Archive for the ‘ Skepticism ’ Category

Celebrity skeptics

I wrote this ages ago, and just got prompted into thinking about it by a recent news story. I meant to read it and edit it, but haven’t bothered. I can’t even remember if it was finished.

First up, I would like to get my little nerdgasm out of the way. This week I met a some geeky heroes of mine, and had a great couple of nights out. I saw the night of 200 billion stars, or Uncaged Monkeys, at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, and hosted Simon Perry at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub. A wonderfully geeky couple of days, and as nice a set of people as you could hope to meet. However, it did get me thinking a little about the role of ‘celebrity’, and especially in skepticism.

It seems that the common usage of celebrity now refers to anyone who appears or has appeared on TV, for whatever reason. I have no interest in the vast majority of this – I don’t care whether you qualified from tool academy, vajjazzled a princess, or slept with more than one footballer at once. For this discussion I am talking about people in and around science and skepticism who have become known by either doing science well, communicating science well, or debunking pseudoscience. All of these things should be celebrated, and with the advent of The Skeptic Awards, hopefully will be.

I have not been around very long, but it seems to me like the skeptical movement is making some real headway – there have been big wins in the advertising of alternative healthcare, live popular science shows are selling out large venues, and more and more blogs that give good scientific analysis of complex issues are springing up. Science TV shows and radio programmes are consistently among the highest consumed. It’s rarely, if at all, that science and critical thinking have had a bigger presence.

However, I am a little concerned that skepticism is developing a celebrity culture, in which people who are of note are not given the challenge the sometimes deserve. People are often led by the people they most respect, and there is a strong reason for this. If a particular source has shown over time to be reliable, honest and correct, it makes sense that you should tend to guardedly agree with them when talking about a topic you don’t understand or know enough about. However, this does not mean they are correct, just that the caveated assumption that they are correct is a reasonable working position until more information is known.

The reason I am mentioning any of this is because I have, over the last couple of weeks, noticed myself changing my mind without the evidence or arguments that I would expect myself to require. Recently, the Conservative government announced the plans to make public data available to pharmaceutical companies. My immediate reaction is to be distrustful of most things this government does, and especially around bringing private enterprise into public services. I was aware that I was being biased, but I disliked the proposal on instinct.

Then Ben Goldacre said something in praise of the move on Twitter. Immediately my perception of the situation changed. Admittedly this just shows that I have a bias toward believing Ben in addition to my bias toward disbelieving the Conservatives, but it is the bias at I am a little more concerned with. Tending to disbelieve until given adequate evidence is a safer position logically than tending to believe unquestioned, and it is this approach that is at the heart of skepticism.

I doubt very much that I am alone in this, but I think there is a potentially dangerous tendency to treat the most noteable skeptics as reverentially as religious groups do. Of course, our celebrities tend to have earned the right to have their positions respected by being involved somehow in science or science communication, but no more so than anyone else who has the equivalent expertise in the relevant area.

One of my main concerns is the unbalance that we see in the representation of science in the mainstream. There is a tendency to use a limited number of sources that you see approached in the media – if there is a hard physics breakthrough talk to Brian Cox, if there is interesting biology ask Attenborough, for medicine talk to Ben Goldacre, and so on. What I would like to see more of, and this is a point I have heard Neill DeGrass Tyson make, is the original researcher. Name and promote the people who do the work. This helps to make sure that the work is properly represented, as well as ensuring that too much credibility isn’t placed into one source.

Overall I am happy with the level of attention our best skeptics get, and think they do a good job, but I fear that we all get defined by a small number, and that we risk building our beliefs on them too much. I’m not sure this is a massive problem, and have tended to find that the skeptical community is quite happy to challenge itself, but it’s something I am aware of affecting my own views, and I’m sure subconsciously affects others too.


QED – a great excuse to do even more

If you follow either me or #qedcon on twitter, you may have noticed that I was at a big geeky conference this weekend.

First up, a quick review:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Great speakers, a range of interesting and challenging subjects, well organised, and a wonderful crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in interesting things.

