sourced from overseas, simply due to availability.  This then requires an import/export licence to be obtained at the cost of the research group.
  • The compounds will likely also have to be manufactured to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) these are a set of guidelines that dictate a specific protocol for the manufacture of a particular compound in order to ensure quality and consistency.  This therefore means that the manufacturer must be approved to produce the compound to GMP specification.  Very few manufacturers, if any, will have this approval for the compounds in question this makes sense when you think about it: since no one is purchasing the drug (due to the difficulties being described here) then the manufacturer has no incentive to go to the expense and labour of obtaining GMP status for that drug, and as such are unable to offer the drug, so no one can buy the drug.and so it goes round and round in a circle.
  • Even if a suitable manufacturer is found, the price for a given product is usually astronomical – and example being  £10,000 for 1g of Psilocybin quoted by one manufacturer, which is quite remarkable when it is relatively simple to grow a mushroom containing this compound in its natural form at bigger quantities for 1/300th of the cost.
  • Once a compound is sourced and transported back to the UK, it will require tableting and dispensing from a schedule licenced site -  only 4 hospitals in the entire UK hold such a licence, therefore producing an array of logistical problems.
  • In addition, many documents have a time limit –as such, should a given task in the entire process take longer than expected or meet delays (and believe me, in R&D, there are no shortages in unexpected delays and circumstances) then it may be that the time limit for a given document expires, and thus the process has to be started from the beginning.
  • Funding is also an issue – government funding is little to none, and pharmaceutical companies have no incentive due to patents for these compounds being long expired, and therefore will not turnover a worthwhile profit for any investment.

In practice, obtaining a schedule 1 licence for the purpose of research takes several years at typically costs 10-fold above that for legal drugs (Nutt 2015). It should also be noted that the stigma attached to these drugs reduces enthusiasm for research groups to take them on, so the added red tape and administrative workload does nothing to encourage research groups from taking on a research project using these compounds.

So why are these compounds listed as schedule 1?

The rationale for placing any drug in a schedule 1 category is supposedly because these compounds have a high risk for harm and abuse, and therefore are restricted in this fashion in order to reduce their recreational use and abuse.

…….but how accurate is this?

Some may recall that Professor David Nutt was sacked from his position as chairman in the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), triggered by his claims that ecstasy was statistically less harmful than horse riding based on a 2007 study on drug harm published in The Lancet (Nutt et al 2007), and ultimately because he argued that drug laws were not based on science but led by politics.  The findings of this study were in agreement with other studies across Europe which had reached similar conclusions (Van Amsterdam et al 2010).

I think it is important to note here that in response to his sacking, Dr Les King (advisor to the Department of Health and senior ACMD chemist), Marion Walker (Clinical Director of Berkshire Healthcare NHS foundation Trusts substance misuse service and Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s representative on the ACMD), Dr Simon Campbell (former president of the Royal Society of Chemistry and subsequent CBE and knighthood recipient for services to chemistry), Ian Ragan (scientific consultant) and psychologist Dr John Marsden all handed in their resignation form the ACMD in protest.  I mention this to highlight that Professor Nutt was not some lone maverick with leftfield ideas, but a respected scientist whose views and opinions were held in high regard by peers of equal esteem.

Following this dismissal, he set up the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD).  A 2010 study brought together a team of experts, who reviewed drug harms using a ranking system which based the harm potential of 20 drugs using a 16 category matrix, 9 of which related to drug harms towards the individual and 7 related to drug harm towards others (Nutt et al 2010). This then produced a rank of the most harmful drugs based on their cumulative scores out of a maximum of 100.

A pint of the Victoria Pubs finest Longhorn IPA to whoever can guess which drug came out ranking as the most harmful overall……


(image sourced from Nutt et al 2010).

That’s right friends, as the graph about demonstrates, alcohol is by far the leading contender for most harmful drug out of all those we see listed.  The following graph shows the same data with the categories under which each drug was scored.


