Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Skeptics in the Punjabi

Dr Narendra Nayak
A Blog Post by Patrick Redmond

On Saturday I had the pleasure to meet Narendra Nayak. He is, amongst other things, the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalists. He was on a tour of the UK and had already met up with Skeptics in Glasgow and Edinburgh and was taking part in an event organised by the Asian Rationalist Society of Britain to promote critical thinking and encourage blood and organ donation amongst the Indian community. I went along for the end of the day and it was brilliant.

I slipped in at the back and watched an entertaining doctor present an excellent talk on quack remedies, the placebo effect and the need for critical thinking that would not have been out of place in any Skeptics in the Pub meeting. Dr Dihal’s lecture slipped between English and Punjabi and although  my Punjabi is non-existent the accompanying PowerPoint and what I already know of the subject filled in the gaps. The people in the room were entertained and the atmosphere was great.

I chatted quietly to one of the people next to me about the group and he said it had been going for some time but each year got bigger and stronger. The reason for this, he figured, was education. He was born in India but raised in England and he didn’t believe in all the superstitious stuff. Because he was educated his children also don’t believe in it and then in turn their children won’t. We know that educated or not there are still plenty of people able to be convinced of all kinds of magic and nonsense, but I think that he’s right, education is the key and that is what this group is about.

Debunking is an important aspect of their work. In between speakers Dr Nayak slipped out and we recorded a quick interview that will go out on the podcast soon. However difficult we might think the role of the skeptic is over here, in western society, it’s very different in India. Superstition and religion are far more significant factors in daily life. Holy men perform miracles persuading people of their supernatural abilities to advise and heal. Amidst all this non scientific medicines are not only available but given governmental approval. Rationalists have to face much more the powers of religion and the powers of state in their battle. If you search YouTube for Narendra Nayak you will see many videos of him replicating the feats of these so-called holy men  to demonstrate that their power is anything but divine and that their effect is to stop people seeking medical or professional help when it is needed with all the consequences that might hold.

Ash Performing Psychic Surgery
Lottery Tickets from Eggs
I’d missed his earlier demonstrations of psychic surgery, an ordeal I had performed on me by Edinburgh’s Ash Pryce only a few months ago, but I did watch him cracking eggs open to remove lottery tickets from their centre and reading minds.

The mood was one of amusement but the message was serious, as was the underlying main theme of the meeting. The religious beliefs of many in the Asian community prohibit them from donating organs or blood. The need for these organs is urgent and the supply isn’t there. Superstition is directly leading to preventable deaths as opportunities to save lives are lost.

One of the aims of Dr Nayak’s visit was to help unite groups within the rationalist community. That was why he made contact with the Birmingham Skeptics and I’m really glad he did. Here on our doorstep is the main office of the Asian Rationalist Society of Britain. I’m ashamed to say that I’d totally missed their existence and it took a visitor from another continent to get us together. They made me very welcome. Now that we’ve made contact I’m very much looking forward to working with them in the future.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) - Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Weekly Round-up w/e 28th August

Well, after a week’s break the final weekly roundup for August is here, so sit back, relax and enjoy our selection of interesting items from the web chosen especially for you.

We’ll start with the irrepressible Prof Edzard Ernst. A short and pithy blog illustrating that the chiropracters have far from succeeded in manipulating the quackery from their profession.

Over at the ever informative BBC they report on a new fossil discovery that rewrites the timelines on some aspects of mammalian evolution. So much information from such a little thing, and I love how each new discovery gives us a more complete fossil record.

I’ve always been drawn to Orac’s blog. Partly for the masterful handling of such stories as this further nail in the anti-vaccination argument. A big part of it though is that I loved Blake’s 7 and I get a bit of a kick from that transparent box of wires and lights up in the corner.

I have to admit to a bit of ignorance here, I hadn’t come across the Desteni until I stumbled over Muerto’s blog on the subject. Since then I’ve had some interesting reading searching around the Internet on this peculiar cult.

If you don’t know Daniel Loxton yet then shame on you. He does outstanding work spreading a love of science and critical thinking to that most important part of society, the young. He has a new book out called Ankylosaur Attack (Tales of Prehistoric Life) and it’s even available over here in the UK too.

Ben Goldacre hardly needs our plugging, but this is a very interesting study he describes and just in case you missed it,here’s the link.

I like to see some science writing from Birmingham and so here is Russell Beale with What is Science? or Here be Dragons. If you look over at the right hand column you’ll see Lucy Harper who wrote a blog post for us some time back.

