Sunday 29 April 2012

The Round-up w/e 29/04/2012

Hello everybody and welcome back to the round-up, a conglomeration of news and views from the week’s world of science and skepticism. I’m going to start this one off with a hearty happy birthday to Sir Terry Pratchett. I’ve had years of pleasure from his books and have nothing but admiration for the way that he is facing and engaging with his Alzheimer’s. If you’re inspired by Terry and want to contribute to the fight against this disease why not throw a few quid towards our old friend Hayley Stevens who will be launching herself out of a plane to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society. (I think she gets a parachute).

Our first piece is the remarkable story of
Camilla the Rubber Chicken and her space adventures. She’s a bit of celebrity and should you be the type of person that follows inanimate objects on Twitter then knock yourself out.

Well we’ve had birthdays and we’ve had space so let’s combine those two themes now and salute the Hubble Telescope as it embarks on its
twenty-third year of service.

Some people complain that there can be too much navel gazing with skeptics. I think a spot of introspection is always good and found myself nodding in agreement with this concise and well-constructed post “
Why I Don’t Call Myself a Skeptic” by Sarah Moglia.

For those of you that enjoyed Islamophobia at the last SitP,  Author of Jesus and Mo presents us Bigotophobia.

Edzard Ernst was a highlight of QED for me; here he is
tackling the chiropractors again looking at new evidence of a link between spinal manipulation and strokes.

If you've got a bit of time to kill, pour yourself a drink and treat yourself to an excellent talk by Simon Singh via the Cheltenham Science Festival and the Guardian Newspaper, "Heresy is at the Heart of Science"

This next article ticked a couple of boxes for me. I
t’s about giant squid, which are cool and border on the cryptozoology and it’s a site designed to encourage young people to get into science. If you're not a child don’t let that put you off following the link, it’s a good place to visit.

Christianity and homosexuality, how do you marry the two? Well if you’re the Catholic Church you don’t
and you get the kids to help you fight it. Here’s another more poignant and illuminating perspective on the subject.

A nice bit of historical skepticism here from the
great ṢSalāḥ ad-Dīn.

Please don’t ask what I was googling when I came across this story about a scientist’s search for the G-spot, but it’s interesting to note the contrasting coverage it got.
Joan Smith at the Independent looks at the social and cultural aspects of the quest whilst Ricki Lewis at Scientific America focuses on the basic scientific blunder made by Doc O en route.

It's the twenty-first century and the Met is having to roll out its anti-witchcraft force.

A great collaboration here as MIT and the Khan Academy join forces to inspire a future generation of scientist and engineers.

Hold the front page! Apparently
not everything you read in the papers is true.

There's always an excellent variety of material over at the 21st Floor so if you're not familiar with it make sure you have a good poke around and maybe stick it in your favourites folder. I'll link you to its latest post on alternative medicine and Bozo the clown to get you there.

Before our now traditional video finale a few mentions of upcoming events. Our next SitP is Robin Ince which is a sold out ticketed event. You can risk turning up on the night in case of no-shows, but there is no guarantee of you getting in so be warned. Two other events I’d like you to put in your diary though are our Skeptics in the Pub Quiz (Facebook) and our Open Mic (Facebook). Both will be lots of fun and we’re working on some special tweaks for the nights. Remember, if you want to do a spot on the open mic night then get in touch and let us know.

Now for a pretty flying geometric thing (please forgive the sponsor ad):

This week's round-up was compiled by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) from links he found himself and some he stole from his friends' Facebook pages.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Round-Up w/e 22/4/12

We don’t have a round-up for ages, we have one, then four days later we have another one.  If I was the type of person that used cliches, I’m sure I’d be using one about buses right now.  You wait for ages for a round-up, then 2 come along at once, just like buses.  Here’s the round-up:

Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, have created an alternative to DNA.  Does this move towards ‘playing God’ have the potential to harm our biology though?  Answers on a postcard please.

Bio-engineers in the Netherlands are growing the first artificial meat, since Doner Meat, in a petri dish.  Is it food though?  Few people want Genetically Modified products, so a switch to artificial food grown in a lab is unlikely to whet the appetite.

Some sad news to announce.  On Wednesday, 18th April 2012, after a long battle with relevancy, Facts sadly died.  The obituary is here.  If you want to share any of your memories of Facts, then please do so in the comments.

