Tuesday 19 October 2010

Alpha Skeptic

A Blog Post by Patrick Redmond

A friend invited me to attend the Alpha Course talk he was giving. I’d originally met him after downloading a podcast of a sermon he’d given on why it was more logical to believe in God that not to. I’d sent him a three page response outlining what I thought of his arguments and why. He in turn asked me out for a beer. Damn, somebody must’ve tipped him off as to my weak spot. We met and had a surprisingly enjoyable evening of drink and argument.

Despite being what you might call a solid atheist I tend to avoid starting religious arguments with people that believe. There is often that uncomfortable point when the person tells you that it is only because of their faith that they got over some traumatic event in their life, that without God they would not be there now and that without their friends in the church they would be lost. For all that I believe it I find that saying something along the lines of “oh, but a rational outlook on life free from superstition can be

Sunday 26 September 2010

Humanist Heritage

Hamish MacPherson of www.humanistheritage.org.uk

We often hear how Britain has a Christian heritage. That is certainly true and whether we are Christian or not I think it's important to understand and appreciate that history. But we also have a long tradition of non-religious thinking.  Many people in the United Kingdom and Ireland have made great contributions - as humanists, freethinkers, sceptics and secularists - to the arts, science, philosophy and fighting for democracy, equality and freedom.

That is why I wanted to create http://www.humanistheritage.org.uk/ - a website for people to explore the vital contribution of those people to our collective heritage. Whether it’s mathematician Alan Turing who spent his genius working for Britain during the Second World War despite a lifetime of persecution, or novellist Joseph Conrad (who wrote “Scepticism is the tonic of mind, the tonic of life, the agent of truth. It is the way of art and salvation.)”

With the support of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and a number of knowledgeable volunteers we've tried to

Saturday 21 August 2010


A blog post by Tulpesh Patel

I started writing a review of “Princess, a biography of a Saudi princess written by Jean Sasson, but, as the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, something happened at work very shortly after that prompted me to also turn this into a blog post.

First the book. Princess recounts the life of Saudi Princess, Sultana, from childhood in the 60s to her own motherhood in the 90s
. It was lent to my wife by a friend, I casually started reading the blurb and found it so engrossing I was a couple of hundred pages in before I realised the time. This book is one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read and I can say with complete sincerity, unputdownable.
Sultana tells of ritual and absolute oppression by the men of the household and wider society. The men hold untold wealth and absolute power, able to deny or cover up their own offence or justify any/all behaviour as that sanctioned or encouraged by their faith or tradition. The women are denied education (save for reciting the Koran); forced

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Fluence and the Machine

A blog post by James Cole aka @jdc325
At the recent talk by Andy Lewis at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub, I saw a demonstration of an odd machine.

Here's a picture of Andy's magneto-electric therapy machine:

While looking for more information on this odd machine, I found

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Skeptics on the Fringe

A post by Patrick Redmond

In case you were unaware we are less than two weeks away from one of the most ambitious skeptical projects you will probably ever come across. Edinburgh Skeptics on the Fringe goes live from Saturday August 7th all the way to August 28th. Be assured that this is an incredibly impressive undertaking with three entertaining and educational strands and the promise of even more.

Here’s my promotional bit:

The Fringe of Reason is 6.00pm every

Friday 16 July 2010

Why England Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (Reprinted as Soccernomics) - A Book Review and More

A Blog Post by @christheneck

Many years ago I came up with something I call “pessimistic optimism”. I hope for one particular result or another, but presume that it won't happen. If the result happens I'm happy; if not I was right. I can't lose. I'm told this is an unhealthy way to think however as a lifelong Aston Villa fan it has served me very well.

Although I would have liked England to win the 2010 World Cup my suspicions that the hype surrounding England's qualification had little solid foundation were confirmed firstly by this book and of course secondly by the results. England lost. (I guess that means I won, doesn't it?).

I first came across this book, written by an economist and a sports journalist, when it was featured on Tim Harford's BBC Radio 4 programme, More or Less . It intrigued me. So many reasons why decisions are made in football have been beyond me and I wanted some answers. Why does no-one care about the F.A. Cup any more? Why does the referee keep playing until Manchester United score? Why is someone who scores in a World Cup suddenly more valuable? And why Emile Heskey?

These questions along with many more are answered in full, predominantly with background and source based and statistical evidence with credible (and credited) origins. All except the Heskey one – no-one knows. Pre-tournament I tried to counter the “Play Heskey because, although he doesn't score, Rooney plays better” argument with the fatuous example of “Play someone who can't stop a shot/cut off a pass/mark a striker next to Terry so he plays better” and then Upson came along and Terry fell apart too. I digress.

There are many fun parts to the book. There is an explanation of how Chelsea could have won the 2008 European Cup Final penalty shoot out against Manchester United in Moscow if only Nicolas Anelka had listened to his economist. You will find which is the most football mad country in the world, why the best investment a club makes could be buying a box of Rice Krispies and why Alex Ferguson probably doesn't matter.

