A directory of plausible and implausible things Wed, 07 Aug 2013 20:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A sudden intake of breath Tue, 07 May 2013 11:27:45 +0000 Emily Rosa is the youngest person to have a paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. Her story is an inspiring one, how at age nine she conducted research that debunked therapeutic touch. Little wonder that the tale is often told, including, in 2011, by Michael Shermer at a talk he gave right here in Ottawa.

I was in the audience that night, sitting with a group of friends: my wife, a female scientist friend of ours, and various other acquaintances. Now the exact words are forgotten and the reason why he told the story is forgotten but I do remember how it ended, which was by flashing up on the screen an image of the adult Emily Rosa in a bikini with a comment that was something like, “and look what she grew up to be.”

And – certainly from our little corner of the auditorium – there was a sudden and sharp intake of breath.

Shermer gave a great talk that night, entertaining, educational, fascinating,  but when we were talking afterwards among ourselves, several people mentioned the picture of Emily Rosa in a bikini. It was incongruous, it was odd, and it made at least several people that I know of uncomfortable.

Maybe there wasn’t a point; perhaps it was just supposed to lighten up the talk at midway. I’m sure no harm or offense was intended, and yet… I’ve talked about this specific moment since then, over a year after Shermer gave the talk, and had a few more people say that yes, they remember that slide and that, yes, it was… odd. One person recalled that moment without my prompting them. That it was incongruent. Uncomfortable. Yet another person spontaneously said, when I asked if they remembered Shermer’s talk, “oh yes, that was the really sexist one.” Why? Because so many of the images he’d used to illustrate optical illusions were of parts of women’s bodies (or things that look they are).

So: Shermer came to Ottawa and gave a very interesting talk, but a talk where many of the images used were of women’s bodies and where at least one of the female bodies shown was to illustrate a story about a nine year old girl scientist. As one of my female friends said, “it’s like it was a talk for boys but a bunch of women had inexplicably also been invited.” Again, this was an unprompted comment after being asked if they remembered his presentation.

Many of us know, and indeed are, women, and it’s a good idea to think about how women might respond to a communication style heavy on close ups of female bodies and bikini shots. I’ve sufficient evidence from my peer group to tell me that Shermer’s talk was not a universal hit among that group of people. It’s worth considering why that might be. And if he’s still giving this particular talk, with these particular visual aids, It’s time to stop. Skepticism isn’t a boy’s club anymore.

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A just cause, the wrong celebrity, a PR disaster Thu, 31 Jan 2013 23:23:49 +0000 One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Their Bust a Move Ottawa event raised over $350,000 dollars last year. This year, with 30 days to go, they’ve set a goal for $500,000. With a track record like that it’s achievable;  but for the fact that their recently announced celebrity attendee is the anti-vaccination, anti-evidence, anti-science, anti-health Jenny McCarthy.

They were doing a good job building momentum for the big announcement, which was made on Tuesday night, and presumably they had primed journalists at the Ottawa Citizen to help them break the news. The Citizen did just that, shortly after the announcement, only they ran an article with an unfavourable headline – “Anti-vaccine crusader Jenny McCarthy to headline Bust a Move Ottawa” – and then put up an editorial that was also unfavourable – “Great cause, poor choice”. Straight out of the gate, Bust a Move Ottawa 2013 was in bad PR territory and all the publicity that the ORCF and the Bust a Move event were hoping for turned negative. By the afternoon of the next day, #dropjenny was gathering speed on twitter.

The Citizen justifies its editorial position. “A health and fitness fundraiser, in service of a health-related foundation, should not hitch its wagon to an advocate for a harmful and unfounded ideology.” Jenny McCarthy’s interventions in public health have been damaging, perhaps profoundly so. An entertainer she may be but there are a lot of people who are more outraged by her past statements on vaccinations than they are dazzled by her celebrity. For a lot of people it is not possible to separate the negative aspects of her work, about which the organisers were presumably unaware (or did not think would be important), from the positive. And how will this affect fundraising? People in Ottawa aware of Jenny McCarthy’s background are going to feel quite justified in refusing to pledge when their friends and family come asking for money for Bust a Move.

Bust a Move looks like a fun, high energy event. It should be building on the success of last year and going on to greater things. But when the local newspaper of record cripples your horse as soon as it gets out of the gate, media attention turns negative, a chorus of voices on twitter criticize and a health charity that does valuable work becomes associated with antivaxx quackery, it’s hard to see how that could be possible. It’s truly sad that ORCF and Bust a Move Ottawa are in this position. It’s a PR mess and a branding disaster. I hope they can extricate themselves with honour, and get back to fundraising and the good work that they do.


