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This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

It takes an extraordinary person to go after a global pseudoscience network and dismantle it, piece by piece. The network involved is the Genesis II cult, whose schtick has been to promise “miracle” cures to parents of autistic children. If they would only drink bleach, or have it forced up their rectums, their children would be cured of autism. These people have made their fortunes by selling industrial bleach to vulnerable parents. They couldn’t care less who got hurt in the process. Despite negative publicity and widespread condemnation, they seemed unstoppable. Business is business, right?

Then someone – a parent of autistic children – took them on. Working with concerned parents in other countries, she got the media to take note. By contacting the papers, independent journalists, TV stations, radio stations and networks, she brought the church’s tactics into the light. Documentaries were commissioned, special investigations produced, exposing Genesis II for who they were. At this time, the cult and their associates are in disarray. The light of publicity has not been kind to them. Some of the perpetrators are in prison, and more criminal convictions may soon follow.

The person who helped to make this happen is Fiona O’Leary. Fiona is an extraordinary person who I’m proud to know. Based in West Cork in Ireland, Fiona spends hours each day following up leads, talking to people around the world, reaching out to parents and victims – all the while getting the message out about the bleacher cult and their tactics. Fiona herself is on the autistic spectrum, which perhaps contributes to her tenacity. She is courageous to a fault; she has a strong sense of justice and she won’t easily give up.

Enter Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield is notorious in pseudoscience circles, having been responsible for perhaps the greatest health scare in recent memory. The story of Andrew Wakefield is as bad a tale of professional misconduct as it is possible to find. After the publication of a now discredited and retracted paper that associated the MMR vaccine with bowel and brain damage, a public health crisis emerged that resulted in old-diseases making an unwelcome return, with avoidable injury and needless deaths following in their wake. Wakefield’s medical license was revoked after he failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Wakefield has been working hard to restore his disgraced reputation. His latest attempt is “Vaxxed“, a documentary that attempts to create a parallel history of what really happened, while scaring the bejesus out of parents. The Guardian noted how the documentary ignores contradictory evidence, while rehashing utterly discredited claims. The documentary film-maker Penny Lane commented “this film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” The Washington Post said it should come with a warning label: “May cause irrational anxiety, especially if taken with an empty head.” Variety Magazine called it a “scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering.” 

As far as I am aware, none of these highly reviewers received a threat of legal action from the producers of the movie. However, last week, Fiona O’Leary did. According to the legal notice sent to Fiona “We will ask for punitive damages and financial compensation for all losses to our business directly resulting from your actions.”

What utter cowards these people are. Fiona was within her rights to alert people to the vast problems inherent in the documentary – the facts left unsaid, the real story about what Wakefield had done, the treatment of his critics. “Vaxxed” is a piece of dangerous propaganda with a direct public health impact. By attempting to rekindle the mythical link between vaccines and autism, it puts needless guilt on parents of autistic children, implying – when there is no empirical evidence to back it up – that somehow they are responsible for what happened. If you were a parent and you knew the damage that such allegations could wreak, wouldn’t you be anxious to criticise them too? Clearly, Cinema Libre, like a classic bully, prefer to go for the small people first.

So, instead of accounting for the massive problems in their worthless and dangerous pseudo-documentary, Cinema Libre took a campaigner with a distinguished record of defending autistic parents and they threatened her with legal action. Honestly, I hope this move backfires on them utterly. They deserve every piece of bad publicity they get.

Further reading:

Makers of ‘Vaxxed’ Threaten Lawsuit Over Valid Criticism

Vaxxed distributor threatened Fiona O’Leary – they’re afraid of facts

Cinema Libre Studios and Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed team threaten autistic autism mom

http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com/2016/07/cinema-libre-bullies-critics.html

US film studio threatens to sue Cork autism-rights advocate

 

I’ve been interested in scepticism since I was a teenager. That’s about 30 years, reading up on science and understanding the boundaries between science and pseudoscience. I have always found the sceptical analysis more compelling, more logical, and profoundly more satisfying than mystical or ideological viewpoints.