The authors deconstruct the myths of football as big business, the benefits of high priced players, the necessity of a manager getting anywhere near the bank book, and the idea that the dominance of the big 4 (or is it now 3) is a “bad” thing. From a skeptical point of view it is amusing to see so may questions of “Why is it done like this?” answered with “Because that's the way we've always done it.”

More serious issues are covered regarding the battle against racism toward black players in this country and when monetary equality was finally reached (a lot later than you may think) and which sections of society are currently still excluded, whether footballing successes or failures affect suicide rates and whether the shared happiness of a nation hosting a tournament can make up for the horrendous costs of hosting one.

Amongst these many other things it shows, in detail, that the results England achieved in South Africa were not poor but all too predictable and that the new resurgence under Fabio Capello was nothing of the sort. See Tim Harford's short blog on this.

I would recommend this book as both informative, readable and fun but with the following reservation. As in many things skeptical it will be difficult, nigh impossible, to discuss its contents with anyone down the pub who knows anything about football. They won't believe a word of it.

Chris Richardson is a skeptic, atheist, musician, cook, gardener, and sci-fi and comedy nerd who lives in Staffordshire.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Book Swap Proposal and Quirkology Review

A blog post by Tulpesh Patel

I’m a hoarder at the best of times, but I’m even more precious when it comes to books. It’s always been a dream to have my own personal library, big enough that I would need a ladder to climb the shelves. As time’s gone on, The Origin of Species aside, I’ve realized that there are just too many books in the world to spend time reading any of them twice. I’m slowly coming to realize that reading, thinking about and discussing books is more important than having colorful stacks of paper on a shelf. To that end, I’ve become a huge fan of book swapping schemes and I think it would be a great idea to get something like that going for everyone involved in the Birmingham SITP.

For those new to it, book swapping is quite simply a way to share books that you’ve read and pick up one’s you haven’t for free. They usually centre around a communal box or shelf, but they can be set up anywhere where there is a pool of people who enjoy reading. It was “Book Crossing”: that first got me interested in freecycling books and since then I’ve been a regular contributor and beneficiary of the book swap scheme at my “local train station”: (I must have swapped over 20 books over the last year or so), and I’ve campaigned unsuccessfully (and I admit only intermittently) for a book swap to be started at Aston - the box posing a fire hazard and it not being ‘in keeping with the university aesthetic’ are two of my favorite reasons to be rebuffed so far.

With public book swap schemes you’re relying on the kindness of strangers and the hope that people don’t just use it to dump their old Jackie Collins’, although one man’s trashy romance novel is of course another’s literary getaway. Hosting a Birmingham SITPbookswap will be a chance to swap books of a scientific/skeptical bent. Of course, because the scheme won’t be public in the same way as at a train station, the swaps needn’t be permanent, and people can arrange between themselves to lend books out and get them back as they wish.

Given that the regular monthly meetings are already packed with great speakers, it might be an idea to hold a separate event which would make things closer to a traditional book club. It might also be an idea to post reviews of books that people have read, so that even if you don’t have the book to swap and can’t make the meetings, people can still read recommendations and participate in the scheme more generally. I’d like to kickstart things with a quick review of Richard Wiseman’s “Quirkology”: http://www.quirkology.com/UK/index.shtml, which loosely ties in with the talk (‘The psychology of anomalous experiences’ with Professor Chris French on July 14) and is a book I’m happy to donate to a new home.


Quirkology by Richard Wiseman

Quirkology is in a way the perfect book swap book as it’s really interesting but I’m unlikely to want to read it again anytime soon. It’s one of the better collections of pop-psychology books stuffing shelves (or Amazon warehouses) at the moment, largely down to Richard Wiseman's obvious love of the work and direct involvement in some of the studies.

There are a number of retreads of studies that you'll have come across if you've read any other pop-psychology (Milgram etc.) but it's a great gateway to some of the methods and fallacies in psychological research, written in an easy, accessible style. ‘Believing six impossible things before breakfast’ is a great, if slightly disconcerting, chapter on the psychology of superstition. The search for the world's funniest joke is probably the highlight and the worldwide eradication of FTSE-itis is very clever, taking full self-knowing advantage of the psychology that fills some of the book.

It’s a good book to dip in an out of, written by a psychologist who’s doing a lot to make science and psychology fun and engaging.

Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children's Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society.

Sunday 20 June 2010


A blog post by Dean Burnett

In my school, we didn’t get that many people trying to encourage us to get interested in science. As a poorly funded, over-populated state-school in a largely ignored area of Wales, we were treated to regular performances by groups trying to get us into Christianity, who apparently subscribe to the same logic as army recruitment officers, worryingly enough. Many a time was the entire school made to sit for hours on the hard floor of the assembly hall while a group of jovial individuals, with expressions that always seemed just the wrong side of psychotic, performed skits, sketches and songs with the intention of convincing us that loving God and Jesus was ‘awesome’. To my knowledge they failed conclusively to leave us with anything beyond the unfortunate yet sometimes prescient association between fundamental Christians and soreness of the posterior.

