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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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!

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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.

Naturoquackery

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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)…

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

 

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.

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

“What’s the Harm”? It’s another question that often comes up from supporters of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Is it not the case that most people attending alternative practitioners can expect to happily live long, chaotic and unexpected lives just as much as the next person?

Yes, but. There’s always a “but”. In fact, there are quite a few “buts”.

Let’s tackle the extreme cases first. There are many cases of people foregoing proper medical care in favour of CAM, thus prolonging pain and suffering for longer than is strictly necessary. In the worst situations, this can be life-threatening. There are many examples of people foregoing medical care for ineffective practices, much to their detriment. So, if you are really sick, go to a doctor. That also applies to your kids.

Other cases exist where semi-medical interventions are being performed, using acupuncture needles without gloves, performing chiropractic manipulation near the neck region, using actual medicines in homeopathic treatments, adding heavy metals to Ayurvedic treatments, triggering asthma attacks during salt therapy. While rare, such treatments have lead to medical complications because, by their nature, they border on real medical intervention, with all its attendant risks.

And then there’s just stupid, avoidable stuff that could have huge negative consequences if the practitioner gets it wrong. Ear Candling, I’m looking at you.

These are the easy ones. But, let’s say it’s not acute or life threatening, and the intervention appears totally safe. There’s no harm then, right?

I looked at the phenomenon of “It Worked For Me” in a previous entry, where I examined what might be going on for people who reported marked improvements in their condition after having CAM treatment. What this implies is, while people often report improvement, there is no actual improvement taking place. They may temporarily report improvement, but only until the condition reappears again sometime later.

If it doesn’t work, it might require another visit. Then another visit. Then another. Or multiple visits to different therapists in search of a cure. The problem may eventually get better, but that may have nothing much to do with the treatment. It’s just your body getting better naturally, as it would have done anyway, without any CAM intervention whatsoever. That’s a lot of money spent on nothing.

Many people take regular visits to alternative therapists, any time they feel poorly, or tired, or in pain. Given that most alternative treatments have been shown to work no better than placebo, it’s all a very effective way of spending a big portion of your income on something that could have been better spent on a holiday, or a new car, or saving for college, or whatever.

It’s also a great way of spreading nonsense. Some CAM practitioners feel themselves to be in competition with proper doctors, and so are not unfamiliar with spreading negative propaganda about the so-called “allopathic” medical profession. It’s not to say that the health service is perfect, but neither is it the bogeyman they often make it out to be. At the worst, the propaganda engenders a disproportionate sense of distrust in science-based medicine. Completely preventable diseases have been making a comeback because anti-vaccine nonsense continues to be perpetuated by some CAM practitioners and consequently, their clients. Children are referred to dangerous quacks because of a conviction by some that doctors are part of a conspiracy to hide cures from the general public.  So, while there appears to be no harm to you, you may be putting others at risk, simply by passing on bad advice.

Another way harm is spread is simply by perpetuating false hope. Sadly, there are some conditions and diseases where cures still evade us. People can be driven to their wits’ end, trying to find a cure or a treatment that will work. While doctors are expected to be honest with their patients in such cases, the CAM profession has far less qualms, and so clients are sent on distressing wild goose chases when perhaps they should be moving on towards more palliative measures. These are difficult, heartbreaking situations, but one thing is clear: nobody should be capitalising from such tribulations.

A question you might be asking is this: don’t medical treatments sometimes cause harm? Yes, but medicine usually looks beyond placebo into actual interventions, the bulk of whom have a great deal of evidence to back them up. These interventions can be harmful, but this is balanced against an improved outcome for the patient. Most alternative therapies are placebo at the best of times, so if little improvement can be expected, then neither should there be much harm in the intervention.

So, while active harm is rare, there are more indirect kinds of harm. Harm can be caused through inaction, or through spreading misleading information to others, or through the perpetuation of false hope. We shouldn’t look at alternative medicine as having no downsides. In the end, it’s never the best when people are forced to seek out solutions that don’t exist.

More thoughts on this issue from Science Based Medicine.

WhatsTheHarm.net – a database of alternative therapies going wrong.

QEDCon, the annual UK conference for science and skepticism, is over for another year. It was another terrific event. They must be doing something right, as people from all across the world have become regular attendees. The following is a personal recap of the conference.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel

Our venue was the Palace Hotel, close to the Manchester university district. Outside, it looks like an over-designed relic of a bygone era. Inside it’s a confusing warren of corridors, staircases and, eventually, rooms. Quite how all of the attendees managed to make their way out alive is anyone’s guess.