Anti-Vaccination Advocate to Headline Ottawa Cancer Event: CFI Canada, CASS and Ottawa Skeptics Issue Response

Anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy to front Ottawa cancer charity fundraiser

Great cause, poor choice

We’ll take the money you can bring us, even if you’re antivaccine

Pondering My Unexpected Activism

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Climate change denial course puts the K in quality at Carleton Wed, 07 Mar 2012 17:33:31 +0000 News from Canada: We learn that in the nation’s capital, Tom Harris, a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, has been teaching a course on climate change at Carleton University for the past few years. A science watchdog (the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism) reviewed videos of the course and uncovered a hefty 142 errors, clear evidence of bias, and serial misrepresentation of the current scientific opinion on climate change.

So it’s basically what you’d expect from a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, but not at all what you’d expect from a university.

This was a review course for non-science majors, so its reasonable that the students don’t access primary sources such as the peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, one would expect that the instructor would at least have a passing familiarity with it and be able to accurately convey the relevant scientific information to his students. Nope. Harris would rather call a friend than crack open a journal.

Credit where its due, though. It takes effort, creativity, and skill, to put together a course on the science of climate change that runs for twelve lectures and studiously avoids most of the science of climate change.

You might wonder what Harris was doing all that time. Twelve lectures is a lot of dead air to fill. Fortunately, he has a lot of buddies, including a few living locally, who are equally as befuddled and confused about climatology and were more than willing to star in this gong show.

Step up Tim Patterson, tenured professor at Carleton, a devotee of the Sun as the one true cause of the climate change that isn’t happening and a fervent believer in cosmic rays that can’t be measured as responsible for the global warming that isn’t going on. He’s a palaeontologist and geologist, and therefore blessed with the profound insight that comes from working in the context of deep time. For him, climate always changes; oh yes, that it does, and many sage geologists nod their heads in agreement; but did he never once stop to wonder why it might? Perhaps that’s a question too far.

As a special treat, students get to see an elderly Australian by the name of Carter feverishly fantasising about climate science being exploded by metaphorical torpedoes of denial. It’s the sun – Boom! Did you know temperatures go up as well as down? Take that, warmists! 20th Century warming? Nothing unusual there! But never mind that it got warmer, because here comes an ice age! Oh, it’s fine comedy. One hopes the students were suitably entertained. They paid good money for this.

What’s next for our Carleton undergrads? How about a full length movie? Why not? Its time for The Great Global Warming Swindle, wherein a smarmy producer fakes data, truncates graphs and misrepresents climate science and scientists for 90 minutes. That’s another lecture out of the way.

Then there’s local “friend of science” Tad Murty, who, in a courageous and bold attempt to ignore overwhelming evidence, tells us that the oceans… are cooling. All the fish currently expanding their range into previously uninhabitable areas of the sea would be deeply surprised to learn that fact.

But for most of the lectures, Harris has to bumble along by himself. He has the students play “Blooper of the Week”, a version of “Guessing the Teacher’s Password” wherein they have to find innocuous statements by public figures that would cause Harris to shake his fist angrily at clouds. “The climate is always changing, so this cannot be stopped as we do not have such control over the sun and other cosmic forces that greatly correlate to the warming and cooling of Earth. We cannot change climate just as we cannot change the seasons from winter to summer,” one possibly baked student explains. It’s cosmic, man, truly cosmic. Down the rabbit hole we go: “the climate problem is so difficult that we may never solve it,” Harris says, accidentally acknowledging there is a climate problem, before twisting hurriedly away from the implications; “the idea that CO2 rise is mainly caused by humans, the idea that temperature rise is definite, it’s occurring; – many of these things are either not true or are simply unknown, or highly debatable.” So many contradictory beliefs, all simultaneously true, except for the things that scientists actually agree on? Now this is how you do science! Why bother to test a hypothesis, when you can simply believe in as many as you wish? Cosmic rays, the sun, the urban heat island effect, all the one true cause of the global warming that isn’t happening and doesn’t matter anyhow because there’s an ice age just around the corner. Confused? You should be.

Alright, so it would be neither fair nor accurate to say Harris didn’t expose his students to proper science. He does mention the IPCC report, although it’s the second edition, the one from 1995, that grabs his attention. That there had been two more since that time, each one becoming firmer and more confident about the causes and extent of anthropogenic climate change, is a fact of which he appears to be blissfully unaware. The students are left similarly unenlightened. Not that he has good things to say about the IPCC, standing as it does for all that is false and loathsome in the world of science. Only 2.5% of the scientists involved in the IPCC agree with the conclusions of the IPCC, we are told, something that would be a matter of great surprise to a great many climate scientists: two surveys have found 97% agreement among climate scientists with the IPCC’s main conclusions. A recent report in PNAS went on to point out that the few percent that do disagree “have climate expertise and scientific prominence substantially below that of the convinced researchers”, a polite way of saying that they are cranks.