I had problems with many of the things they said/did even at the tender age of 11/12. One group mimed a sketch where one man was stuck to a chair and his friend was attempting to free him. After several failed efforts, the would-be rescuer knelt down and prayed, and lo, his friend was freed from his sticky four legged prison. The moral was something like ‘in times of crisis, prayer can be of great service’ (as a solvent, apparently).

Another group tried to wow us with a flashy light-show and multi-media presentation, completely missing the irony of using the latest high-tech devices to engender support for a religion which isn’t really keen on the whole ‘progress’ thing. They tried to impress us with facts about the bible, including the pearler “if all the pages in the bible were laid out end-to-end, they would go round the world 1 and a half times!” Even as a child, I reasoned that if this were true it surely says a lot more about the printing press than it does about the bible itself? It isn’t true, by the way, unless they were referring to the deluxe version of the bible, including the books by the 23 missing apostles and printed for visually impaired Ents.

But one thing I will say for these poor deluded people is that they did at least attempt to engage with us on a personal level. Granted, these efforts usually resulted in their audience applying intense scrutiny to the ceiling or their own shoes as what was happening on the stage was so hideously patronising and cringeworthy. But it is my personal belief that this effort to engage on a personal level is something science and scepticism is missing, and attempts should be made to rectify this.

A controversial theory, perhaps, and I fully expect many to disagree with me, but I have reasons for my position. I get my cynical side from my dad, who had a very refreshing approach to scepticism. He isn’t a scientist or anything like that, he was the landlord of the pub I grew up in. One of his hobbies was tormenting the Jehovah’s witnesses who regularly came in to ‘save’ him. If they didn’t leave in tears, he considered himself a failure. And to my knowledge, he’s the only one in the local community that our alcoholic vicar actively wished death upon, apparently as a result of the night that my father dangled him off a bridge by the ankles until he admitted there was no God.

So my sceptical role-model was a bit more ‘hands on’ than most. My own experience is also worth taking into account. I’ve just completed my PhD in Neuroscience after 5 years. For a similar length of time, I’ve been a stand-up comedian, so I have a lot of experience at trying to reach people and gain their approval on a personal level. As a result, I believe the personal element could prove integral to the promotion of rationalism and scepticism.

It’s completely understandable why science tends to avoid the personal element; it’s not very rational, non-quantifiable and differs wildly between individuals. But it is infuriating to me how so many of sciences detractors are free to use the personal, emotional and (depressingly often) hysterical approach in their insane attacks, whereas the ambassadors of science and rationality, bound by the noble but self imposed code of conduct, usually listen to the hysterical diatribe and then point to the evidence and data which supports their position.

Trouble is, although it’s the only acceptable method of debate between scientists, pointing out the evidence and logic is not going to be effective on people who have already decided to disregard it. When someone passionately rants about out their insane theory regarding homeopathy or chiropractic or the healing properties of daily colonic infusions of horseradish broth (give it time), spending hours describing the precise scientific details and flaws in their arguments will be less effective than the four words ‘You are an idiot!’ (And I speak from experience). It won’t convince them of your argument, but it will diminish them and undermine their position; by addressing them in their terms, it could eventually come down to who has the most evidence for their argument. And then sceptics are landed.

Egos are both powerful and fragile things. They prevent people from accepting that, just perhaps, they DON’T have access to some wondrous healing technique that is suppressed by the man. Perhaps most pharmaceutical companies couldn’t care less about alternative medicines. Perhaps their childs disorder is the result of incredibly bad luck and nothing more sinister. Ego must be a contributing factor, as amid all the accusations of conspiracies and closed mindedness, the one accusation that is rarely levelled at those who don’t agree with pseudoscientific claims is that, perhaps, they’re too smart to do agree? Funny that.

But it’s the ego that can be the weak spot. When a heckler has a go at a comedian, it’s their ego which tells them they’re funny enough and have enough support from the audience to do so. But if the comedian responds with a cutting and humiliating comeback, it’s the damage to the ego which shuts them up. Maybe this can work with the pseudoscientists too? Witness the popularity of Tim Minchin’s ‘Storm’ video, or the smash success of Robin Inces gigs which provide celebrations of rationality and reason through the medium of humour and performance. Even my own blog posts poking fun at sciences enemies have proven alarmingly popular, despite my amateurish attempts at writing and humour. By appealing to the personal element rather than just letting data and evidence speak for itself (as it usually speaks to people in a dialect they can’t understand), or even worse, letting the media insert the personal perspective without having any clue as to whether it’s correct or not, Science and rationalism can seem far more approachable and acceptable than it does to many at present.

I’m not saying Science/Scepticism should be offensive and rude, but it’s surely fine to defend itself in the same manner in which it is defamed? And I’d actively encourage this trend in treating the critics with the same scorn that they seem so keen on dishing out. And by showing scientists and sceptics as people with lives and feelings and opinions of their own, it could dispel the negative stereotypes that abound. It’s not scientific or rational or even that logical, but people aren’t, and people are who we’re trying to educate and enlighten.