(image sourced from Nutt et al 2010)

This perhaps isn’t so surprising – imagine if the papers tomorrow announced the rise in use of a new drug which caused lowered inhibitions, had high abuse and addictive potential, overdose could lead to organ failure, coma or even death, users were known to become violent and if driving under the influence posed serious danger to all around them, amongst a myriad of other consequences and lets not forget -in true tabloid fashion – THIS DRUG IS AVAILABLE IN YOUR CORNER SHOP AND TO YOUR KIDS NOW!  Well, we’d expect this drug to banned with immediate effect.  Yet all the above can be attributed to alcohol, and it has zero medicinal benefit.  This isn’t a bash at alcohol though – hundreds of thousands of people can and do enjoy a tipple without consequence every weekend up and down the country.  I simply use it to highlight that the laws which govern scientific research using certain compounds is not in line with the scientific evidence for potential harm and abuse.

The data presented isn’t perfect though – it only analyses the harm potential, and does not take into account any medical utility or benefit.  Were this to be factored in, we would expect substances like heroin, cocaine and cannabis to drop a few points (these do have legitimate medicinal uses) whereas compounds such as alcohol, tobacco and crack cocaine would remain where they are.  It also should be taken into consideration that for some points of harm to society, which factors in the cost of processing through the judicial system, prisons and customs.  This is not adjusted for the scale of use, so with cannabis as an example, the usage is far higher amongst the population than say GHB, and thus there will statistically be a far higher number of arrests and criminal charges brought up against cannabis related offences, which will subsequently skew the points ranking, making cannabis appear to be more harmful than compounds such as mephedrone, butane and benzodiazepines, which in realistic terms I do not believe to be the case, and I don’t think the evidence would agree with either.

Clearly, from what we have seen so far, the harm potential of a particular drug is not in line with the restrictions placed upon it.  It can be strongly argued that the holding back of medical research has caused far more harm than it has ever prevented.  As a result, research using certain drugs is made exceedingly difficult, and as such, potential therapies for a range of conditions go unexplored.

In part 2, I shall give an overview of some of the compounds in question which are currently subject to the restrictions discussed above detailing the evidence that shows they have the potential to become vital medicines for a range of very serious illnesses that affect thousands of people up and
down the country every day.

In the meantime, if you like the subject matter here, I encourage you to check out my previous blog post reviewing a previous talk given at SitP on the subject of lying by Dr Mike Drayton, and also to check out the SitP website to keep up to date on upcoming talks and articles of interest.

References used in this post:

NUTT D.J. (2015) Illegal drug laws: clearing a 50-year-old obstacle to research.  Public Library of Science Biology, Volume 13, Supp.1.
NUTT D.J., KING L.A., SAULSBURY W. and BLAKEMORE C. (2007) Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse.  The Lancet, Volume 369, No.9566, pp1047-pp1053.
NUTT D.J, KING L.A. and PHILLIPS L.D. (2010) Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis.  The Lancet, Volume 376, No.9752,pp1558-1565.
VAN AMSTERDAM, J., OPPERHUIZEN A., KOETER M. and VAN DER BRINK W. (2010) Ranking the harm of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs for the individual and the population.  European Addiction Research, Volume 16, No.4, pp202-pp207.

This post was contributed by SitP regular Phil Walsh.
















Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Cancer Quackery in Birmingham

Brian Clement is speaking at the Buddhist Centre this weekend. If you don’t know him he is the director of the Hippocrates Health Institution in Florida and peddles all kind of quackery from enemas to naturopathic diets and a whole load more. The claims that he makes for his cures are extreme and in this country possibly even illegal given the ruling of the Cancer Act which forbids people to claim that they can cure cancer.

Yet claim this he does and has done, to the point of persuading a family to halt the curative chemotherapy that had a good chance of beating the leukaemia that their daughters had. The effect of this was all too predictable and all too disastrous. A very full account of much of what is known about Brian Clement can be found over at Science Based Medicine.

Brian Clement has law suits outstanding against him, he uses the title Doctor, despite having no professional medical qualifications and he claims to be able to cure cancer. He makes a lot of money from people’s illness and offers them spurious remedies and unproven and unsuccessful curatives for what can be very serious conditions.