More recently, I started blogging about it, talking about it and bringing people together to discuss issues of common interest. Now, though, I’m starting to wonder why I bother.

I mean, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

I don’t earn a penny from all this. My blogging and my talks are done for free and the meetings I organise are often run at a loss, with me picking up the tab for any overruns. From speaking to other organisers, it’s all low budget, net loss stuff there too.

Contrast this with the groups who are often the focus of our criticism. Many are in business for themselves, and some are making very tidy sums indeed. They profit primarily from people who are desperate for answers, cures and solutions. For such quests, there will always be a ready market.

Our targets are often well resourced, sometimes able to pay lawyers or launch legal actions at the slightest provocation. Us? We have to take great care, in case we upset the wrong people. We have little recourse should our targets get malicious. After all, we pose a challenge to their income streams, so they will defend themselves with venom, if the truth threatens them too much.

And then there’s the abuse. The constant, gnawing opprobrium designed to hurt. The spamming, the trolling, the dirty tricks. Sceptics I know have had calls made to their employers, FOIA requests made against their work, meetings disrupted, websites attacked. And it’s not always the targets who give us such heat, but their customers and supporters who have become invested in the hogwash peddled by them. 

We’ve all lost friends over our scepticism. Nobody likes being told they might be wrong, but often there’s no easy way to say it. No matter how polite and sensitive we try to be, relationships will never be quite the same afterwards. You don’t win friends by bursting their precious balloons.

And there’s the research, the poring over websites to find the flaws, the searching through studies to get more definitive answers, trying to be as correct and as well informed as possible. And what for? To engage in pointless conversations with people who could never be convinced anyway? Frequently, it feels more like work than fun. Often, it feels like wading through treacle.

Then there’s the endless nature of it all. Despite decades of thorough debunking, creationism and homeopathy are still going strong; as is global warming denial. The only things we can reasonably expect are new members to this ghastly choir: such as the gluten-free craze and anti-chemical fad. No matter how well you do on day 1, you’ll be having exactly the same arguments on day 2, and indeed, day 10,000.

What do we get from it? Why do we do it? It’s not for the money, for sure. Neither is it because arguments with opponents leave us with a warm, happy feeling. Many of us suffer from depression and anxiety, so it’s not as if it’s even that great for our mental health. For good reason, a lot of people have moved on, as over time, it can just get too much.

Perhaps we do it because we are passionately interested in the raw truth and concerned about people being taken for a ride. More so, we worry, that if it were not for people like us, nobody would be holding up a mirror to these people; exposing the quacks, ideologues and charlatans for the damage they cause. Without active scepticism, I often wonder if it’s the destiny of this culture to be eventually swallowed by a tsunami of ideological bullshit. 

I’m not sure what I am looking for from writing about this. Maybe a better understanding perhaps, or at least an acknowledgement that this lonely, tiring work is in some way worth the effort.

Or maybe I just need a hug. Hugs are nice.

If your home were on fire, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to raise the alarm and lead everyone to safety?

It’s from sentiments like this where proselytisers come from. They are called to witness because God wants them to save the rest of us from hellfire. 

To be saved, you take on beliefs that argue for a suppression of critical thinking, a subsidiary role for women, an aversion of sexual health, a disdain for unmarried partners and parents and an intolerance of homosexuals. In other words, the price of salvation is the acceptance of bigotry.

If I were to ask people to take on such an intolerant position, I would need to be absolutely sure my own beliefs were rock solid. I would need to hold myself to the very highest standards of evidence. Testimonials would not be enough, because people can be fooled. Personal evidence would not be enough, because I can be fooled. It would not be enough to listen to a charismatic teacher or read a compelling book. I would actively seek out positions that contradict my views to see if alternative interpretations are possible. I would try not to rationalise but instead accept countering evidence on its own merits. I would try my best to become free from the hold of confirmation bias on my thinking patterns. I would want to be in a position to establish, beyond any reasonable doubt, that my house was indeed on fire.