I remember once when I was at a gig, and a fellow act asked what I did for a living (correctly assuming that I was nowhere near good enough to be paid for doing comedy). I told him, and he pulled an angry face then asked if I did any animal experimentation. I told him that sometimes I do, and he angrily responded by saying;

“You’d better not do any of that round me, I’m a vegetarian”

I didn’t know where to begin with that. The implication that I carry rats around in my pocket on the off chance I’d have a spare 5 minutes in which to conduct research (e.g. waiting for a bus), the implication that I was going to eat it, or the suggestion that I would deliberately ‘do research’ around him in a vindictive manner? In the end, I settled on those four words, ‘you are an idiot!’
Then I dangled him from a bridge until he said sorry. Unlucky for him, I don’t have the upper body strength of my dad.

Dean Burnett has recently acquired a PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. He has also been a stand-up comedian for 5 years. This bizarre combination of skills has gained him much interest and media attention, but has thus far failed to find him stable employment. As such he spends much of his time writing snarky skeptical articles for anyone who'll read them. Make sure you read his blog Science Digestive.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Facebook Group "psychics should be licensed"

A Blog Post by Gary Mason

A few weeks ago, a few friends and myself decided it would be interesting to terrorise some people at a psychic fayre near me, under the impression it was going to be a big professional event. Unfortunately when we arrived, all that was there were about 6 middle aged women with crystal balls and tarot cards. There were also leaflets giving information about each one. Some claimed to be able to contact angels, some could read palms, and some even claimed they could cure diseases and ailments with crystal (reiki). Being a skeptic and believing that these people are frauds, I was quite shocked to learn of the prices they charge for a simple tarot card reading (£20). I wanted to have a reading for a laugh, but I’m not paying £20, for a crazed old lady to tell me shit that’s so vague, it could apply to my pet dog!

I have always had a problem with the way psychics work. To say that you can contact the dead child of a grieving parent for a fee (any fee!) is absolutely wrong, and anyone who can do this to a person has no morals, and no respect for the grieving process people have to go through once they have lost a loved one, especially as psychic “powers” have never been proven scientifically, all we have is anecdotal evidence. Because of this I have taken it upon myself to begin a movement. I want every psychic in the U.K (worldwide actually, but we will start here) to be licensed. If they are going to charge people for something, surely they have to prove that what they are charging for is legit.

So I am making this the start of the journey, either psychics should prove their abilities, or stop charging people for bullshit. I mean sure, if they enjoy it as a hobby, and their “marks” as I like to call them, know that it’s more like magic tricks than paranormal abilities, there is no harm in this. But for someone to make money (and some of them make lots of money) of the misfortune of others, without ever proving that what they do actually does have some credibility, I’m sure you agree, it is fraudulent, and I’m sure fraud is illegal in this country, so why do they get away with it?

The plan is to get enough members together to write a petition to parliament, explaining our grievances, why we have them and what we would like to do something about it. Seeing as we are not asking for psychics to be completely illegal (just for them to prove their abilities before practising) there shouldn’t be much of a problem, we are not asking too much. Of course there would be some sort of test that has to be taken to get the licence (preferably set up by the James Randi educational foundation), and of course it is not likely that anyone will pass under scientific scrutiny. Of course people will fail, and they will claim the test is unfair, but I’m afraid that if they fail, no job, and they would have to go out and earn an honest living like the rest of us!

Gary Mason - I am dedicated to making skepticism easier and more enjoyable for people to understand. There is a lot of science involved in skepticism and I would like to have it explained to the listener/reader in a friendly way, as to not overwhelm and confuse them. Keep it simple. A copy of this blog post can be found at my site Simple Skepticism.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Reformation or Deformation?

A blog entry by Patrick Redmond

I recently had chance to interview Steve Fuller; Professor of Sociology at Warwick University and I was eager to find out his thoughts on the relationship between science and religion. I was nervous about this interview as I’m not an academic and I’m still trying to work out my own views on many aspects of this area. Steve on the other hand is a full time Professor who spends many hours debating this subject.

You can listen to the original interview at http://www.badcast.co.uk/ which appears on Episode 13. Or you can go to http://ipad.io/K9W

In a Guardian article from the beginning of May and during the interview he proposed a view of the development of science analogous to that of the church during the Reformation. In this imaginative construct the scientific establishment plays the role of the Catholic hierarchy, dominating and unforgiving in its eradication of heresy. The Protestants are those groups that challenge the scientific orthodoxy. Brave souls that dare to question the edicts of the self-appointed holders of truth.

He argues that just as the Protestants of the Reformation and onwards had a right to call their beliefs religion, so these non-orthodox scientists should be allowed their place in the pantheon of learning. He even has a hopeful meme of his own for this phenomenon “protscience”.

The interview was involved and for me at least challenging. Steve questioned my own definitions of science. I asserted that for me good science used careful experimentation, evidence gathering and analysis to reach a conclusion. To him this is too limiting and reeks of adherence to a dogma that stifles scientific freedom and empowerment. My definition might be narrow, but his is so wide that you could drive a bus through, sideways.