Other venues on this speaking tour have cancelled his events in light of the concerns that people have. There is only a short time before he is due to talk but if you think that Brian shouldn’t be spreading his misinformation in Birmingham you could contact the Buddhist Centre and let them know, it’s very possible that they are not aware of the extent of Brian’s claims and may be as concerned as we are. You might also want to tell trading standards or the local MP what you think about his assertion to be able to conquer cancer.


This blog post was written by Patrick Redmond one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub

Sunday, 14 June 2015

A White Lie Can't Hurt......Right?

On Wednesday 10th of June at Birmingham Skeptics in the pub, Dr Mike Drayton graced us with his presence in order to give a fascinating talk on the psychology of lies and lie detecting.

Dr Mike Drayton is an organisational development consultant, a clinical psychologist and expert in negotiation.  He has a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Birmingham and a BSc in Social Psychology from LSE.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and spent 20 years working in mental health within the NHS before working as an independent consultant psychologist.

Dr Drayton ran through some common misconceptions about the nature of lying and how good (or rather how bad) we are at detecting lies – it seems we underestimate how good we think we are at lying, and conversely overestimate our abilities to detect lies.  This addressed the commonly thought ways of detecting when someone is lying to us – things such as avoiding eye contact (he tells us that in fact, a person lying will hold an unnatural degree of eye contact as a form of overcompensation), the person in question shifting in their seat and other subconscious cues like scratching of the head, placing their hand over their mouth and so forth.  It turns out that these aren’t so much signs of deception but more signs of anxiety – likely to be experienced by anyone undergoing interrogation regardless of whether they are telling the truth or not.  Better ways of determining if a person is being truthful or not are by asking seemingly irrelevant questions relating to the matter, since a liar has formed a storyline and timeline in their mind and this will throw them off their course, as will asking the person to recount the events in reverse order.  He discussed the motivations for lying – self gain, making others feel better, the so called “groupthink” whereby in order to avoid tension and conflict a group of people may accept lies at face value without employing any form of critical evaluation.

The effectiveness of devices such as the polygraph machine –which measures heart rate, blood pressure, respirator rate and galvanic skin response – was called into question.  Whilst the basis under which they detect lies seems plausible – establishing a baseline response to fairly normal questions such as name, place of birth, mother’s maiden name etc – there is actually very little established evidence with regards to their efficacy.  He also raised an interesting point in that psychopaths would pass such a test with ease due to their lack of empathy or emotion, and as such would not exhibit the typical responses we might expect to observe in someone trying to be deceitful.

What does have more credence is the analysis of what are termed Microexpressions – tiny, fleeting facial expressions that occur in 1/25 to 1/15 of a second so as to be barely perceivable in normal conversation.  Research into this field was pioneered by Dr Paul Eckman in the 1990s.  The process generally relies on catching these microexpressions  (usually be means of slowed down video footage) which seem to betray what a person is saying, as if the real story is told on the subconscious level.  As an example of this put into practice, a short video clip was shown which related to the story of Karen Matthews who in 2008 faked the kidnapping of her daughter.  In the video shown, when the footage is slowed down, we can see moments where she very momentarily smiles during a press conference relating to the disappearance of her daughter – not the sort of behaviour one would expect from a mother whose daughter was missing and her status unknown.  Other examples included video footage of Ted Haggard – an American evangelical minister who was recently accused of purchasing and using crystal meth as well as having homosexual relations with a male escort (relevant due to his condemnation of homosexuals as part of the beliefs that he preaches) and how his facial expressions contradicted his statements regarding the allegations.

Other examples of patterns exhibited during the telling of lies included head movement directly opposite to what was being said (a politician stating he would be happy to take paternity tests to determine the legitimacy of a child he was alleged to have fathered whilst shaking his head the whole time) and the language patterns used to distance oneself from the event in question (Bill Clintons classic “I Did.Not.Have.Sex with that woman” – note the emphasised words that don’t flow like normal conversation and the use of “that woman” as opposed to “Monica” or “Miss Lewkinsy” as would typically be expected when referring to a person).

