Archives for posts with tag: skepticism

On a walk today with my teenage kids, I found myself talking at length about science and astronomy: meteor impacts, dinosaurs, evolution, genetics, putting humans in space, the prospect of alien life. I was on a roll. This is the kind of stuff I have been interested in since I was a kid. The whizz-bang story of how we got here and where we are going. Like a great opera, the story of our universe stretches across spacial dimensions and time scales that are literally incomprehensible to the human mind. This is the stuff of dreams, of awakening, of wonder.

It got me thinking: as an occasional sceptical communicator, am I doing it wrong? Are we, as skeptics, sometimes doing it wrong?

Important though scepticism is, there is an unavoidable negativity about it. We are in the business of bursting balloons, raining on parades and exposing emperor’s clothes, when the science and evidence tell a different story. We are the debunkers, the critics, the nay-sayers. We play the bad cop, leaving ourselves open to anger, ridicule, smears and legal threats. We lose friends and find ourselves isolated, simply because we dare challenge an orthodoxy that is based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Conflict is inevitable, because many people have built reputations and fortunes on magical thinking and delusions. 

I greatly value scepticism, but I didn’t arrive at scepticism from day one. First came the wonder; the amazement that came with science and discovery. Astronomy was my passion, and remains so to this day. The scepticism appeared later, when I started to appreciate the importance of science, how it was being misrepresented and how easy it is for us to be fooled by empty rhetoric and soothing words. Scepticism is incredibly important, but without a sense of wonder it can be a very difficult message to convey.

Maybe as a sceptic, I need to spend more time talking about the things that got me into science in the first place, and less time, at least up front, pointing out the flaws in other people’s thinking. Persuasion is rarely accomplished by enemies or rivals. It’s easier to accomplish when you are a friend. So much science is accessible and uncontroversial, that this should be the main ingredient of science-based conversations. Give people a chance to feel your passion; to sense your humanity. Then you have a much better chance to open their minds to other ideas and help reconsider their beliefs.

The most powerful science communicators talk about their passions first and foremost. They are successful communicators because people have a sense of affection for them. Their thoughts on scepticism come later, often only when trust is long established. 

There is a lesson here for me: to talk more forthrightly about my passions, to give the listeners a chance to get to know me and to allow respect to flow both ways. It’s easy, it’s fun and there is a better chance that they will take on board the important messages we need to convey.

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


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.


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!


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 third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.


It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.


You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.


A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

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.


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.


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!


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

QED is the UK’s largest conference on science and scepticism. It’s a get together for people who are passionate about science and evidence in contemporary culture and current affairs. It takes place yearly in Manchester and it’s now in its sixth year. This is my fifth year attending. As ever, it was a wonderful conference. We were really spoiled for choice this year with many tracks taking place simultaneously, so until I am able to master bilocation or out-of-body travelling, this is my account of just a small sliver of events happening over the weekend.

YouTube Debunkery!

The intro video this year was really superb, with production values in the stratosphere. It became clear how this was done when the speaker for the conference, Alan Melikdjanian aka Captain Disillusion, gave us an insight into how he makes debunking videos for YouTube. It was an incredible presentation, complete with audience polls, interpretive dance, hater comments, bad 90’s Powerpoint, arguing with himself on video, all done flawlessly with maximum comedic effect. The slides looked beautiful too.


In terms of technical presentation skills and using the different types of media to communicate a message, this was one of the best I have ever seen. Really, truly excellent.

Here’s one of his videos.

Good Advice, Bad Advice!


The next speaker was Petra Boynton, an advice columnist with the Telegraph. She showed how advice columns are a very old and venerable part of print media for over 300 years, and in many ways, they have not changed that much. It was interesting to hear how careful columnists needed to be, as context is everything. She very much sees this as a kind of public service, particularly when access to professional help has been cut back in recent years.



The next speaker was Britt Hermes. Britt had a very unusual story to tell. She thought she was a doctor, then found out she wasn’t. Britt studied naturopathy in Bastyr University in California, where she was indoctrinated in alternative medicine. Even though there was a small amount of medicine taught, everything was solidly encased in new age woo.

I’m taking down these notes and I’m thinking “Wow. These doctors are so stupid.”

During her studies, Britt went to Ghana. She learned to give intravenous injections of ineffective medicines to people who were very sick. She then went to Nicaragua where she dispensed homeopathic products to treat cardiovascular disease.