This is not what we get from proselytisers of every hue. They are calling us to change our lives without having applied any rigour to their own views. We should be under no obligation to surrender our humanity just because the person looks trustworthy or friendly, or because of the emotional packaging in which they wrap such life denying views.

Is our house on fire? They don’t have a clue.

I attended my 4th QED Conference this year, making me a regular at this stage, I guess. The previous conferences have all been great, and this one met the the high standard we have become accustomed to. The folks in the Merseyside Skeptical Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics do a terrific job. They deserve all the praise they get for organising these events.

Skeptical Trousers

Skeptical Trousers

The difference for me this year was that I was speaking. At the very last minute (i.e. 4 days before) I decided to enter Skepticamp with a 10 minute talk. My presentation was about ways to communicate critical thinking to a general audience, while at the same time giving the audience an idea of the main skeptical issues in Ireland. Ireland is commonly thought to be a very religious country, but it’s not as devout as many people think. Even paying lip-service to the Catholic Church is on the wane. Instead the issues are more familiar: cancer quackery, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, secularism. I did recount the “Holy Stump of Rathkeale” story though, as my mind is still boggling over that one.

Wifi was not good in the main hall, so instead I took copious notes. I won’t burden you with all these, but there were some real high points over the weekend.

Insects! 

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Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology from Wagenigen University in the Netherlands, spoke about eating insects and their role in future food security. The statistics are worrying to say the least. With a projected population of 10 billion by 2050 and the availability of land on the decline, we may need many more options to keep everyone fed. And besides, mealworms taste GOOD. Roasted crickets taste GOOD. I know. I ate some samples…

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Acupuncture!

Acupuncture is one of those things. It’s a bit crazy, but because it’s not the worst type of crazy out there, it’s largely given an easy ride by the skeptical community. Dr. Harriet Hall was there to point out some real problems with acupuncture techniques – how it’s a lot more recent than people think, how you run a high risk of infection and how its role in anaesthesia is thoroughly undeserved.

Satanism!

Rosie Waterhouse gave a lecture on the satanic abuse scares of the 1990s. Heavy stuff. The story in brief is that vulnerable children under the influence of over-eager therapists began to accuse their parents of having abused them in horrific rituals. On the basis of these allegations, children were wrongly removed from their families by social workers. Rosie was one of a small, brave number of people who questioned the veracity of the claims. It brought False Memory Syndrome and Multiple Personality Disorder strongly into the spotlight. Worryingly, such allegations still persist today.

Classical Greece!

Natalie Haynes spoke to us about the Greek classics and how they still influence the storylines of soaps in the modern age. You could listen to Natalie forever – she has an engaging style with lots of laughs spread through her talk. And it is true – whom amongst us, it times of trouble, have not been consoled by sheep? Anyone? Anyone?

Our Stupid Brains!

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Bruce Hood explained how our brains really weren’t cut out for rational thinking. We learned how magical thought is an innate part of how we view the world from early childhood and that things like “mind-body dualism” and “essentialism” give us an insight into how we come to believe stupid things. These deep seated notions can survive long into adulthood.

Dawkins Clones!

Matt Dillahunty talked about debating with theists and how there was no one sure way to change peoples minds. We don’t all have to be clones of Richard Dawkins. (I know, we can all breath a sigh of relief now).  He had a few words of advice for skeptics – “Have a good reason for engaging in the conversation in the first place. Not so that you can look superior or cool.” Well said.

Homeopathy!

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Where Michael Marshall gets his energy, I do not know. What with his involvement in QED and his podcasts and debates with true believers, he’s off now trying to stop the UK government funding homeopathy – and he’s making good progress too. Marsh is a pleasure to listen to – he’s VERY funny, although the story content almost writes itself. Homeopathic Owl, anyone?