We have the internet in our pocket, Facebook and its variants, the Kindle and it’s variants, the Samsung Galaxy Tab and its variants, we’re here.  We’ve arrived in the future so we’re getting more variations on a theme.  So, now what?

Some quite cool Star Wars Facebook cover photos.

Stop the press! Someone’s found a proper application for maths. A physicist proved himself innocent of running a stop sign by proving the arresting officer’s “perception of reality did not properly reflect reality.”

You know that itch you keep having? Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone, but this article may interest you.  Are head lice and body lice the same species?

Boris banned those bus adverts that promoted the belief some have that homosexuality can be cured.  Here’s Skeptic Lawyer’s take on it.

Homeopaths on Homeopaths.  Martin Robbins puts a collection of quotes by homeopaths talking about homeopathy together to celebrate Homeopathy Awareness Week.

Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies.

Tweeter facing prison for calling a councillor a cunt on twitter.

The Social Cell by Daniel Dennett. What do debutante balls, the Japanese tea ceremony, Ponzi schemes and doubting clergy all have in common?

A fundraising video trailer here for a documentary about Homeopathy.  Steve Novella’s in it, not much else to say really.

A very classy article on Fox News here about Android Prostitutes.  Apparently they’ll be in service by 2050.  2050?! I don’t think my vacuum cleaner can last until then.

Who does all the work? Science does!

We’ve got an excellent few months ahead of us at Birmingham Skeptics.  This Tuesday night is social night in Birmingham, come along and have some interesting chatter and alcohol with some very nice people.  Coming up, we have Robin Ince coming along to Birmingham Skeptics on 9th May at The Victoria.  Then in June we have Colin Wright of Juggling and Maths fame, here’s a taster of his talk.  Later in June we have the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub Quiz, get your teams together, it’s free to enter and it’s taking place at The Victoria on 27th June.

That’s about it.  Thanks for listening.  Good night, and good luck.

This week’s round-up was put together by Birmingham Skeptics organiser Paul Bryant (@thebigyeti).

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Round-Up, Week 16, 2012

Welcome again to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub Weekly Round-up. Yes, we’re back, and considering it’s been around six weeks since our last Round-up this is more of a re-launch rather than an over-the-weekend resurrection. This week we have a truck load of interesting items for your skeptical pleasure; from apparel to bedding, to books, films and music; pseudo-science to info-graphics; bogus science to desperate remedies.

Let’s unpack the first of our items:

An unscientific survey conducted by The Telegraph showed that almost half of the people polled know the basic details of the Easter story and that, according to one punter, Birmingham Heavy Metal gods, Judas Priest, betrayed Jesus.

The Eternal Earth-Bound Pets service, which offered atheist care for the pets of people who were expecting to be raptured, has been revealed as a hoax: Atheist Camel comes clean.

Another Dawkins debate, another repeat of the distraction mantra - Hitler was an atheist, Hitler was an atheist, Hitler was...oh!

For those fascinated by the Bodies Revealed Exhibition at Digbeth’s Custard Factory a couple of years ago, the team behind Gunther von Hagens’ famous Body Worlds shows premiers Animals Inside Out  at The Natural History Museum.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this was some kind of nouvelle cuisine dish rather than a new micro-device to gain insights in to intestinal disorders: gut on a chip.

Atheists have soles , and they’re made in Berlin.  Walk a mile in my shoes…

From the New Yorker, a long but interesting read on how the Daily Mail conquered Britain.

As part of the Ignite London Event, filmmaker Michael W Story works out some professional frustration in this deconstruction of the UK documentary world all within a fixed five minute/20 PowerPoint slides format: London's 66,000 guns.

Second of the Michael W Story pieces (and currently a hot topic on the Sitp blog) is a short but to the point article on how islamophobia blinds us to terror elsewhere. Click through for the Hand of History Twitter feed.

Heart disease drug combats racism: Volunteers given the beta-blocker Propranolol, used to treat chest pains and lower heart rates, scored lower on a standard psychological test of "implicit" racist attitudes.

Despite new transparency rules, a study has found that just as many of the authors of the new psychiatry "bible" are tied to the drugs industry as those who worked on the previous version.