If I ever get round to it there are a load of different subjects that I saw talks on that I could write about, but I doubt I will.

One thing really strikes me though: we should do this more.

The Skeptics in the Pub network has grown hugely over the last few years, and there are groups all over the UK. These vary hugely, both in the scale of the events and the resources available. I have been at both ends of this, setting up and running Lancaster Skeptics as a one man band while working full time at the other end of the country, before moving south and getting involved in the original London Skeptics and the new Soho Skeptics, both of which have several people involved, an established audience, and enough resources to be able to aim high.

QED was all that is good about the Skeptics in the Pub network writ large, not least because it is a collaborative effort between two of the countries most active groups, the Merseyside Skeptical Society and the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society. I think over 400 people attended, and tickets sold out well in advance, and I believe there was a waiting list.

The impression I got was that there was plenty of enthusiasm amongst all the attendees for more events, and everyone is already complaining that there is 13 months to go.

So why don’t we take all that great work, and copy it or build on it elsewhere? I think the community is big enough, and growing enough, to sustain another equivalent event elsewhere, probably at a different time of year. Edinburgh puts on the Skeptics on the Fringe, which is a brilliant piece of work, rightly recognised at the Ockham’s this year, but I think that is specific to the area and time. London did have The Amazing Meeting a few years ago, which was an import from the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I think London is probably the natural place to go next.

I don’t know how this would work really – the QED team have clearly done an excellent job, but there is only so much they can do for free while still having time to sleep (and I get the impression organising QED takes a huge amount of effort), and they are all based in the North West. There are 5 Skeptics in the Pub groups in London alone, many more in the South East, and a wide range of other related organisations. However, the QED team have demonstrated their own value too well to be left out.

I think the important bit, if there are to be more events on this scale, is that they co-ordinate and work together. I think I’m being pulled into thinking that there should be a single organising body that supports two (or more) big events a year, and supports grassroots skepticism throughout the rest of the year. At a guess, I would imagine two successful events a year could fund a massive increase in quality skeptical activism, but there would need to be a way of channelling this in a way that made some strategic sense.

So, I guess I think British skepticism should be thinking about a way to organise itself a bit to achieve three ends – put on more events of this scale, co-ordinate better between local groups, and share resources out better.

I don’t know if there is any remnant politics from the last TAM or between different groups that I am not aware of, and I have no intention at all of stepping on anyone’s toes, and I don’t care. I just think we should use the inspiration and example of a wonderful weekend to push on.


Health reporting and regulation – the case for change

This post is a recreation of a post at They are working on a project to explore media regulation in light of the Leveson inquiry and the Carnegie Plan for Better Journalism. I was asked to write something to highlight the relationship between regulation and healthcare reporting. Here is my first draft. 


I am going to write about the representation of healthcare and the science that underpins it in the media, the potentially dangerous effects this can have, and highlight some of the key discussion points around regulation. There are a number of passionate journalists who are very quick to pick up on particular misleading health stories – with amateur and professional ‘skeptics’ leading the way – much better than I could, so I will stick to the systemic issues, borrowing illustrative examples. What I hope to do is demonstrate that there is a case for change to the regulation of health reporting.

As I see it, health reporting suffers from a number of key issues. Stories tend to be simplified and sensationalised, use advertorials unchallenged and are vulnerable to political agenda. At the heart of healthcare reporting there are a set of crucial, perhaps irresolvable, central conflicts which I will try to draw out.

Mainstream media outlets have minimal direct motivation to report healthcare science stories well. The primary motivation for a media organisation is to drive revenue, and healthcare reporting is a tool by which to do that. Whatever the chosen market, this tends toward creating an internal culture that values output over quality and accuracy, often to a particular template. This actively prevents even the best intentioned journalists being more thorough than the minimum required to meet the standard for their organisation.

The reality of the science that informs and underpins healthcare, and the sort of story that best sells papers, drives clicks or otherwise gets the public attention, are wildly different.