Nuclear Bloody Reactors!

Dame Sue Ion showed us that the UK seems to be getting somewhere with its energy strategy these days. In the next few years, traditional fossil fuels in our houses and cars will decline, to be replaced by electricity – and for that there will need to be a very diverse set of energy sources and management systems. Nuclear Power is part of that equation, which is more than can be said for Ireland, with it’s blanket opposition to nuclear from almost everyone.

Ancient Doubters!

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The wonderfully eloquent Jennifer Hecht did a terrific job of explaining how atheism and doubt has always been with us. There have always been doubters and people who opted out of cosy religious consensuses, sometimes at great risk to their lives. They did this because they got frustrated with the bullshit and the lack of proper explanation for tragedy. With phrases like “the meat in our heads wrote the Ode to Joy and Hamlet” I could have listened to Jennifer forever. Poetry and language are powerful and underused tools to communicate our viewpoints.

Skeptical tribes!

AC Grayling spoke about the many different skeptical traditions, and how there was such a thing as “good scepticism” and “bad scepticism”. It was an academic lecture going way back to the time of ancient Greece and explaining how thinking has evolved over the centuries. This is an important story that everyone should learn about.

And then it was over…

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

I just missed two “big” talks – an evangelical preacher who lost his religion and the story of our sun. It’s a pity as they seemed to be well worth attending.  It was great once again to meet my friends from the different parts of the UK and Ireland and it barely needs to be said that I’m already looking forward to 2016.

The world of inspirational speaking is a popular (and lucrative) part of modern culture – particularly in the fields of motivation, success, health, wealth and leadership. People will spend huge sums just to hear the best speakers tell us how we can change our lives for the better. Some of it may indeed be useful, but much of it is just, well, bubblegum.

There is a world of a difference between how persuasive something is, and whether the key messages are in any way true. A very skilled storyteller could easily convince you of something that is factually inaccurate – perhaps even an outright lie – and you would not necessarily know.

Establishing whether something is true takes quite a lot of work, most of it far removed from the world of public speaking and presentation. It’s done in the back rooms, through hard work, testing, studies, experiments, draft publications, criticism, argument, peer review, detailed scrutiny, and most of all – good evidence. It requires specialisation and familiarisation with the field and a readiness to accept that new evidence might upset what is known. It requires expertise – something that the vast majority of us will never have. Nobody can be an expert in everything, so we are all vulnerable to the messages we are given. We even fail in distinguishing proper experts from pretend experts. It’s a minefield.

Fortunately, there is a difference between most pretenders and people who actually know what they are talking about. Where experts are usually tentative, pretenders are certain. Where experts will cite exceptions, pretenders will dismiss them out of hand. Where experts will qualify their remarks, pretenders will have no such qualms.

The best we can do is to recognise the tricks. Here are 5 red flags to be on the look out for.

Anecdote over evidence

Anecdotes are nicely packaged stories designed to support the points being made. While they can be very compelling, they are not considered to be good evidence. Anecdotes can be very subjective (one person’s testimony only) and selective (leaving out details that do not support the point being made). They are lacking in any rigour and ignorant of alternative factors. They can be coloured and adjusted through time and practice. What they are good at is creating a powerful emotional response in an audience. The more perfect the anecdote seems, the more wary we must be.

Style over substance

It’s amazing what we can do nowadays to deliver the perfect message. Presentations can be enhanced through powerful imagery, humour, appeals to emotion and common sense. Music and sound-effects can be used. The colour, the font design, the transitions – it’s all at the fingertips of the skilled presenter to enhance the message. The presenters themselves can use vocal variety, body language and simple stories to get through to us. It’s an art in itself and the more swish it seems, the more we should be looking for the underlying substance. The basis of the presentation is still important – if it’s not there, or justified merely through common sense or “everyone knows this” – our suspicions should be raised.