Who are these protscientists? It appears to be anybody that says they are doing science. Young Earth creationists searching for proof of a mythical 6000 years age tag, whilst studiously disregarding the mountain of evidence against them, would be classed as scientists. So too would proponents of alternative remedies based on misconceptions of human anatomy and a reworking of the laws of physics and chemistry. He would set these groups on a level with the disciplined individuals that spend years collecting and collating data to refine and redefine their theories according to methods that can be accounted for and that make sense.

Steve takes a somewhat Voltairian stance in that he may not agree with the conclusions of these groups, but he will fight for their right to do their science. This admirable if, to my mind, misguided position is possibly what led to his taking the stand in the Dover v Kitzmiller trial on behalf of the intelligent design movement. I don’t however think that we need the new term protscience as I believe that pseudoscience adequately covers this area.

I said during the interview that people can be intelligent but still act irrationally. In his response on the site Uncommon Descent he asserts that this was a “self serving” and “strange” view. I stand by it though. The whole cognitive area of heuristics and bias proposed by amongst others Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman illustrate that it is not only possible but common for people to be able to score highly in tests of intelligence but then go on to make decisions in opposition to the evidence presented to them.

He goes on to deride skeptics in general, and definitely me, for being selectively skeptical and accepting the scientific dogma of the priesthood. This is simplistic and misleading. All theories are open to question but the reality is that given the complexity of many of science’s big questions it’s hard to do anything more than weigh up the data that’s presented by those in a position to gather it. I’m not going to expend immense amounts of energy investigating theories that have a mass of solid evidence backing them or require me to construct my own particle accelerator, giant telescope or space station. I will however read with interest the reports and findings of the scientists that continue to work in these areas.

In some respects then Steve is right in accusing me of being selective in my skepticism. I will continue to reserve my harshest judgment for those that ask me to believe things without providing sufficient evidence, such as psychics, homeopaths and proponents of intelligent design.

Patrick Redmond is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub. A copy of this blog post can be found at the Badpsychics website.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Founding the Aston Humanist Society

Strictly speaking, an entry about starting a university humanist society falls outside the remit of this blog, but the fact that it's Birmingham-based, and founded on good, strong rational values means that it shouldn't be too out of place here, and I'll take it as given that scepticism invariably leads to humanism or atheism, or at the very least agnosticism in some form.

I'm am now in my eighth year at Aston University and well into the final year of my PhD. I founded the Aston Humanist Society in February 2009, quite simply because there wasn't a society anything like it that I could join myself - perhaps the idiom that 'getting atheists together was like trying to herd cats' had put off anyone who had tried to start an non-theist society before me. I'm not even sure what took me so long to get round to it, perhaps my PhD finally wasn't keeping me as busy as my supervisor would have liked.

Of the 48 social societies at Aston University, there are nine religious ones, including all the biggies: Islamic Soc, Hindu Soc, Christian Union, Sikh Soc, Jewish Soc (although there are many more denominations who are not officially listed with the Student Union); it's a good reflection of the multicultural environment that the university is well known for. What the list of societies doesn't reflect, however, is that there also are many students who lead a secular life that would enjoy meeting like minded people too.

Having decided to take action, I faced two bit problems: deciding what the society was actually about and almost as importantly what to call it. Like the SITP groups, but unlike religious societies or the increasing number of nationality/culture-based societies at Aston, there was no pre-formed idea of what you had to be/know in order to join. Because there was no precedent, I set the society up to be some nebulous idea of what I thought was missing: an open forum promoting values such as freedom of expression, and scientific and personal inquiry, centred around free discussion of philosophy, politics, science, religion and history.

I could just have easily called it the Aston Secular/Rationalist/Skeptics Society (or the slightly more fun Thinkers-Not-Drinkers), but settled on Humanist simply because I am one, and I feel that humanism neatly captures the secular/rational vibe I was aiming for. Lots of people are essentially humanists, but just don't know the term or decide not to call themselves by such a name - I guess the trouble with people who insist on thinking for themselves is that don't usually like being labelled! I deliberately steered clear of 'atheist' as it has (sadly) come to have connotations of exclusivity and I didn't want anyone to think that the group had an anti-theist agenda and be put off from joining.

It was more than just a riposte to all the religious groups, although I must admit that walking past 'boarding the Jesus Train, WOOP WOOP!' and 'Obligatory Islamic Knowledge' posters on my way to the office every morning had a little something to do with it. Starting the Aston Humanist Society was my taking a pro-active response to something else that had been bothering me throughout my studies. Without (I hope) sounding too high-minded, I was increasingly bothered by what I saw, and still see, as a pervasive culture of having 'just enough education to perform' at university. I know that for some, being at university is about getting a degree and then getting a job; no more, no less, and it is not really my place to judge that ambition. I think AC Grayling eloquently captures exactly how I feel (as he almost invariably does) in this quote from a short essay on Education.

