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


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Hots Potato

This post has been a long time in the making dating back to an email thread we received from one of our SitP attendees in July 2012 but a recent occurrence shows the issue isn't going away any time soon.

Shortly before that time the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had upheld a complaint made by Hayley Stevens against an organisation called “Healing on the Streets – Bath” who had been handing out leaflets in May 2011: Our correspondent had found a similar organisation, The Crossway using similar wording, on Harborne High Street, Birmingham and, being the good skeptic that they are, had made a similar complaint to the ASA against them.

For those unfamiliar with Healing on the Streets (HOTS) it was originally an organisation founded in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 2005 to “simply invite people to sit on chairs so we can pray for them”. Okay, that could be thought of as merely a little bit strange until you realise that they claim that “God loves you and can heal you” presumably through the power of their prayer. Many organisations have bought into the HOTS ethos which can be extremely lucrative (HOTS – Bath have taken in £137,000 in the last 4 years).

It is a well known phenomenon that any interventions can have a placebo effect and many people may assume that sugar pills, saline injections and sham therapies of all kinds may be responsible for an improvement in fairly trivial conditions. They ignore the many reasons that a condition may improve in favour of a belief that it was caused by the intervention. One classic case is that treatment for a long-standing condition which comes and goes, such as a bad back, will be sought when pain and immobility is highest. The fact that the sufferer has a lifetime's experience of knowing that the condition improves with time (and without intervention) is thrown out of the window if they take some pointless pills, or receive some other attention (such as being prayed for) when it is at its worst.

This wouldn't matter too much if people working under the HOTS banner limited their attention to bad backs and similar minor and self-limiting ailments but they don't. The leaflet given to our correspondent asked if people suffered from “Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction, Cancer, Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Migraines, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias or any other sickness, illness or injury” and offered “Healing on Harborne High Street”.


So anything then. Pneumonia, diabetes, sepsis, meningitis, AIDS, Ebola? You name it, they'll pray for you. Needless to say relying on prayer over medical expertise can have dreadful consequences.

 
In their adjudication the ASA noted that HOTS – Bath had not provided any evidence that they, or anyone else, could heal using prayer and upheld Hayley's complaint about the leaflet adjudging the claims to be both misleading and irresponsible. They also adjudged that the ads could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. This adjudication made international news.

In the summation for action the ASA said:

The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.”

So pretty much cut and dried then. Another organisation had used almost exactly the same wording with a list of medical conditions they have no hope of healing so our correspondent awaited the adjudication against The Crossway.

They didn't get one.

The ASA contacted our correspondent saying that the issue had gone to their Compliance Team, an arm of the ASA which deals with repeat offenders. When this was queried they were told that:

The Crossway’s website demonstrates, in our view, that they are distributing the ads that you have objected to under the name of Healing on the Streets: http://www.thecrossway.org.uk/healing-on-the-streets/. Also, Healing on the Streets’ own website shows that they are a national organisation, who can assist church groups to set up local branches: http://healingonthestreets.com/. The similarities between The Crossway’s literature and that of other leaflets produced by Healing on the Streets, in addition to their use of the blue “Healing” banner, which is used by other H.O.T.S. groups, also suggests that they are a local group who are endorsed by the national H.O.T.S. organisation.



In the course of their response to this complaint, our Compliance team will contact The Crossway to inform them that the advertising they are handing out is in breach of our Code, but we would consider that the advertiser is Healing on the Streets. We will also contact them and demonstrate that a local group affiliated to them is still using adverts that are not compliant with our Code.”

This would be fine if it worked however it appears that it had already happened and this was already a repeat offence:

Furthermore the message still didn't get through and it looks like it won't any time soon:


(October 2012, Oxford)

(October 2014, Bishop's Stortford)

The latest breach was last weekend.

Although we have been keeping our eyes open for breaches (posted on Twitter or Facebook for instance) it is inconceivable that there aren't some we've missed and indeed a much larger number that won't have been spotted or posted at all. Also an appeal against the original complaint confirmed that the websites of these different groups running HOTS activities do not fall under the ASA's jurisdiction so HOTS could not even appear on the ASA's Non-Compliant Online Advertisers List.

We know that some of these breaches have not been reported to the ASA. Of those that have you will find no public record of them being dealt with by the ASA as they have not been adjudicated upon. The ASA has a system of reporting “Informally Resolved Cases” whereby an advertiser agrees to stop using certain wording in their adverts but it appears that this is also not being used. It's almost as if they don't want these further breaches to be mentioned anywhere. Indeed, our correspondent received this from the ASA when asking if the Harborne breach could be publicised:

As the previous adjudication was made public, we have no recourse to prevent you from making our response public, should you so wish. I would like to point out of course, that any large scale public disclosure of the breach could potentially affect the advertiser’s willingness to comply with our Codes, as part of the ongoing compliance work we are doing with regard to Healing on the Streets.”

We can only hope, that due to this blogpost, any willingness of HOTS organisations to comply with the ASA's codes hasn't been damaged too much.



A small aside: 

Although this issue seems a bit complicated the initial complaint by our correspondent took only 10 minutes and many issues of dodgy advertising are cut-and-dried. Also, anyone reporting such issues are guaranteed anonymity by the ASA by law. We have continued this in this blogpost by not naming our correspondent at their request.

We are currently setting up a Birmingham Skeptics Activists strand and one of our possible aims may be to police the West Midlands area to weed out dodgy advertisers such as this.

If you think you can spare the occasional 10 minutes then please consider giving us a shout.



Saturday, 4 October 2014

SKEPTICAL ACTIVISM - A CALL TO ARMS



If your goat has been got by a scam, fraud, or woo then please read on.