Day 1

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a hilarious video that managed to combine, in 5 minutes, as many woo beliefs as possible – including the drinking of a certain bodily fluid – an image I’ll find difficult to forget for a while. He then went onstage and acted the part of a false medium. Very, very funny.

Elizabeth Pisani then gave a talk on AIDS. People with HIV can now expect to have long, high quality lives; however this means that viral load continues over a much longer term, and along with it an increased risk of transmittance. The net effect is that more and more people getting are getting HIV. Higher rates of HIV lead to huge financial pressures within the medical system, as well as creating a risk of resistance in the longer term. Her conclusion is that, unless a cure is found, HIV must be reduced by addressing the riskiest of lifestyle behaviours. This is incredibly difficult to do.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Next up was Richard Wiseman, with an entertaining talk on his research career. He started the talk with a few photographic illusions, then moving on to ghost photos and pareidolia. He spoke about the attentional spotlight difference between lucky and unlucky people. He showed a video of a fire walking experiment proving – painfully for the participants – that physics trumps faith. He talked about an experiment where he and his team left wallets around the UK, and waited to see which ones got returned. He then talked about sleep, and what we can do to improve it. This is the subject of his latest book, Night School.

Beauty by the Geeks, Brigitte West and Rose Brown, then presented a talk on woo within the cosmetics industry. Both speakers had great material and great energy – evoking a bit of shock from the audience when they showed photos of people spreading sheep placentas all over their faces. I had a small problem with the talk in that it spent much too long on introductions. It would have been better to have devoted more time on the controversies and nonsense within the industry, and discussing what the science actually says. It’s clearly a hugely interesting area with a lot more to discover.

I then went to a panel discussion on The Internet – the best and worst. Angela Saini had some very coherent thoughts (“What is the worst? I think it’s people”). Unfortunately, the subject was far too wide and the discussion was all over the place. I didn’t learn much from it. It should have been more focused – internet trolling and harassment would have evoked a better discussion, I think.

I then attended a panel talk on Medical Myths and the Media. Again, this is such a huge area it was difficult to come to any conclusions or to have a particularly coherent discussion. Nevertheless, it was interesting listening to how doctors coped with the huge deluge of research papers in their area. It’s not easy to distinguish the good research from the bad stuff.

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

After the break we had Dr. Sheena Cruickshank talking about worms. No, not earthworms, instead the ones that live inside of people: hookworms, tapeworms, ringworms and their ilk. There is a negative relationship, geographically, between worm infections and allergies. In areas where worms are prevalent, there are few allergies, and vice versa in the more developed world. Worm treatment may make syndromes such as Crohn’s Disease a bit more manageable, but such treatments are not easy to implement as worms bring their own health issues. And, yes, there are people out there self-medicating on worms in the mistaken belief that it’s making them better. It was an absolutely fascinating talk.

Mark Crislip, the presenter of QuackCast, then gave a furiously detailed presentation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). “Integrated Medicine is where you mix cow pie with Apple pie, so that the Apple pie tastes worse”. His view is that the Placebo effect is overblown and is equal to non-treatment if there is an objective end-point. If it’s an open or subjective end point, it’s a small effect. People who say they get better, often don’t get better objectively. It just makes them feel better about themselves. Crislip is also concerned about the lack of quality standards in CAM and the many reports of direct harm.

The Evening activities kicked off with Richard Wiseman going through some of the worst scientific cover songs ever written. Geologists should never be allowed within an ass’s roar of rock anthems.

The Ockham Awards – the skeptical Oscars – were announced.

  • Kylie Sturgess won the best video award – a TEDx presentation where she talks about superstitious beliefs and practices, such as drinking urine. As she was not there (using the poor excuse that she has to make her living on a continent on the other side of the world), her acceptance speech was given by a cute kitten. She knows how we tick.
  • Leaving Fundamentalism” won the best blog. This was given to Jonny Scaramanga from Nate Phelps, of which more later.
  • The best podcast was Skepticality. This was received by Susan Gerbic on behalf of Derek and Swoopy.
  • The Editor’s Choice award was then given to the QED organisers themselves. It was well deserved for all the work these guys put into creating a brilliant experience for all the attendees. For the last 3 years, QED has been one of the big highlights of my year.
QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

The comedy sections were all very different, and all excellent. Gemma Arrowsmith won over the audience with an astounding Miss World acceptance speech where she talked about how she got where she is by starting at the Big Bang and moving on from there. There was a touch of genius to John Luke Roberts’s piece. He spoke in aphorisms “Jazz to me sounds like a German saying yes, then falling asleep”, “There is nothing sadder than a slinky taking a lift”. After a few gratuitous insults, he finished with a hilarious visual sketch involving a long beard and a set of false teeth on a stick. We were crying laughing. You had to be there. Andy Zaltzman combined skepticism with religion and politics, with hilarious results. “Sperm are basically Stalinists” and “John Logie Baird invented the television in order to give the aged a reason to keep on living”. It was great stuff.