"Liberal education is a vanishing ideal in the contemporary West, most notably in its Anglophone regions. Education is mainly restricted to the young and is no longer liberal education as much as something less ambitious and too exclusively geared to specific aims – otherwise, of course, very important – of employability. This is a loss; for the aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think and question, and know how to find answers when they need them. This is especially significant in the case of political and moral dilemmas in society, which will always occur and will always have to be negotiated fresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable [my italics] ... People who are better informed and more reflective are more likely to be considerate than those who are – and who are allowed to remain – ignorant, narrow-minded, selfish, and uncivil in the profound sense that characterises so much of human experience now".

To help make getting the group started I was lucky enough to have had the help of a number of organisations. Happenstance meant that I decided to start the group at the very same time that "The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies was being launched. I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural event, speak to lots of other societies, get a 'starting a student society' help pack, and even get some helpful advice from Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. I also joined the "Secular Portal" which was a great way of getting in touch with other secular students, and sharing practical ideas, and managed to rope in the "Birmingham Humanists" to help out with our Fresher's Fair "recruitment stall" at the start of this academic year. The brilliant cartoonist "Thad Guy" was also kind enough to let us use his images for posters and flyers.

We've held weekly meetings which have attempted to try and answer, or at least think about, some of the questions that god wasn't going to answer for us: "How do we deal with the involvement of religion in major health issues, namely the Pope and his reigniting of the condoms/Aids situation", "Should we treat paedophiles and criminals or mentally ill?", "Trust in doctors or trust in god: how should society deal with clashes between people's beliefs and medical ethics?" and "Should criminals have the right to vote?". None of these questions were going to help anyone pass their degrees directly, but I'd like to think that everyone benefited from the critical thinking and discussion that took place. I certainly left each meeting feeling a little more enlightened and with a lot more to think about.

We've also worked in collaboration with the "Birmingham SITP" on a couple of occasions and hosted both Ariene Sherine and Rebecca Watson for special 'Skeptics in the Classroom' meetings, held fund raising "AmnesTEA parties, the Aston Happy Humanist team raised over £500 for the Cancer Research UK Relay for Life and we're working with Aston's Environment and Sustainability office to sponsor a university-wide bookswap scheme to promote the pleasures of environmentalism and reading.

It started out as just a few of my friends meeting in the university bar, but over the last year and a half the AHS I would like to think that the AHS has been a success and achieved at least some of its lofty ambition. We have over 70 members on "Facebook"more than 30 paid up members and around 10 people at each of our weekly meetings, which is apparently good going for all but the very biggest, well established societies at Aston.

As student society (although staff members have also attended meetings), the nearing end of the 2009-10 academic year, and soon my PhD, has meant that the society has started winding down. I'm not sure where I'll end up once my PhD is over, but if there isn't a society to join, I'll use this experience to just start another one. The ubiquity of social networking now makes starting and maintaining societies much easier. Very recently I've been following the progress of Alice Sheppard (aka PenguinGalaxy on Twitter) as they set up a STIP in Wales. "Her blog post", coincidentally written at the same time as mine, echoes many of my feelings, although she has a tougher job given the scale of the group.

I hope that I have at least laid the foundations of some form of secular society at Aston; whether it remains a humanist society once I'm gone is irrelevant, as long as a bunch of students get together in some form or other discuss the world around them, for no other reason than because they want to think for themselves and learn what others have to say.


Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children's Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society.


Wednesday 19 May 2010

Haunts with a Motive

A Blog Entry by Hayley Stevens

The one thing that has become more obvious as my time as a paranormal researcher has gone on is the fact that some people have a real need to be haunted. The team I helped to form in 2005 refer to these cases as ‘a haunting with a motive’ and they’re not that easy to separate from genuine cases where someone has really experienced something that they cannot explain, or something that scares them.

Ghosts and things that live under your bed have become more and more popular thanks to modern television shows like ‘Most Haunted’ and the offerings that came after it from other production companies. Anybody can call themselves a paranormal researcher and claim to have expert knowledge in the paranormal (despite the word ‘paranormal’ meaning ‘things that we cannot yet understand’) and this leads to the obvious problem that all skeptics face – the spread of misinformation. With self styled ghost-hunters the spread of misinformation isn’t always intentional but it is almost always because the pseudoscience behind the misinformation fits snugly into their belief system and that suits them.

Whether it be the idea that the EMF meter in your hand whining or lighting up means that a ghost is near you, or the notion that the noise caught on the Dictaphone in an empty, locked room is the voice of a ghost – people seem to grasp onto these unproven and sometimes illogical ideas because it suits them. I should know, I used to be one of the mass misinformed.

This is what I usually refer to as the first type of a haunting with a motive – the motive being to back up your own personal ideas, theories and beliefs in ghosts and an afterlife. Now obviously holding onto pseudoscientific ideas about ghosts, the afterlife and the dead is fine if it’s in your own home but the problem with ghost hunters is that they want to find ghosts in the well known ghostly hangouts and so end up conducting their “vigils” and their “paranormal investigations” in local haunted hotspots. These hotspots tend to be people’s homes or businesses – or both. This then poses some big, fat juicy ethical problems because suddenly the situation goes from being silly ghost people fooling themselves to silly ghost people misinforming the public and potentially scaring them silly.