Some of you may have attended the Birmingham SitP talk by Michael Marshall of Merseyside Skeptics Society, and Project Director at Good Thinking Society.

For those who weren't there, amongst other achievements, Michael was instrumental in organising the 10:23 campaign, which successfully spread the word about the ineffectiveness of homeopathy.

You can find out more about Good Thinking at:

http://www.goodthinkingsociety.org

That talk inspired me to want to develop an idea that has been been running around in my head since I started attending SitP a couple of years ago.

Having taken part in a few skeptical activist activities myself (e.g. carrying out a survey of attendees at a Colin Fry show in London; campaigning against Gary Mannion , 'psychic surgeon'; and establishing a campaign in the U.K. to expose and help bring an end to the fake explosives detectors trade - see ADE651 and GT200; I am interested in setting up Birmingham Skeptics Activists as a spinoff from the main group.


B.S.A (Bull Shit Annihilators; just kidding!) will be a group of people who are prepared to take part in campaigns to combat the panoply of nonsense that surrounds us. It may be pseudoscience, quackery, 'psychics', or creationism in schools. One example that still resonates with me was the talk by one of the speakers at the first open mic night on cancer quackery, and how her dad was sadly taken in by people in the area offering false hope via quack 'cures'. Targeting, exposing and bringing people like that to justice is a compelling motivation. Campaigns may involve anything from emailing your M.P., protests, leafleting, blogging or other coordinated action.

I recognise that not everyone has the time or the inclination to take part in skeptical activism, but I am sure that some of you will want to get involved.

What we need:

What we need is a bit of your time every now and then.

What we don't need:

We're not after your cash, in fact we'll be looking to cover any expenses and you don't even have to be close to the centre of Birmingham as there are plenty of things going on almost everywhere. We're also not looking to drag you along to a load of committee meetings either.

Depending on the level of support, over the next couple of months we will look to establish Birmingham Skeptics Activists and agree how best to move forward with this initiative.

If you are interested please let me know. I will also be at next SitP featuring Chris French on the 8th of October, or feel free to email me on rgns(at sign)hushmail.me.

Richard Sutherland

Monday, 16 December 2013

Round-up Week ending 15/12/2013

In order to finance production of his Skeptoid material, which includes podcasts and books, Brian Dunning regularly asks fans to send him donations in the form of monthly “micropayments”. This week he published a comprehensive balance sheet for his new Skeptoid book clearly feeling the need to justify every dollar donated. No doubt having pleaded guilty back in April to wire fraud, he now feels this level of transparency is necessary to help rebuild his credibility. You have some bridges to build though Brian as despite your earlier denials that you made little money, the FBI disagree and believe you defrauded Ebay to the tune of $5.2 Million.. Much as I admire Skeptoid, until you come clean over your finances I for one will not be donating micropayments anytime soon.

The latest DNA evidence for the earliest humans appeared this week with fossil samples placing on the timeline at 400,000 years ago. This is a four fold earlier extension on the previous best DNA evidence. How is the science doing at the other end of the timeline though, the contention that various Cryptids are surviving relict populations of extinct humans or human like animals? Unsurprisingly, not at all well with no meaningful evidence despite years of "research". Leaving aside Brian's Dunning recent behaviour there is much to admire in Skeptoid and his podcasts on the Almas, (surviving Neanderthals), the Yeti (relic populations of Gigantopithecus) and the Orang Pendek (unknown human species) are well worth a listen.

Rbutr promises to be a useful new tool as you can use it to track down rebuttals and opposing view's to any online article you may be reading. Whilst I haven’t found it that effective yet, to be fair it is early days for this newly launched browser based extension. The “Rebuttals” are crowd sourced though so it will be interesting to see how the developers can maintain the high levels of quality control needed for it to be useful.

Rbutl did however source for me useful rebuttals to journalist David Dobbs recent attack on what he sees as the prevailing gene mutation dominated view of evolution. In “Die Selfish Gene, die” Dobbs argues that this dominant view is overstated and how genes are expressed is more important a driver of evolution than random mutations. He uses the example of the placid grasshopper contrasted with the aggressive locust. Whilst these animals differ in terms of both appearance and behavior they are in fact the same species and a single common genome shares the genetic instruction for both. Whether the genome is “read” for grasshopper or locust is dependent on environmental factors. Similarly consider how a single bee genome can variously be read for drone, queen or worker in order to make up a fully functioning hive. 

The natural world is full of other examples of a single genome producing variation in this way and Dobbs's point is that the importance of this gene expression has been marginalized as the focus is on teaching how gene mutations are the main drivers for evolution. As he puts it, it's "how the book is read rather than what is written " that is most important. Whilst the article did find it's supporters notably PZ Myers, most rebuttals were negative for example from Jerry Coyne. And then Dawkins himself chimes in and accusing Dobbs of trying to create controversy where none exists; most evolutionary biologists have accepted the importance of genetic expression and Dawkins had already said as much way back in "The Selfish Gene”.

A new study shows that due to the gravitational effects of Jupiter, Europa’s oceans are most likely very turbulent and chaotic. This is good news for   Europa’s claim to be the most likely other place in our Solar system to support life as any life would benefit from the resulting nutrient stir and flow. Outside our solar system a gas giant orbiting further than expected from its sun has brought into questions our theories of planetary formation. Is the search for dark matter entering its final stages, or maybe it was already discovered in 1997 during an earlier study and nobody noticed?

The anti GM brigade lost their favourite study this week. The much hyped report that GM corn causes cancer in laboratory rats has been retracted – turns out to have been a crappy study after all.

On a final note, Lady Gaga announced she will be gigging in space by 2015!

This week’s round-up was provided by Steven Ebrey. If you would like a go at contributing to the round-ups let us know.