Day 2

hangovers

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a tale of mischevious hoaxing in Southampton – issuing public divorce proceedings using a pair of curtains. Local media picked it up, then world media, and finally came the psychological analyses. All the while, Zenon and his fellow hoaxers were sitting back, laughing, seeking new ways to stoke the story further.

Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde

The first talk of the day had Deborah Hyde talking about vampires. She traced the history of vampire stories, from Eastern Europe to the present day. Many legends are linked to disease epidemics and reports of corpses failing to rot properly. She talked about the multiple ways to (allegedly) stop a vampire, and how these legends originated. At the end she discussed a recent story where a guy died after swallowing a garlic clove out of a fear of vampirism. Deborah is an outstanding public speaker, interspersing her presentation with spot quizzes and guests being asked to come to the stage to drink blood and ashes.

Next up was Coralie Colmez, talking about the use of maths and stats in criminal trials. The probability of two events occurring equals the product of probabilities of them happening separately ONLY if both events are truly independent. A number of trials in recent history failed to establish independence sufficiently, ending up in gross miscarriages of justice. Coralie talked about the cot death story of Sally Clark and Roy Meadow, who as an expert witness, assessed the likelihood of two cot deaths to be almost impossible, without foul play taking place. Sally was jailed and was released only after a huge public outcry. Coralie also talked about the Birthday Problem and the Bayes Theorem. She got a lively discussion going in the questions afterwards.

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

As an organiser with Cork Skeptics, I went to the Skeptics In the Pub Forum in the breakout room. A few useful takeaways: 1) Never forget to treat your speaker as a VIP; 2) musicians are a very good resource for venue finding; 3) all venues should have disabled access if possible; 4) be wary of people wanting to do talks, as there are a few crackpots out there; 5) Meetup.com is becoming a popular online destination for meetings, at least in the UK; 6) It’s helpful to get the word out by doing a gig for other groups in the area; 7) Publicity is crucial – you still need to trawl through all the media routes. An intriguing thing for me was the use of “Interesting Talks” as a branding item.

Samantha Stein then gave a talk about Camp Quest UK. Camp Quest is a bit like the Scouts, but focused primarily on secular interests and values. There were some great activities mentioned, including talks by well known speakers, and Philosophy for Children (P4C), where kids are encouraged to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. If only there was something like that for me when I was a kid. She talked about the nasty press reception to Camp Quest, portraying atheists “grooming young children”. In the Q&A afterwards, she touched on the difficulty of government recognition as a charity because they were non-religious and they discussed “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is a travesty.

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps

The last talk of the day was probably the most shocking of all (remember we had already had speeches on internal worms, vampire exhumations and AIDS). Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, talked about life within the Westboro Baptist Church, a group so hateful, the Ku Klux Klan issued a disclaimer about them on their website. He began by listing from memory all the books of the bible, as it was something demanded by his father when he was still a young child. His father was incredibly abusive – using violent beatings and psychological bullying to counteract any sense of independent thinking in his children. “You learned to stop trusting that instinctive nature that we have to distinguish right from wrong”, said Nate. As soon as Nate was 18 years of age, he left home, never to return. This wasn’t the end of the story, as Nate spent decades fighting the hobgoblins that his father had implanted in his mind. He was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is now a vigorous campaigner against fundamentalism, calling blind faith one of the most dangerous things in society today, because it is unaccountable and not receptive to challenge. To paraphrase Nate, we live in a world of ideas, but ideas have no value unless they have been tested, vetted and subjected to the harsh light of reality. We must strive to love, and not to hate.

Throughout the talk, you couldn’t have heard a pin drop from the audience. We all got to our feet and loudly applauded when he finished. Nate’s story is at the core of why we do all this.