Too Good to be True

Experts are aware of the many pitfalls in declaring a breakthrough too hastily, so they tend to qualify their arguments, preferring to publicise their small advances rather than one big denouement. Discoveries tend to build up over time, as alternative possibilities are systematically closed off. Often, we are unaware that a great breakthrough has been made because the underlying work was revealed in dribs and drabs. It’s only when we look back that we can see progress. The pretender has no such qualms. To them, their discovery is the best thing since the wheel. The worst of them compare themselves to Newton or Einstein. They have an unshakable belief that they are right, and that their critics are deluded or malign. Seemingly amazing or stunning announcements require a great deal of support to be accepted.

Sciencey Super-words

Many pretenders will abuse the scientific lexicon if they feel it will help their ideas gain legitimacy. We need to be very careful of words like “quantum”, “multiverse”, “laws of attraction”, “neural”, “magnetic”, “epigenetic” and many other words, particularly when they are used in medical or motivational contexts. Similar words we need to be careful about are “organic”, “natural”, “healing”, “chemical”, “genetically modified” and “toxic” – as their impact is often more emotional than factual.

Perfectly Parcelled Evidence

Finally, pretenders love science when they can make it suit their aims. If a scientific study is found, even obliquely, to agree with the message being promoted, you can be certain to see it mentioned as they make their claims. No mention is ever made about whether the study actually supports the points being made, or whether the methodology was poor, or any other study that contradicts the message. We have to be careful, particularly if the message is rather extraordinary. In new fields of study, there may be an enormous debate still raging, where no strong conclusions can yet be made. In older fields, it is likely that the study being mentioned has long been debunked and a consensus reached. A small amount of research on the Internet might tell you more.

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

AngelI was involved in a Cork 96FM radio programme a few days ago, talking about angel belief. Prior to my bit on the programme, a number of women were interviewed. They were deeply invested in their beliefs, many claiming to have seen visions or having received the assistance of angels at important moments in their lives. The women were clearly very religious, many of them describing themselves as “spiritual”, as opposed to paid-up Catholic Mass-goers.

They talked about their encounters with angel healers. According to them, the healers were able to tell them things they couldn’t possibly have known in advance. It was clear that the healers were using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques. Psychologists and mentalists have long discovered that these methods are not at all magical; instead they prey on mental flaws and blind-spots that we all possess. These manipulative and deceptive practices still catch the unwary, hook, line and sinker.

Angel belief has been given a shot in the arm because of a recent pronouncement by the Pope, who recently declared that they exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. The Pope may well be saying this from a position of belief, however part of me suspects that he is addressing a wider problem within his Church. There has been a notable decline in church involvement by women, who have become disillusioned by the behaviour, attitudes and scandals within the world’s biggest boys’ club.

What strikes me about angel belief is the power of the imagery. I doubt if there are many things more potent than the idea that an authority figure is caring for us and nurturing us. It’s inculcated in us from childhood. When things get bad, we can rely on this image to make us feel better. Mary and Jesus are portrayed as nurturing, parental figures for this very reason. While this kind of belief can seem harmless enough, I have some concerns. Should things continue to get worse, then instead of focusing on the problem, people could be wracked by guilt for having disappointed their “angel”; that, in some way they are being punished for a transgression. This could pile additional stress on what is already a difficult situation. Additionally, such feelings of comfort are temporary and unlikely to solve chronic issues and problems fixable with outside help. Far from being a solution, angel belief could morph into a permanent avoidance strategy. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I am not going to condemn people who believe in angels. What people choose to believe is up to them, so long as they are not trying to foist these beliefs onto us, or put other people’s health and mental health at risk. Angel healing is big business, as anyone who has recently visited a book shop will testify. It saddens me that so many people are locked in a parent-child relationship with an imaginary entity. It allows the angels’ real life proxies – the authors and healers profiting from these beliefs – to be viewed very uncritically by their adherents. Given the subject matter they claim to be experts on and the fact that their only “evidence” is personal anecdote, these people are not quite as knowledgable as they make themselves out to be.

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