Another interesting point brought up during the discussion was the question of whether it is ever ok to lie, by which we mean so called “white lies”.  I had read an essay by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris (whose works and books I thoroughly recommend) and the subject of white lies.  In the essay, Harris argues that, when given some thought, it is actually quite hard to really justify any white lie.  Take for example a wife asking her husband if she looks fat in particular dress – now; any man alive knows he is in for a rough night in the doghouse should he respond with anything other than “You look wonderful dear”.  But let’s think about this for a moment – if indeed the wife is perhaps a little overweight, and you informed her so (in a nice manner of course) then this may prompt her to take action – maybe start eating more healthily, taking up exercise and generally improving her lifestyle.  In turn she can expect to lose weight, generally feel better about herself and reward herself with better health and improved health prospects – diabetes and coronary heart disease are no joke – perhaps more so if the couple have a family who they want to see grow up, and the children surely don’t want their mother to pass away at an early age.  So here we have to ask ourselves – are we really doing our partner any favours by lying to them?

Another example that Harris gives is when a friend produced a screenplay for him to read and review.  The screenplay was of significant length and clearly the friend had put a lot of time and effort into it.  Any good friend might be economical with the truth if they thought it was not good and severely lacking in some departments, but not wanting to hurt their friends feelings told them they thought it was ok and worth presenting to some Hollywood big shot who might turn it into a production.  But again, let’s think about this.  This friend might have one shot at presenting their work to the big director, and if they come forth with relative garbage, the director might turn them away, and disregard instantly any further work that person brings their way, effectively ending this persons career before it has even started.  Would it not be better to give an honest opinion, so that the friend may then go back and work on the shortcomings, to make it the best possible piece of work that they can produce, and then submit it to the director?  In the grand scheme of things, you are being far kinder to the friend by being honest than you are by saving them a short moment of embarrassment and disappointment that they will need to go back and rework their piece.

When Dr Drayton asked the audience for examples of where a white lie might be acceptable, one audience member replied “Santa Claus” – after all, it’s just a bit of fun right?  Well, we could argue that the inevitable revelation of the non-existence of Santa Claus might lead to a certain building of mistrust between the child and their parent – a lie ongoing for years without much justification that a child can comprehend.  It’s worthwhile taking the time to try and think of ways in which a white lie would be acceptable and then try to find reasons why, actually, they might not be, though implementing this into your daily routine would be no mean feat I’m sure.

This brings me back to the discussion of microexpressions – I recall reading an article in New Scientist where Dr Eckman said one of the pitfalls of being able to do this is that you can’t really turn it off once you have turned it on, so you can never effectively be lied to again – he gave an example of asking his wife if she enjoyed the dinner he had prepared, whereby she responded that it was wonderful, whereas her microexpressions told a different story.  This begs an interesting question in my mind – would we want to live in a world where we couldn’t be lied to?  Maybe sometimes we are content with the answers we are given, regardless of whether they are sincere or not.

There was nowhere near enough time in the evening to tap all of Dr Draytons wealth of knowledge and experience and I don’t think I would be alone in hoping to hear more from him in the near future.

Be sure to check out the Birmingham Skeptics webpage for details of the next upcoming talk which is sure to be as intringuing and thought provoking as that given by Dr Mike Drayton.

You can follow Dr Mike Drayton on Facebook here
And on twitter here: @mikedrayton

You might also be interested in looking up an Infinite Monkey Cage podcast from January 19th 2015 entitled “Deception” that covers many of these point.

This blog post was written by SitP regular Phil Walsh

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Open Mic Night - May 27th 2015

It's our fantastic open mic night and we've got five brave volunteers who have come forward for your education and edification. You can find details of them and their talks below. This is a really enjoyable event and takes the place of our monthly social, but we will be hanging around for a drink  or two afterwards.

We start at 7.30pm and each speaker gets 15 minutes. It'd be great to see you there and you can let us know you're coming on Facebook  if you use that  social medium.


Why Internet Dating Doesn’t Work – Dr Martin Graff


Romantic relationships play a huge part in our physical, social and emotional well-being.  Successful relationships promote better health and even aid in faster recovery from illnesses.   Not surprisingly, most of us seek to find a romantic relationship.  However, should we resort to online dating to find this?  Drawing on psychological research, this talk focuses on seven reasons why we shouldn’t.  Some of the principal considerations are that we make bad decisions in online dating and people are certainly not what they seem to be meaning that such a matching system is not a good predictor for the sustainability of relationships in a face-to-face context.
 