Christian claims of persecution fall flat on their face according to Terry Sanderson at The National Secular Society , also here at the Guardian. In addition, Andrew Copson of The British Humanist Association discusses crosses in the workplace on BBC News.

You won’t find these at Dunelm: Hadron Quilts & Turin Bedding.

Infographics – excellent! Peter Kim and his team sent us this outstanding graphic on the life and work of Stephen Hawking, and we loved it. Here are a couple more that blew us away: Rhetological fallacies, and the superbly interactive Snake oil supplements; click the bubbles to see the key studies and evidence of effectiveness.

Having recently watched the Brum Sitp produced Andy McIntosh DVD, I was reminded of this 2004 nerdcore hip-hop gem from MC Hawking. Can we look forward to an MC Hawking vs. MC MacIntosh rap battle? You down with en-tro-py? Stay tuned. *sweary lyric alert*

This one goes out to Tulpesh: There is grandeur in this view of life…Here’s Baba Brinkman’s new video Darwin's Acid from The Rap Guide to Evolution series.

Billionaire space enthusiast and entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, founder of, has announced an audacious plan to retrieve the five massive rocket engines used to launch NASA's historic Apollo 11 mission to land the first men on the moon in 1969. 

This week’s pareidolia item and, thankfully, it’s not another Jesus banana: A lava flow in Elysium Planitia - Elephant on Mars.

In this entertaining article, whilst touring the Great Wall of China, Dr Terry Simpson (Physician and Surgeon), gets hijacked by the Ancient Chinese Medicine Institute. Watch out for that duck on the way out Terry.

Over at Physics World they explain the perfect storm of circumstances, an event cascade, which resulted in the sinking of The Titanic, while those clever folks over at xkcd have released this helpful single pane cartoon that illustrates the depth of lakes and oceans.

Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaraku is threatened with blasphemy after revealing that a weeping cross was the result of capillary action.

Expanding on previous research providing proof-of-principal that human stem cells can be genetically engineered into HIV-fighting cells; a team of UCLA researchers have now demonstrated that these cells can actually attack HIV-infected cells in a living organism.

Got a traffic ticket for running a stop sign? Use physics to avoid paying the fine (with a flaw in the argument).

Exciting Chinese Medicine news from News Biscuit: Chinese Medics hail world’s first lab grown tiger's penis.

Refusing to compile ten point listings, Sam Greenspan from 11 Points website reviews Science 4 for Christian Schools: Eleven eye-opening Points from a Creation Science Textbook.

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. Rex and other dinosaurs may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.  From the ACS News Service Weekly: Could advanced dinosaurs rule other planets?

Jon Wilkins’ Darwin Eats Cake web comic has been around for about a year now. Here’s A Civil Engineering Exam on the Reinforcement of Existing Bridges and Curve of Knowledge and Wonderment to get you started.

Finally bringing this week’s Round-up items to a close, and if you hadn’t already noticed, it’s Homeopathy awareness week. Extracted from Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, Simon Singh explains how Homeopathy harms. Need more magic water nonsense? CAMwatch has buckets of it.

Just to remind you that we’ll be drinking skeptically at The Old Contemptibles on the 24th April, Robin Ince will be joining us for our May talk (hope you’ve got your ticket as we’re now sold out) and there’s a choice of entertainment in June; for £24.50 you could see Psychic Sally at the Alex, or join us next door at the Vic for The Mathematics of Juggling. on the 13th, where Colin Wright will also be plucking balls out of thin air; entrance fee – a paltry £3 donation.

Rounding up then with the usual movie or three: How to see around corners; Placebo effect & Fix your PC with a crystal pendulum.

This week’s Round-up was compiled by SitP regular Roy Beddowes.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Islamophobia - Questions and challenges for a liberal society, and for a Skeptics in the Pub.

To those that don’t know any better they might think that Skeptics in the Pub is just about mediums and homeopathy. It’s more than that though; it’s about looking at difficult questions and claims and trying to discern the evidence. Not all subjects are black and white and nor should they be. Last night we were fortunate to have a great talk by Dr Chris Allen, “Islamophobia, Questions and Challenges for a Liberal Society”. This was Chris’s first visit to a SitP and I’m always a bit nervous and excited when we have a debut speaker as you are never sure what is going to be said or how it will go down.