I’m not over exaggerating either because people do get genuinely scared. Just this year I have visited two locations to research the apparent haunting to find that the owners or staff are petrified to be there when it gets dark because of what other paranormal teams have told them. One home owner for example, was told that a demon spirit was haunting her and that this demon spirit had been a rapist and murderer in his lifetime. Oh, and he liked her daughter’s bedroom which is exactly what a single mother wants to hear. The other case was a historic public house where the staff were told by a medium and a “sensitive” that a murderer lurked in their gloomy cellars; one team even went as far as to cut their “investigation” short because they were too scared by what their “sensitive” was picking up to stay. This is a really lovely thing to tell the person who lives on those premises. Not.

It took some serious talking on my part to try and convince these people that they weren’t in danger in their own homes and businesses and that they had been grossly misinformed. I’m not overly sure they believed me either, but at least I tried I guess.

However sorry you might feel for location owners across the UK who are harassed by ghost hunting teams it’s probably important that I point out that not all location owners are the victims because some locations have caught on to the fact that where there are supposed ghosts, there is money to be made from tours, ghost walks and even charging ghost hunting teams to ‘rent’ out the property to conduct their “investigations.”

There is no harm in this most of the time because as far as I am concerned if people are going to pay £100+ to rent a location so they can chase the alleged ghosts that roam there then that’s their choice. A lot of locations that do charge normally have charity funding or are listed buildings and the money goes to the upkeep of some of our country’s most historic monuments and buildings and I think that’s really grand.

However, a line is crossed when the alleged ghosts turn out to be landlords with a dark side to their humour trying to get one over on some silly ghost hunters.

Let me explain, you see, a few years ago our team were given permission to enter ‘The ghost train’ pub about an hour away from where we are based. The reports of activity were so amazing that we didn’t care about the distance. However, part way through our time at the location a group of researchers were in a two storey out –building on the upper floor when suddenly the sound of smashing glass came from the floor below them. Upon rushing down to investigate they found the drunken landlord wedged behind the door, trying to stay out of sight. He’d thought that perhaps we’d be so impressed with the apparent ‘poltergeist’ activity that we’d call Yvette Fielding and her camera crew into his pub and he’d get rich from it. We weren’t impressed and we didn’t call Yvette Fielding (I like the idea that all ghost research teams have her on speed-dial or something.)

Another location springs to mind that had featured on Most Haunted in the past that, upon being visited by our team, was revealed to us by the weary owner not to be haunted at all. Apparently the whole story had been made up by a local amateur historian and medium so that they could make money from ghost tours and renting the place out to teams like ours. Needless to say, we were not impressed considering we had just handed her £100. I think this story sums up another kind of motive for being haunted. Ker-ching!

Another motive is quite an obvious one, and it’s the one that is the most difficult to deal with because handled incorrectly it could really upset the people involved. We’ve all lost somebody we care for and we’ve all experienced the pain of mourning them. Some people go through the mourning process and, although never the same for their loss, they gradually develop the ability to carry on with their lives as normal. Some people can’t do this and start attributing the most random of occurrences to the idea that they are being haunted by their loved one. Normally these occurrences are glaringly obvious coincidences (when we are approached by somebody who believes they are haunted we insist they keep a diary of what is happening for at least two weeks and the patterns do start to emerge quite early on.) However, try to point out to the person involved that there’s nothing to the things that are happening and they won’t always agree because the idea that their loved one is with them, giving them signs that they’re still around is more comforting to them than the idea that they’re not.

I think it’s fair to say that if you are, like me, a paranormal researcher who has looked past the thrilling top layer of ghost hunting and has seen the swirling mass of confusion and problems that lies beneath it’s clear to see that ghost hunting isn’t just about ghosts, and getting scared in the dark. It’s about people and their emotions and how fragile they are; which is scary considering the field of paranormal research is completely unregulated. Scary, huh?

Hayley Stevens - Wiltshire based ghost bothering, big-cat tracking, myth destroyer. Skeptical podcaster & blogger and founder of Wiltshire Phenomena Research http://www.wiltshirephenomena.com/

Sunday 16 May 2010

Science in the News

A Blog Entry by Tulpesh Patel

The relationship between science and the media is a complicated one. The former is concerned with communicating evidence-based knowledge, the latter with providing 'infotainment' to the public. There is the worrying perception, especially among those working in science fields, that science reporting in the media is doing more harm than good; deliberate dumbing down and endless stories that have been misreported, misrepresented, or that over-played the significance of research findings. There's the MMR-vaccine-causing–autism scare, wonder cures for cancer which turn into nightmarish causes of cancer the next week, the Hadron Collider bringing about the End Times and Facebook causing syphilis, to name a few off the top of my head.