Dr Martin Graff is Reader and Head of Research in Psychology at the University of South Wales.  He is an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Chartered Psychologist.  Over the years he has carried out research in the areas of cognitive processes in web-based learning, individual differences in website navigation, online interaction and the formation and dissolution of romantic relationships online and offline.  He has also carried out research in the areas of online persuasion, and online disinhibition, and has supervised several doctoral degrees in this area.



From Richard Dawkins to Freud’s Death Instinct - Mike Waller

Dawkins says we are exquisitely refined organisms whose evolutionary function is to transmit copies of our genes. In this context, the evolutionary persistence of depression seems to make no sense. Apart from its psychological effects, it is heavily implicated in many life-threatening behaviours and illnesses. In "Family stigma, sexual selection and the evolutionary origins of severe depression's physiological consequences" (JSECP, 2010,4(2): 94-114) I build on Hamilton's suggestion that a badly impaired embryo might be "programmed" to self-eliminate if its condition would impede the aggregated reproductive prospects of its kin.

Stockbreeders know that family merit is the best guide to successful breeding, a reality unlikely to have been missed by natural selection. If so, individuals perceived as performing relatively badly in respect of close kin might well impose (by way of impaired family reputation) a reproductive penalty on their kin group well in excess of their own potential gene throughput. Here too, deeply unpleasant though the idea is, self-elimination would make sound evolutionary sense. With WHO identifying depression as the illness that, globally, causes most disability, I believe this an idea that should be full explored as a key guide to treatment. 


Mike Waller has had an interesting and varied academic and professional career studying government, management and psychology. A fully paid up Dawkinsite he became interested in the problem of depression. His peer reviewed paper on this subject was published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology (4(2): 94-114) in 2010.


Skeptical about Drug Laws – Phil Walsh

There are a plethora of instances where science is absent when it comes to so called medicines and treatments for a variety of ailments – from homeopathy to bogus cancer treatments which can actually cause harm.....but what about when science is absent from the laws which govern the progress of medicine? This is worthy of equal scrutiny and in this short presentation I hope to give a brief review of the problems encountered when trying to perform research with certain compounds and highlight some which show great potential for therapeutic use but are hindered by the issues described.

Phil Walsh is 31 years old and holds an honours degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and a master’s degree in clinical biochemistry. He has been working in research and development within the immunodiagnostics industry for the past 9 years. His other interests are based in neuroscience, psychology and an unhealthy penchant for podcasts.


The Great Porn Phallusies - Rachel


Rachel is a regular consumer and occasional creator of pornography; she became excited when she realised that the field of pornography was an apparently untapped well of pseudoscience and logical fallacies. Tonight she intends to celebrate naughtiness, challenge assumptions, and look at the facts behind what 'everybody knows' about porn

Rachel says that there will be no explicit images in this talk although there may be some page 3 type content. It will also include some frank discussions of porn, sex, sexual assault, drugs, addiction, and use of adult language.


Skeptical Activism: Why and how to get involved - Richard Sutherland

From naive atheism at age 8, Richard became aware of the skeptical community and movement around 2005 via discovering the James Randi Educational Foundation site and forum, as well as the now defunct UK Skeptics forum. He was then inspired to get involved in campaigning, initially targeting 'psychics such as Gary Mannion the 'psychic' healer. This included getting BBC Children in Need to withdraw support from an event he was attending, and being interviewed for a BBC documentary on Mannion. He subsequently carried out an email campaign to theatres hosting 'psychic' shows making sure that many who did not already started to incorporate disclaimers on publicity material. 

In 2008, alerted by a JREF Million Dollar Challenge, Richard started a UK campaign against the sellers of fake bomb detectors, which contributed to media coverage of the issue, and played a minute part in the perpetrators finally being brought to Justice some 5 years later, and seeing 3 of 5 jailed, and one receiving a suspended sentence. 