On one hand, medical science progresses by small steps, with each new result acting as just another data point in an array that should be considered as a whole. Single facts, experiments or case studies that radically alter the way we view healthcare are rare at best. The key advances in any science are complex, and there is a necessary technical language built around any given area.

On the other hand, magazines write stories weekly, newspapers create new headlines every day, and websites can’t stand still for an hour. This leads to a tendency to inflate the claims of healthcare stories in the search for something new to grab attention, to distinguish the information in this particular story from the general background understanding. Additionaly, the language and concepts must be simplified to fit the audience.

However, we often see the essence of a story damaged in this simplification process. Nuance is lost around the causality of relationships, the confidence in conclusions and the distinction between relative and absolute risks. One example of both oversimplification and sensationalism, explained by Ben Goldacre, is the use of red wine to prevent breast cancer. Red wine contains resveratrol, a chemical that could indirectly reduce damage to DNA, and therefore cancers. But this is an isolated reaction between two chemicals in a lab, ignoring the complexities of the human body and the wine. The other ingredients in red wine, particularly alcohol, cause cancer. The evidence Ben cites suggest that red wine is known to cause cancer, yet because of oversimplification, people are encouraged to drink it as a cancer preventative. It is worth noting that while Ben was writing in 2008, a quick search shows equivalent ‘red wine prevents cancer’ stories still run regularly, and I am not aware of a dramatic change in the evidence base.

Due largely to the sort of output pressures described above, there is also a tendency for journalists and media sources to accept stories at face value. A well written press release by an organisation with an interest in promoting a particular idea will very quickly do the rounds at all the major news outlets, not just unchallenged, but largely unchanged. This process of converting a press release into a story without challenge relieves the pressure on a journalist, as they have effectively outsourced their job. It also means that the public is subjected to advertorial masquerading as editorial, no journalistic investigation applied to the representation the company would like you to see.

Particularly in the special case of publicly funded media, although not exclusively, there is the additional problem of false balance, whereby all views are given equal time and space to be expressed. This is done in the name of fairness, although it presents a false picture, as if the homeopath and the GP view on treatment of particular conditions are of equal value. It feels to me like this is changing, following the recent ‘BBC Trust – Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBCs coverage of science‘ recommendations, although I would need to see a further study to see how well this has been enacted.

Finally, there is the potential for an agenda to intrude. Here there is a risk that editorial positions can be imposed on ostensibly science reporting in such a way as to mislead. A moral position can lead to particular views on, for example, birth control, and so affect the reporting of sexual health stories. A prior view on the effectiveness and appropriateness of the free market, for example, can lead to misrepresentation of healthcare outcomes under different healthcare delivery systems.

These factors, and more, mean that the healthcare reporting we see in mainstream media is regularly inaccurate. We hope that the inaccuracies are trivial and understandable, in that a process is simplified without loss of meaning. More commonly, there is exaggeration and sensationalism such that the media representation is potentially dangerous. Much has been written on the persistent misleading reporting in the Wakefield and MMR case, largely uncovered by Brian Deer, and there have been outbreaks of measles in recent years, likely as a result. There is also an ongoing controversy around the clinic of Dr. Burzynski in the USA, where unevidenced claims were supported in the national press, prompting charitable donations for children to be sent at great expense to America for treatment that has not been shown to work.

It is important to note that these sorts of reporting problems are found in all mainstream media channels I am acquainted with. There is a tendency to mock the onoing ‘ontological oncological’ project of the Daily Mail, to divide every item into something that causes cancer, cures cancer, or both. The Daily Mail is indeed a regular for poor health science reporting, but is by no means alone – above Ben Goldacre is talking about an article in The Telegraph, and The Observer was involved in the Burzynski controversy. Basically every media outlet was guilty of dangerous misinformation during the MMR crisis. Every mainstream media outlet suffers these problems to a degree.