Like some old Vaudevillian I like to finish with a song. Rationally Speaking Out Loud found this one buried in YouTube and handily provides the lyrics. I’m sure it expresses the sentiments of many skeptics out there and It’s well worth a listen. Enjoy and don't forget our next two speakers in September, Peter Harrison andMark Stevenson.

This weeks round up was compiled by Patrick Redmond (paddyrex)

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Weekly Round-Up (w/e 14th August 2011)

Welcome to the increasingly accurately named weekly round-up.

It's been a strange week as we had to cancel our regular meeting, which this month was to feature Mark Stevenson (@OptimistOnTour). We are hoping to reschedule this talk in the near future, replacing one of our socials. There will be 2 SitPs in that month and hopefully as few people as possible will miss out.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Why Nothing Matters

By Ronald Green

Why should nothing matter? If anything matters, why should nothing matter? And yet it does, for there isn’t anything, it seems, that nothing does not touch, or anything that does not touch nothing. History, philosophy, religion, science, art, literature, music – all look towards nothing at some point, stimulating questions that would otherwise not be asked.

What is this nothing, that we can’t actually see, touch or feel? Is it absolute? Is it relative to everything else? If we are able to think about it, write and read about it, is it something, and if so wouldn’t it then not be nothing?

This is precisely the mystery of nothing – that the more we think about it, the more there is to it.

The struggle to understand the concept of absolute emptiness, the absence of everything, has been going on for some two thousand years, for at least as long as there have been written records of what people thought is important. Those who have made it their business to think have been puzzling at "nothing", wondering what it was, whether it was anything at all, whether it existed, in fact, and if it did, how it affected things around it.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The Weekly Round-up w/e 07/08/11

Time to sit back, relax and soak up the delights gathered for you by the us good folk at Birmingham Skeptics. Yes, it’s time for the weekly roundup and once more we’ve herded the good and bad into one easily digestible post for your discerning skeptical consumer.

To kick us off the excellent Heather Doran @hapsci tackles a summery story and takes on one of those science sounding reports that we are all too familiar with in the media. You know the type I mean. “This or that seemingly random object has been found to have this or that seemingly random effect.” There’s no end to them. Well Heather has a go at setting the record straight over on her blog with Wine and Grapes Will NOT Prevent Sunburn.

We had to include the next story for a number of reasons. One is that it involves particle physics which featured in our last Podcast. The next is that it was written by David Gregory the BBC Midlands Science correspondent and one of our previous speakers. Thirdly it involves scientists from Warwick and it’s always nice to see local people at the cutting edge. Read and enjoy a brief post about some lovely neutrino events.

The next post is longer but nonetheless fascinating and momentous. The UN is officially declaring a disease as eradicated for only the second time ever. The disease is one that affects cattle but when you look at the intricate way that cattle relate to humans throughout time and society this is no insignificant moment. The history of what has led up to this incredible situation is described beautifully in this piece by the New York Times.

If you got the link to this blog through Facebook then beware. Cover your children’s eyes lest they be corrupted and don your tinfoil beanie for fear your brain be sizzled by the ravages of the Internet. Heed well the warnings of Martin Robbins as,  with tongue firmly planted within cheek, he warns that Facebook will destroy your children’s brains.

Here are two articles of interest that relate to our very own fair city  Firstly there is this one on a research project at Good Hope Hospital involving... I can barely bring myself to type it, spiritual healing. Then hot on the heels of that the revelation that Birmingham Schools are shelling out on alternative therapies for the students.

Whether you love or fear chemicals will often depend upon whether you read the Daily Mail. The fact is they are all around us, and in fact they are us. Did you know it’s the International Year of Chemistry? Join us with Scientific American to celebrate some of the elements and molecules that make life what it is.

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. This oft quoted mantra is in itself a case in point that you shouldn’t always take things at face value. I had this in my head as coming from Disraeli but a quick check on its origin shows that this is very possibly tosh. What isn’t tosh though is Ben Goldacre’s wonderful critique of the use and abuse of statistics in the media.

This final link caused me no end of trouble. If you’re not familiar with the cartoons of Abstruse Goose they are brilliantly geekily funny. My problem came in choosing one to put down on here. As an old DC Comics fan I picked this one, but feel free to hit Random and be transported to alternative dimensions of fun.

This weeks roundup was compiled by Patrick Redmond with considerable help from the other organisers.