He started attending Birmingham SitP in 2012

Friday, 24 April 2015

Astrology is Balls

On 17th April on Radio 4's satirical programme “The Vote Now Show” Jon Holmes presented a pre-recorded piece with the aim of seeing if he could find anyone to predict the result of the forthcoming UK General Election.

He first visited the polling company YouGov followed by David Cowling, Editor, BBC Political Research. Neither could give definitive answers.

He then visited, well, let Jon take up the story... [Transcription below]





So, to recap,

1       The job of an astrologer is to keep him/herself popular by making positive predictions which everybody likes the sound of;

2       Astrologers can be very successful if their predictions are so vague that you could read anything you wanted into them;

3       If they are sufficiently vague they can never get into trouble;

4       Being vague is something astrologers should be proud of;

5       Astrology is balls.


You can catch the full episode on BBC Radio 4 Extra for the next few days and on the iPlayer for the next three weeks here.

Transcription:


JH     The polls can't tell me, he can't tell me. Where next? The next logical step, of course. Time to meet Jonathan Cainer the astrologer from the Daily Mail


JC     Of course the trouble predicting an election or the outcome of any competitive sport or activity is that you deeply upset the people who'd rather wish that the event went the other way.

JH     Yes, I suppose you do but that's part of the job though isn't it so you've got to, um...

JC     Not really

JH     Oh

JC     The thing is you... The job of an astrologer is to keep yourself popular by making positive predictions which everybody likes the sound of. If I were to stick my neck out and predict the result of this election not only would I upset all the people who didn't want that to be the result but at the same time I'd lay myself open to terrible mockery should I turn out to be wrong.

JH     But again, isn't that part of the risk of your job anyway?

JC     Not if you can avoid it, I mean Nostradamus made a very successful career out of giving his predictions in cryptic French and Latin puzzles and therefore anyone could interpret anything into (sic) and so he was always right when you wanted him to be right and never got into trouble for saying anything which you could hold him to account for.


JH      Which is basically saying astrology is balls and so I just say what I think people will like. But on your behalf I persisted.


JH      So the answer is that you can't predict the outcome of the General Election

JC      Astrologers have a long, proud tradition of being vague wherever possible and I would be absolutely insane to stick my neck on the line for it.


JH      But look, I wasn't going to give up right 'cause he's got mystical powers, so I asked him again outright, “Who is going to win the Election?”


JC      I'm trying to steer as clear as I can of answering that question.

JH      I can tell that, yep. What's the... I'm Taurus

JC      Are you?

JH      So what's the... what am I typically? What are typical Taurean...

JC      To be a Taurean is to be tenacious; it's to be very fond of...

JH      Asking questions that people don't want to answer?

JC      Absolutely, you wouldn't give up. So this could be a long interview.


JH      It wasn't because I've stopped him there. You know, fat lot of help that was; we're still no closer.



Posted by @christheneck

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Thank you WHSmith

Happy New Year to all you out there!
This is a good time for showing people how much you appreciate their gifts and deeds, and our friends at the Good Thinking Society have asked us to pass on a request for you to quickly and easily send out just one more thank you letter...

In October, WHSmith stopped selling the magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Although we are not aware if this was as a result of complaints from those who support evidence-based medicine, we applaud this decision heartily.
What Doctors Don’t Tell You has since been campaigning for a return, untruthfully claiming to have been “banned” following a “relentless campaign by Pharma-sponsored trolls” and urging readers to complain to customer.relations@whsmith.co.uk.
This strategy seems to have been successful once already – Tesco had stopped selling What Doctors Don’t Tell You but appeared to reverse the decision following pressure from the magazine’s supporters.
We therefore encourage everyone to write to the same address, customer.relations@whsmith.co.uk, in order to thank WHSmith for removing this magazine from the shelves and to remind the company of our reasons for concern.
We have provided a template email below. Please feel free to either use this in its entirety or, preferably, edit it to make it your own. Individual personal emails may be more likely to have an impact. Just tweaking the opening paragraph makes a huge difference, e.g., As a regular visitor to your branch in Exeter, I write to…
Just take the text below, cut and paste it into an email, add your name at the bottom and send it to customer.relations@whsmith.co.uk (this link will automatically send us a copy of your letter to WHSmith – if you’d rather not share it with us, simply remove us from the bcc option).
Many thanks,
Laura Thomason
Project Leader
Good Thinking Society