When she graduated, she started teaching in Bastyr. She moved to Arizona under Michael Uzick, which was where the wool was pulled from her eyes. Uzick appeared to be involved in a dangerous, so-called cancer drug called ukrain. She reported him to the authorities, with predictable consequences. She ended up leaving naturopathy, a profession which, by this time, she had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

I realised I was a fraud.

Britt found help and support from within the global skeptic community. She has since set up a blog to expose the practices of naturopathy to the rest of the world. It’s hard not to see naturopathy as a kind of twenty-first century cult, despite it’s veneer of medicine.

Naturopaths can basically say and do what they want. There is no standard of care.

Britt is adamant that naturopaths should under no circumstances be given the title of doctor. They should not be treating children as they get only 10% the training of paediatricians.

There is no doubt that many naturopaths have good hearts. But without a medical degree, they are nothing more than good hearted charlatans.

Britt has stared a petition “Naturopaths are not doctors” to raise awareness of the inadequacy of naturopathic care, and to stop naturopaths being licensed as doctors in America.

You have to fool patients and you have to fool yourself. So I am glad to say, I am one of the most unsuccessful naturopaths on the planet.

Britt has shown incredible bravery in admitting her mistake and then challenging the fundamental basis of naturopathy to a world audience. Britt got a well deserved standing ovation from the audience for her talk.

We’re not done (not by a long shot)…

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 you can’t see any flaws in the arguments of those you agree with, and you can’t see any merit in the arguments of those you disagree with, then chances are you are in the grip of confirmation bias.

It’s not easy to cross rivers when you are looking in the wrong direction.

Cognitive Dissonance is described as the mental state a person experiences when their long term beliefs are somehow shown to be completely wrong-headed. It’s not a nice feeling to find out that your beliefs are ridiculous, so typically your brain will work overtime  to reduce this dissonance. The internal dialogue goes something like this: “I am a good, reasonable person, and a good, reasonable person would never indulge themselves in something batshit crazy, so if something is wrong with this picture, it’s got nothing to do with good, reasonable me”.

This line of thinking is, of course, a recipe for total fucking disaster.

There are a few tried and tested strategies that people have used to reduce this cognitive dissonance. Let’s look at them.

The Martyr Syndrome

When the world is agin you, it might be that you are wrong; but of course it’s more likely that you are part of that great tradition of saints and saintesses who went to their deaths for professing their beliefs. We’re thinking Joan of Arc here, who was burned at the stake in the 15th Century; or Saint Sebastian who was turned into a human pin-cushion in the 3rd Century. The issues nowadays might be about refusing marriage licenses to gay people, but look at the trouble you are making for yourself. Surely your willingness to go to jail is strong evidence that you are on the side absolute truth? Except that it isn’t. Jim Jones, Anders Breivik and the nut-jobs who boarded those airliners in 2001 all felt they were great martyrs despite their causes being absolutely fucking evil and insane. Martyrdom is simply an indication of how strongly you feel about your beliefs, not whether those beliefs bear any resemblance to reality.

The Galileo Syndrome

Galileo was a 17th Century scientist who famously went on trial for declaring that the Earth and all the planets travelled around the sun. Since then, Galileo has been cited by all sorts of cranks and nut cases, feeling sore after their crazy ideas were ignored or criticised by scientists and professionals. “Galileo was laughed at too”, they declare, somehow convincing themselves that the ridicule is evidence that their idea is spot on correct. Er, no. It’s just evidence that people are taking the piss out of your ideas. Real evidence of validity requires a hell of a lot more work. All sorts of mad beliefs have been the subject of mockery: Scientology, aura healing, foot reflexology, astrology and creationism, to cite a few examples off the top of my head. And guess what? They still very much merit all the derision they get. University physics professors get it the worst, apparently. Would be geniuses who believe they have out-Einsteined Einstein, regularly send them 800 page manuscripts, demand they read them immediately and then get monumentally upset if the professor passes on the opportunity. Here is a list of crackpot theories that would make your brain melt.

Bad, Bad People

When the flaws in their grand theories have been pointed out, it’s much easier for some people to attack their critics than to defend the merits of their convictions. The critics are mad, bad, in the pay of Big Whats-it, or otherwise compromised or evil intentioned. Never mind that some of their opponents might know what they are talking about, or might be much better acquainted with the literature or practice. This war against their critics can become quite a preoccupation. Anti-fluoridation activists have been known to ring the employers of their critics, demanding they be sacked. Or even worse: a few years ago, climate change deniers hacked into the servers of the University of East Anglia in order to “prove” that climate change researchers were behaving dishonestly. After no less than seven high profile investigations into the affair, the scientists were completely exonerated. Anti-GMO activists are currently using Freedom Of Information Act legislation against food researchers to make a similar case.