It's easy to lump journalists together in one group and demonise them as scoundrels who deliberately go out of their way to sensationalise every news story, so I was looking forward to hearing the other side of the story from David Gregory, the BBC Midlands science and environment correspondent, who was invited as guest speaker for the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub meeting. David was refreshingly candid about the inner workings of television and was keen to stress its quick-fire and superficial nature. He did his best to reassure us that most journalists do their upmost to present accurate and objective stories, but whilst scientists and journalists could do a better job of communicating science, it's nearly impossible to say anything of note in the two minutes and 100 words afforded to science coverage on the evening news.

A running thread through the discussion was that the media just gives the public what they want: something that grabs their attention, that they feel is directly relevant to them, and, apparently most importantly, nothing too complicated. As a scientist I find it hard not to be disheartened by this pervasive idea that the general public are too dumb or disinterested to engage with science stories – it always is hard to see how other people aren't interested when you really are!

In an environment where editors and the audience want to know whether it's worth paying attention to the story within five seconds, attention-grabbing sound-bites are what it's all about. There is a fine line between making a story accessible and losing the science amongst the wackiness, but if the story doesn't have an eye-catching hook (or if the presenter's clothes or hair are too eye-catching), there is little chance of the scientific message being communicated.

The task for scientists is to perform sound research, report findings and share opinions with due care, accuracy and diligence. For the journalist it is to engage the public with exciting, but easily digestible, science stories; it is obviously not the responsibility of the media to explain the intricacies of every science story. Within science there is the expectation that the media should reflect the scientific concern for the provisional nature of knowledge; nothing is ever set in stone, progress and facts are achieved incrementally and only very rarely through the 'scientific breakthroughs' we often see on the news. It's easy to see how this translates into "scientists" change their minds from week to week, it's hard believe a word they say" in the public mind.

Making stories easily digestible also means that the media cannot spend too much time in the grey area inhabited by science. Stories often necessarily have to be presented as black or white and this leads to the thorny topic of presenting a 'balanced' argument. David expressed the problem that in a democratic organisation like the BBC, everyone who pays the license fee is, in theory, entitled to express their view, however wrong or damaging it may be. It's balance like
this that often leads to one emotive individual having more impact than a panel of scientists – how can you argue with a woman with breast cancer who is convinced it was caused by a nearby phonemast? The question of whether you should always present the other side of the argument, especially when it is unscientific, was one that some of the skeptics in the room got quite heated about, but had no real, workable answer for.

There is cause to be positive, though. With the help of charming, media-friendly personalities like Professor Brian Cox and Dr Ben Goldacre, it seems that science is undergoing a welcome resurgence ('How science became cool', http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/apr/13/science-cool). More importantly, the limitless space and reach of the internet now means that viewers can be directed to follow up two-minute news stories on news sites, blogs and Twitter, and get as much science as they can handle – but only if they want it in the first place of course.

The public's perception of scientists and the science being conducted is vitally important. It is up to scientists, skeptics and sympathetic journalists like David Gregory to collaborate and do their level best to maximise the communicate of good science to the general public.

Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University, working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children's Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society. A copy of this entry is also on his personal webpage, http://www.tulpeshandmae.co.uk

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Birmingham Skeptics

Our Inaugural Blog Post by Jack of Kent

Birmingham has a great tradition of free thought. It has always had a certain anarchic quality. Spilling over three counties for much of its history, it was free from any coherent local government. Until the mid 1800s Birmingham made do with statutory "Street Commissioners". And when it was granted borough status, the townspeople were less than enthusiastic. Indeed, the local council met most regularly not at some grand public building, but at a local public house.

Such nonchalance was not really sustainable as Birmingham grew into the second city of the United Kingdom, and in the 1870s Joseph Chamberlain's flair for self-promotion meant that Birmingham appeared to suddenly be the best governed town in the country. In fact, it was only catching up with other industrial towns.

But Birmingham was always more of market town than an industrial town, though it was one where small businesses could easily set up. Before the Cadburys there was really little large scale factory production. And matched with this commercial freedom was intellectual freedom. The local Anglican church was weak. The town attracted freethinkers and non-conformists. Most notably, it was the home of the Lunar Society, a group of the pre-eminent intellectuals of the day. They met once a month, and were known to some as the Lunatics.

Now there are the Birmingham Skeptics. They too meet once a month, like the Lunar Society; and they also meet in a pub, like those sensible mid-Victorian councillors. So in these ways, at least, they are fully within the liberal and libertine traditions of Britain's greatest city.

But they are more than a parochial discussion group. Birmingham Skeptics are part of a worldwide movement of skeptics groups, from Perth to Boston. For Skepticism is effortlessly internationalist. And so is Birmingham. It manufactured goods for the world for nearly two hundred years, and over the last fifty years it has in turn thrived because of immigration and cultural diversity. Birmingham Skeptics will have a natural role in the forward movement of the city.

So the foundation of Birmingham Skeptics is a welcome move. Skepticism is coming home.

David Allen Green was born and brought up in Birmingham. He writes the Jack of Kent blog, which is shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize for blogging, and he is convenor of Westminster Skeptics.