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”:, 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 which appears on Episode 13. Or you can go to

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.