The room was full; there were many of the usual regulars and a good scattering of new faces that a different kind of subject usually attracts. Chris spoke without PowerPoint in an entertaining and impassioned way about a subject that he clearly feels strongly about.

The talk made me question many of my own assumptions. Chris presented evidence from his research about the changing nature of depictions and perceptions of Islam and Muslims over the last decade or so. He charted the dramatic increase of negative images and media stories that play out in our press and the rise in unprovoked hostility and aggression to members of the Muslim community. He made no conclusive connections between the two but inferred a shift in the societal mind-set that, if not exactly condoning Islamophobia would classify it as less serious than other forms of discrimination and prejudice.

Don’t for one instance think that Chris is an apologist for Islam or for the kind of implementation of that religion by some that many of us find repulsive, but it isn’t all so simple. He explicitly acknowledges that there are aspects of Islam that for many are abhorrent and contribute to the culture of fear and suspicion that then goes on to feed the rise in intolerance. This part of the talk was the most thought provoking for me as I think he verbalised my own discomfort in this field perfectly by clarifying the paradox that had been floating at the edge of my mind.

As a woolly liberal I believe in freedom of speech and protecting people against discrimination and prejudice. There are clear examples where Islam is used to suppress freedom of expression, individual rights and choice. Think to the issues around the cartoon fiasco at UCL recently, attitudes to interfaith marriage, homosexuality and so on. Therefore by supporting the freedom of expression and rights of Muslims to practice their religion as they want to am I contributing to the wider suppression of those liberal values in society? Aaargh!

There are always those that hate and need no excuse to express that hatred. Society is by no means a prejudice free idyll but acts of aggression to minority groups are usually greeted by a justified outpouring of disgust from the liberal section of society. Are we at a point, or getting to a point, where this group is becoming more tolerant to different forms of intolerance because of the perceived illiberal values of the targets? Chris didn’t try to give us answers, it’s not that easy, but there are questions to be asked and answered on all sides.

I’ll leave the review of the talk there; it was fascinating and thought provoking. Chris at no point last night mentioned that he has a book about this and when I suggested that we should tell people he downplayed the idea. So I will mention it on his behalf to give you the chance of looking further into this fascinating subject.

I’ll move on now to talk about the Q&A session which for us was a very unusual one. There were sections in the audience that had I think, already decided what Chris was going to say and also what they thought should be the focus of his research and study. There were points where the questioning bordered on the aggressive and rude. As the person nominally in charge I was a bit conflicted as to what to do. I did think about stepping in but I know that if a speaker handles this kind of thing well it turns from a negative to a positive. In his time Chris has managed to antagonise and face sections of both the radical Muslim community and the far right political movement, what's more he is a Millwall fan! I was therefore confident that he could handle a couple of rude people in the crowd and he did so brilliantly.

I was more concerned about people that were coming along for the first time. We advertise ourselves as a constructive and entertaining space for asking questions and having discussions. That wasn’t what this minority were about and I hope that if it was your first time you will come back. As our regulars will tell you that was not the norm. I know that this kind of thing is to be expected occasionally at this type of forum but to be honest I was angry and disappointed by these people. A lot of work goes into the events by the organisers and by the speakers and I felt there was the chance of it being derailed, but fortunately it wasn’t and it was still a great night.

We want people to care about the topics and the talks that we present. We don’t expect or ask anybody to agree with our speakers. Questions can be as challenging as you like. The rule though is that you treat the speaker with respect and courtesy. Chris took no money for presenting a talk that lasted over two hours in the end and he only stopped because I thought we were at a good point to do so. He then stayed on until the very end answering further questions and talking. All of this on the eve of having to head off early to a conference in another part of the country for the next morning. He by far deserves more respect than the rude people that came and shouted out their comments and the reaction of the people that I spoke to, that tweeted and emailed afterwards showed that he got it.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub. This blog post reflects his views.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Stephen Hawking, a Biographic

We've been sent a great graphic by Peter Kim and his team celebrating the life and work of Stephen Hawking. They'd love to have your comments and thoughts on this. They've produced other outstanding stuff and we might just feature a few more of their items in the future. But for now enjoy this:

Stephen Hawking
Created by: Online PhD