That concluded QED 2014. In my impression, it was as good as ever, both for the quality of the speakers, the interesting discussions, and the people I bumped into along the way. QED has a grassroots focus that makes you feel like you own a share in its success. Financial considerations aside, I’m hoping I can attend the 2015 event.

 

Further reading:

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014@Gwendes

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism@HayleyStevens

TAM London, 16-17th OctoberI spent the weekend in Edgware Road at the TAM London 2010 event.  What a blast! This blog can only give the most cursory summary of the meeting, but I’ll try to pick out some of my highlights.

One of the real highlights for me was the very first speaker, Sue Blackmore. She had an out of body experience in college, leading her to dedicate 20 years of her life to finding conclusive evidence for ESP and paranormal phenomena. Unfortunately, though her work covered everything from Smarties to IRA bombings to Tarot readings, things didn’t turn out quite the way she expected. Her story is one of the most interesting and varied tales I have ever heard. It is a true tale of science, where repeated experimentation lead her to change cherished world views, forcing her to admit that her initial convictions were wrong. If only more people would adopt such an approach in everyday life.

Another highlight was Richard Dawkins. His speech was a tour de force, where he showed that Evolution is capable of providing key insights into such varied disciplines as human anthropology, geology, philosophy, geography, cosmology, politics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, cosmology, linguistics and the history of ideas, to mention a few. Dawkins’ presentation was expansive and poetic, presenting quite a different dimension to Dawkins’ often negative public perception. A pity some of his more strident critics were not there to see his lecture.

Adam Rutherford’s talk on the Alpha Course was delightfully irreverent and funny. He lampooned the methods used by the Alpha Course leaders and questioned their over-reliance on tales such as The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (“it’s boring and slightly racist. It’s a tale about walking’). Rutherford finished his talk flatly stating his revulsion to the Alpha Course’s homophobic views.

Another memorable moment was the talk with James Randi, as he recalled his origins as a skeptic and his battles with Peter Popoff and Yuri Geller. The room went silent as he recounted how Popoff and his wife operated – taking money from the vulnerable while laughing at them in the most vicious way. Randi, the figurehead of the modern skeptical movement, is 82 years old, yet he is still well capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

Just after Randi’s talk two prizes were announced for outstanding achievement in skepticism. Ben Goldacre won one of the prizes, but it was the second winner who brought down the house. The prize was given to Rhys Morgan, 15 years old, who had the temerity to confront and publicly expose the makers of an industrial bleach being flogged off as a “cure” for Crohn’s Disease. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I enjoyed Marcus Chown’s lecture on 10 bonkers things about the Universe. There was a great “pictorial interlude” beforehand and afterwards (I’m a sucker for astronomical images) and Marcus proceeded to bring us on a tour of the cosmos and the arcane world of atoms, black holes and multiverses. Arguably nothing that many in the audience had not heard before, but entertainingly delivered nonetheless and a lecture that should be essential on the outreach circuit.

The second day was also a day where the skeptical movement itself was put under the microscope: what we are about, what we are not about, and the level of “dickishness” appropriate within the movement. The two most powerful contributions were from DJ Grothe and PZ Myers. While their styles might differ, both saw skepticism as a force for good in the world – at the heart of the skeptical movements are shared principles and moral values, a way of looking at the world using science as a tool to winnow the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Grothe warned about zealotry within skepticism, saying that being right is not enough, you have to be good about being right too. PZ phrased this sentiment somewhat differently – “Be the best dick you can be”.

There was far more to this discussion than I could describe here, and similar views were brought up by Stephen Fry in his videotaped interview with Tim Minchin. Fry, with his natural humor, depth and sensitivity, is one of the greatest assets the Skeptical movement has. His response upon being doorstepped by an evangelist preacher got a great laugh: “Tell God to send better people”.

Media matters were also a large part of TAM London, with contributions from Graham Linehan, Cory Doctorow and a panel of commentators including Martin Robbins, Kate Russell and Gia Milinovich. Doctorow talked about copyright reform, comparing the digital media wars to the situation in the fashion industry and the database industry and pointing out that many within “old media” come from industries that once bordered on illegality themselves. “Yesterday’s pirates are always today’s admirals”, as he put it. Linehan talked about the amazing impact of Twitter and took us on a quick tour of some of the web’s nooks and crannies, unwittingly creating a dangerous movement where it looked as if we would suspend the rest of the conference schedule to watch YouTube baby videos on the big screen.

