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

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', 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,

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.