We have identified some of the main concerns in health reporting, and it is clear that each of these can lead to harm to the public. However, little has been done to rectify these innacurate stories, and those those dangerous reports go largely unchecked. The PCC as it has been is an inappropriate body to take on this role for a number of reasons that become clear when we think of what a regulator should look like.

The key discussion should be around which of these interests we should expect a regulatory system to serve, and how we would expect those to be served. The interests of the public are in having media coverage that is accurate, accessible, complete and relevant. It is through this sort of coverage that people decide to make the best evidence based lifestyle and healthcare decisions.

Given these aims I think a few of the key considerations for the formation of a regulatory body should be:

  • Degree of empowerment to impose sanctions that decrease likelihood of inappropriate activity, including financial penalties
  • Degree of empowerment to impose sanctions that rectify damage – corrections and clarifications in at least as obvious a manner as the original misguiding information
  • Independance from the media sector to reduce conflict of interests
  • Transparency in and public accountability for decision making
  • Magnitude and impact of misrepresentation required for action
  • Simplicity of and mechanism for reporting (perhaps a browser plugin that reports abuses like Fishbarrel does to the ASA)

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the above, but with due consideration, I think a body could be designed that is considerably more effective at protecting the public from harm and promoting quality healthcare science reporting than the current PCC. If this isn’t done, people will continue to be harmed by poor health reporting.

Suw poster – Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub

Here is the poster for Suw Charman-Anderson talking about Ada Lovelace Day and women in STEM at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub.

This will be upstairs at The Park Hotel, Wednesday April 4 at 8:00pm.

Please feel free to print this and stick it up wherever you can, and pass the word on.

Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub – So far and what next

So, Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub is six months old. Time for a quick re-assessment – overall it’s very positive, but there are a couple of things I need to think about, and maybe some I could do with some help on.

I want to say a big thank you to all of the speakers we have had so far:

These have all been very different, interesting and fun for me, and I hope also for the people who have come along. These people give up their time for free, travelling from Leicester, London and Winchester.

Coming up, we have confirmed:

and I am working on a few more that should be very exciting.

It seems people must be enjoying it, as we seem to have a solid group of people turning up regularly, and it has been great to meet a whole bunch of new people, and see some old faces in a different setting. We have people coming regularly from the Lancashire Secular Humanists (who kindly advertise in their newsletter and write up each event on the blog), and different university groups such as the philosophy society and the humanist society. The rest of the audience is just your average mix of tech geeks, philosophers, teachers and science nerds.

I’d also like to plug the blog of one of our regulars, Sir Lancs Allot, which despite being local to me I hadn’t come across before, and I am very slowly looking over now.

Finally, thanks to The Park Hotel for hosting us – their equipment and frankly ridiculous room rent makes it possible to keep going financially. A room like that could cost a lot more, making the whole enterprise more expensive than I could really put up with.

So, that’s all the positive stuff. There is one main downside. I am currently working away a great deal and have quite a bit on my plate, and so am not really around to push on things like advertising. What I would like, if possible, are some volunteers to help me out a bit. The jobs are likely to be pretty boring, but will help the whole thing tick over. So, please get in touch if you’re interested in helping:

  • Design posters
  • Print posters
  • Distribute posters
  • Manage the Facebook and Twitter feeds
  • Manage the mailing list
  • Pester people for money

I would also like a bit of local media presence – if people have links to local press or radio stations that they can pull in, please let me know.

However, I would also like to think about growing a bit, and getting involved in things other than just the Skeptics in the Pub. I would be happy to discuss any ideas that people have that we could do as Lancaster Skeptics, whether on our own or in conjunction with other organisations – the Secular Humanists, other local Skeptics groups, or the university or schools. If we are going to grow like this, we need to think about what Lancaster Skeptics looks like and how people are involved in it.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this post, contact:



#LanSitP #LanSkep

Free will

Modern neuroscience and psychology seem to be moving toward a conclusion on the old philosophical questions of free will. This is a basic version of that discussion, given that it is being written largely from memory on a long train journey with no internet – please feel free to correct anywhere I have ballsed up the science.