It’s All a Big Conspiracy

The extreme situation is where the brave Galileo constructs this elaborate framework of persecution that often goes all the way to the top. Because their beliefs have been demolished, now it’s not that the critics are just bad, but they are also well-organised. This is the default position of many anti-vaxxers, anti-fluoridation protesters and chemtrail fanatics.  The theory goes that if you pay or compromise enough people, they will do your bidding exactly the way you want them to. I sometimes wonder if these people have worked in any organisation – no matter what size – where internal competition, incompetence, misunderstandings, jealousy, favouritism and pettiness completely rule the roost. No human organisation is perfect, and while they might be able to get their shit together for a while, it’s unlikely to last very long. So what is it? A massively organised conspiracy against your crappy pet theory, or something much more mundane: that you haven’t done half enough work to convince people who might actually know what they are talking about?

Those Poor Deluded Souls

A friend of mine was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for most of his life. When I asked him how he managed to keep his beliefs together when confronted with the occasional well-informed debater? He told me they didn’t matter, because no matter what they said, he was absolutely certain they were wrong. This is similar to the perspective of an ex-Scientologist I know, who, when he was part of the cult, looked on non-Scientologists as somewhat inferior. When you have beliefs like this, it’s quite a strong inoculation against reality.

Ignore Them and They’ll Go Away

Some people simply pretend that their critics are not there. Even in the face of the worst criticism of their ideas, they simply press on, convinced of their righteousness. The master of this was Peter Popoff, a US faith healer and out-and-out fraud, who is still in the business of taking money from desperate people years after he went bankrupt after being exposed in the most public way possible. James Randi (featured in the video) calls people like Popoff “unsinkable rubber ducks” because they just carry on regardless of what’s thrown at them.

Change the Goalposts

This one is not so much about ignoring your critics as changing your position on specific objections while keeping the main thrust of your beliefs intact. Many commentators have noticed that creationism has evolved (ha!) over the years, first from a strict biblical view that assumed that men had a missing rib and the world was created in seven days, to Creation Science, to a more flexible view of time, to Intelligent Design, to “Teach the Controversy”. There are plenty of other examples of this. When the original ideas are exposed as complete bullshit, a new design comes along with the ability to change shape and better adapt to adversity like that robot in Terminator 2.

Hmm, there must be one more reaction…

Oh yeah.

Admit You Were Wrong

Ha ha! As if.

Lots of people around the world do not take any homeopathic treatments. Lots of people do. Both groups tend to live to similar ages and are largely prone to the same conditions as they go through life.

You can think of it as a kind of thought experiment. On one hand, you have people who tend to see illness as something to wait out. Most illnesses – sniffles, coughs, pains, lows, wheezes – they come and go. It’s often a matter of tolerating them until they eventually die down and disappear. Maybe an analgesic, if necessary, will temporarily ease the symptoms. On the other you have people who, at the first sign of a cold or an ache, it’s off down to the homeopath for a dose of oscillococcinum, or whatever you are having yourself.

This intrigues me, because as far as I can see, in both cases the outcomes are pretty much the same. It’s just that in one case, there is this persistent belief that some kind of external remedy needs to be taken. This belief is always confirmed once the symptoms die down, as they normally do.

That’s why I regard homeopathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You see, every time it’s called on, it seems to work. The prescribed remedies actually seem to do the trick. Until one day, they don’t.

The normal, non-homeopathic person will then trot off down to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The homeopathic person has so much invested in their beliefs that they will wait it out, possibly consulting their homeopath a few times, thinking they need something else. All the while, time is ticking away. The old reliable sheep has suddenly revealed itself to be a wolf, and yet the patient is oblivious to this. They convince themselves, until they have no choice, that the growl they hear is just a new kind of bleating.

I don’t think this is healthy. Homeopathy, because it appears so successful for lesser ailments, works against people when they actually need to go to the doctor. It works against their pets, their kids and other family members. Not only do you have to contend with a change of health, you have to deal with a change in your belief system, and that might just be too difficult to accept.

Better, I think, to leave the pills out. It’s not true to say they don’t do anything. While they certainly don’t do anything good, they have the strong potential to make situations worse.

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.


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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 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.


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.


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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!


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.

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