Dear WHSmith,
I write to congratulate you on the decision to stop selling What Doctors Don’t Tell You. As several medical experts have pointed out, this magazine is consistently misleading, often dangerously so. I feel that it is potentially damaging for reputable mainstream retailers to give this magazine the credibility of a place on their shelves.
This magazine challenges well known and effective health interventions and advocates unproven pseudoscientific alternatives. Previous articles have wrongly claimed that the HPV vaccine has killed up to1700 girls, that Vitamin C is an all-purpose elixir which could cure polio and AIDS and that homeopathy “reverses cancer”.
The advertising is equally problematic. The Advertising Standards Authority found that eleven of the ads in just two issues of the magazine were in breach of advertising guidelines on several counts. A further eleven ads from the same two issues were also problematic, with the advertisers agreeing to amend future advertising.
It is this sort of behaviour that has resulted in strongly negative coverage of the magazine on social media and in mainstream media (including The Times and BBC Radio 4).
I am aware that the publishers of What Doctors Don’t Tell You have been lobbying to persuade you to change your mind, urging readers to complain and falsely claiming that they have been “banned” from WHSmith following a campaign by “Pharma-sponsored trolls”. The truth is that I am just one of a huge number of concerned customers who does not want other customers to be misled and potentially harmed by flawed medical articles and adverts.
I trust that you will understand that the concerns regarding this magazine are legitimate and justified and that the responsible decision is to continue to not stock What Doctors Don’t Tell You.
Yours sincerely,

Friday, 31 October 2014

BIRMINGHAM SKEPTICAL ACTIVISTS - ACT 1: Psychic Awareness Month

As part of the Good Thinking Society Psychic Awareness Month, Chris Richardson and Richard Sutherland fearlessly handed out leaflets to an audience attending a performance by Derek Acorah at The Prince of Wales Theatre, Cannock on October 30th.

We say fearlessly because of the proximity to Halloween, and claims by Acorah that he can summon up the dead. Despite these ominous portents, the event went off without so much as a hitch, let alone an attack by zombies!

Carefully following Good Thinking guidelines not to make a nuisance of themselves, Chris and Richard stationed themselves to one side of the entrance. As audience members arrived they confirmed that those entering the theatre were there to attend the performance, and then asked if they would be good enough to take a leaflet. The vast majority accepted, with only two exceptions. One woman who saw the headline and turned away a bit huffily, and another (with partner) who stated that she is a 'medium' and gave Richard and Chris the evil eye, or at least a dirty look. One woman was clearly au fait with the Mark Tilbrook situation and asked Richard if he was Mark.

Richard making polite enquiries of attendees

At a guess no more than 150 attended. Predominantly middle aged and female in small groups (2 to 4), although some mainly older couples.

At one point a very jolly chap working for the theatre asked if Chris and Richard would like to come into the theatre lobby. Without saying so, he gave the impression he approved of what they were doing. They politely declined. About half way through the duty Manager emerged to ask them to move away as they were causing an obstruction. It was politely explained that they were specifically standing to one side of the doors so as not do so, and that since not on private property they were entitled to be there, and that we would be extremely careful not to inconvenience the audience arriving in any way. She didn't seem very happy about it but gave up and went inside. A bit later the jolly chap popped his head around the door and had a laugh about the fact that he had asked them in and "the boss" had wanted to get rid of them.

From other reports it seems that Derek Acorah and Colin Fry have avoided confrontation with people leafleting, so all in all it was pretty uneventful, but hopefully may have prompted a few to question their support for such events.

We are aiming to continue with a wide variety of activities, not necessarily involving standing outside theatres!

If you are interested in participating in future Birmingham Skeptical Activist initiatives please email Richard on rgns@hushmail.me. Alternatively, let Patrick or Chris know.

Good Thinking can be found here.

The Good Thinking Society leaflet