In simple dualist terms, probably the more immediately appealing explanation of human experience, there is the physical body and a separate mind. This dualist mind operates independently of the body, in a different realm, and instructs the body. This gives the purest form of free will, where each and every interaction is chosen from the range of possible actions in advance and freely by the actor.

However, this dualist explanation is significantly undermined by neuroscience, whereby it is clear that certain brain areas have direct and mappable effects on experience, abilities, and decision making processes. We see this most clearly when the brain is damaged, and the experiences of the person change significantly. This means straight dualism is wrong, with the mind, or world of experience, directly mapped to the brain, rather than independent.

So, if the mind is directly linked to the brain, can we say anything abut the causal relationship? To allow free will, we would hope to see the mind directing the brain, and the brain directing the body. Therefore, for example, we would hope that in an experiment, people would say they were going to do something before the mechanism for doing started. This would mean, for example, a test subject say ‘I will move my arm’ then we see the mechanism, such as brain activity, nerve messages and muscle twitches, then the activity of the arm moving. This would demonstrate at least that the relationship goes from decision in the mind to action in the brain.

However, in the tests originally run by Libet and built on over the more recent years, we can see that the relationship described above doesn’t happen. The body is starting the activity before the declaration of intent, which suggests that the decision is not consciously taken by the mind before the brain and body kick into action.

This suggests that we cannot say that the mind directs the brain, but rather is directed by it. Taking any psychoactive drug, recreationaly or medically, shows quite clearly that the physical state of the brain leads the experiences of the mind to some degree. This is supported in more detail as the understanding of the brain develops, with very strong links demonstrated between certain areas and functions of the brain and certain behaviours.

So it appears that the brain directs the mind, strongly and inherently predictably, even if we could probably never hope to actually predict it due to the complexity involved. What does this mean for free will? The sense in which I would naturally interpret it, free will does not appear to exist. There is no independent moral agent that has the freedom to act or to make decisions – your brain and body have made the decision for you, and the you that experiences the decision is deluded into thinking it made it.

However, there are alternative explanations of free will – you can argue that an action is free if it is one of a set of possible actions, barring strong coercion and so on. In this formulation, actions that are unconstrained, or more realistically minimally constrained, are considered to exhibit free will.

I agree that there are situations where actions could appear free, and it is largely using these criteria that I would judge wether an action appears free. However, I am concerned that this approach dodges the question a little – if the action is taken by the brain in direct response to electrical and chemical signals with no influence from a moral agent, to what extent could the outcome have been otherwise? There has been no decision making, but rather a complex but inherently predictable set of responses to particular stimuli. Given this predictability, you have not chosen one of a possible range of actions, as the other actions were not possible outcomes given the circumstances.

I have argued here that the nature of the brain, and the leading role it has in action formation means that free will is a delusion of experience. This is a difficult conclusion to come to, as it is so counter-intuitive, and somewhat discomfiting. Questions about ethics arise as many ethical theories are based largely on agency, and this leads into political questions around crime and punishment, and personal responsibility. However, those are for another post. Worry not, I think I’ll probably write about those next time I’ve got a couple of hours and no internet.

Rationalism and Feminism, labels part 3

Ooops, I meant to keep writing some of the random things I think about down. Sorry for the delay, real life has been in the way a bit. I had a bit of a series going about the labels we do and should use, which I’d like to continue. In this instalment, I will talk a bit about how skepticism, the application of rigorous doubt and the desire for logic and evidence to support positions, fits with some forms of feminism. This is prompted in no small part by the fact that Ada Lovelace day is upon us.

Feminism is a very weighted term, one with a lot of history. Much of the history has been positive, with great steps, in the west particularly, toward the legal recognition that women should be treated as equals to men. Sadly, as with any movement I guess, there is also a set of negative connotations. Some feminists have made ludicrous claims and statements, and some have been openly hostile to men. Here I will explain why I think there is still a need for feminism, why I think that is the rational position, and what I hope a modern feminist to look like.
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