There were wildcards too. Andy Nyman talked about his show Ghost Stories; Karen James talked about the HMS Beagle project; Melinda Gebbie talked about female comic book porn (or is it art? or both?) and Alan Moore brought us on a poetic tour through the town of Northampton. He also gave us his theory of the Big Bang happening in 1927. Moore has broadly left comic book writing behind him in order to focus on underground magazines and new projects.

If I had one criticism, it is the UK-centricity of the event. The event attracted a considerable number of skeptics from all across Europe, yet the discussion at times felt exclusive. Proceeds for the event also were given to promote skepticism in the UK, which is an opportunity lost in my view, at least until TAM events become commonplace across the rest of the continent.

Organisation has greatly improved since the first TAM London event but the venue was still not quite perfect. I felt the auditorium format worked better last year as it made the conference much more intimate. People at the back of the room this year were at a disadvantage. The stage seemed light years away and the video displays were inadequate.

In summary I have to say that TAM London 2010 lived up to expectations. It was a barrage to the senses, a magical mystery tour (in the skeptical sense of that word) and an electrically charged coming together of some of the brightest people I could ever have the fortune to meet. Roll on 2011.

Picture 29This last weekend found me in the UK, attending a very unique conference – the TAM London event. TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a well known US based magician who is best known for his dogged debunking of the claims of mystics, frauds and charlatans such as Uri Geller, Sylvia Brown and Peter Popoff. TAM is a meeting of skeptics – people who tend to see the world (nay, the Universe) as fundamentally rational and who cast doubt on the extraordinary and often wacky claims of supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and those who believe in different forms of reality.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, because there are myriads of strange, weird and wonderful ideas out there that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some claims are relatively benign (fairies, chakras and fortune telling, perhaps), but other claims are positively dangerous (vaccine denial, AIDS denial, and the rejection of modern medicine for curable complaints). There is just so much material to discuss and investigate, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Where do you start? Going to TAM is as good a place as any.

The attendees at TAM were a motley crew of science enthusiasts, magicians, writers, atheists and agnostics, comedians and every shade in between. The speakers were similarly diverse, ranging from bloggers to musicians to scientists to famous authors – each of them passionate about getting the skeptical message across to the general public.

There were a few real highlights.

Brian Cox, for instance, is the public face of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest machines every created by human beings, whose purpose is nothing less than discovering the fundamental nature of the Universe. He gave a wonderful talk on the potential discoveries in the offing, from dark matter to the “god particle” (aka. the Higgs Boson) to the nature of gravity. Brian can be credited with one of the more memorable quotes of the meeting: “Anyone who believes the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat”.

Then there was Adam Savage. Yes, the Mythbusters guy. Adam, a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm (if you don’t believe me, watch his TED speech), has done more than almost anyone to make science and scepticism relevant and interesting for TV viewers the world over. His talk was all about the efforts the Adam / Jamie team went to in testing the difficulty of swimming through syrup (busted). Adam raised a big laugh when he described libertarianism as “anarchy for rich people”.

Another highlight was the incomparable Jon Ronson, author of “The Men who Stare at Goats”, and who self-describes himself as being “to humorous journalism what Brian Cox is to science”. Jon introduced us to some of the craziest people on the planet. His talk was brilliant – featuring group sex, murderous pieces of plastic, and the (in)ability of American generals to walk through walls. I can’t wait to see the movie, (where Ewan McGregor plays Ronson – huh?).

Not forgetting Tim Minchin, musician, comedian, precise commenter on the follies of modern life – fantastic! If you have never heard his poem Storm, stop now and listen to it on YouTube. He also sang us a wonderful song about looking forward to Christmas. For his efforts he got a well deserved standing ovation.

I was particularly keen to listen to Simon Singh, who wrote an article about chiropractors in the Guardian and has ended up in court because he, um, told the truth. The ridiculousness of the British libel system was devastatingly exposed for all to see. Simon won an award in the meeting for outstanding contributions to skepticism.

I could wax on about Ben Goldacre taking journalists to task; George Hrab singing about the candiru (nasty little blighter – look it up on Wikipedia); Ariane Sherine on receiving hate mail as a result of her atheist bus campaign; James Randi live over Skype from Florida, Phil Plait metaphorically blowing apart the movie “Armageddon”, and Richard Wiseman doing a truly wonderful job as host for the proceedings, but damn it, I need to get some sleep now.

Suffice to say that TAM London was worth every penny spent – it was truly amazing and wild horses won’t drag me away from going to future meetings.

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