So what have we learned? Carleton University, the educational establishment that Ottawans once liked to joke “puts the K in Quality” (I don’t know why – this sort of erudite humour escapes me, but then I never did study the classics in school), but turned its reputation around in recent years, and has been rated 7th or 10th in Canadian university rankings, nevertheless has managed to put a man in charge of a science course who teaches students that there’s an ice age coming. I always considered The Day After Tomorrow to be a fun, yet silly, doomsday movie. For Harris and his friends, well, it’s more of a prediction. “Expect global cooling”, he says. Brilliant!

One wonders why the university would give this guy a job. And how on earth did he get it? Did they advertise the position or was he just one day handed the keys to crashing Carleton’s reputation?

It’s probably the latter. His aforementioned good buddy, the cosmic-ray-fearing Professor Tim Patterson, used to teach the course. Patterson went on sabbatical a few years ago and Tom took over. Harris himself said that “95% of the course materials” came from Patterson. What with Harris being a mechanical engineer with no relevant scientific publications, his pointing out that a tenured professor provided the course materials was probably an attempt to provide some cover and credibility. What it did was just land Patterson right in it, as well as raising further questions.

Because what this implies is that Carleton (did I spell that right, or should it be Karleton? Let me know when it’s funny. I really don’t understand this university humour) has been running ERTH2402, a mangled pile of spat up and reheated climate change denial, for about ten damn years, with nobody at that august institution making a peep of complaint. One can easily imagine a kwality student emerging from this course, all bundled up in sweaters and scarves (Canadians do so understand the importance of layering) against the coming reign of the ice giants, planning some cod fishing off the Bahamas, and proudly informing their more fact-prone lecturers in other classes that everything they are teaching about global warming is wrong. Yet nobody said anything.

I do still have faith in Carleton. I want to believe that it’s only the Earth Sciences Department that’s taking a post-modernist approach to the pursuit of truth. Carleton is a university with a lot of young and creative researchers and there’s a vibe there that good things are happening. I want to believe that the only way is up for CU, but right now the Earth Sciences Department is the anchor dragging them down. If CU wants to be able to hold its head high, then how about some much needed scrutiny? They know where the problem lies, and they know with whom it lies. They have to stop hiding behind the excuse of academic freedom and start taking responsibility for educating, rather than misinforming, their undergraduate students. They deserve a whole lot better. It’s long past time.


Further reading:

PDF: Climate Change Denial in the Classroom

Fake Heartland “Scientist” Infiltrates Canadian University 

Climate Science Denial at Carleton University: A Detailed Take-Down

Climate denial at a Canadian university

Climate Change Denial being taught at Carleton University

Tom Harris Teaches Heartland Institute Fake Science to Students

Professor criticized for course denying climate change

CASS: Skepticism FTW

Climate Change and Education: Are Schools the Next Battlefield?

Heartland Institute Climate Change Denial 101

Climate misinformation coming to a school near you?

Carleton course denying man-made climate change

Denialists In The Canadian Classroom

Heartland Institute Associate Got Inside Carleton University

Denial in the Classroom

Heartland agent at Carleton University

It comes in threes

Heartland ‘expert’ taught climate denialism at a Canadian university

Climate scientist ‘troubled’ by skeptic’s teachings at Carleton University

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The age of chiropractic miracles is not yet done Wed, 26 Jan 2011 18:57:43 +0000 One might be surprised to learn that chiropractic was once said to cure deafness. The creator of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, claimed that by manipulation of the spine he restored hearing in a deaf man, Harvey Lillard. From that moment on Palmer decided, ipse dixit, that the spine was the key to all disease. Yet despite Palmer’s miraculous first manipulation, in the hundred or so years since, chiropractors the world over have failed utterly to recreate Palmer’s success with the deaf; a failure so stupendously comprehensive and absolute that  this treatment modality should have long ago fallen into ignominy and disuse.

So much for Palmer’s original chiropractic miracle. Most practitioners of chiropractic today tend to steer well clear of making such claims; surely nobody would believe them anymore, not in this enlightened age.

Chiropractic for the World Foundation is a registered Canadian charity “whose vision is pure and simple: to bring the gift of chiropractic to the world.” They have been working in Ghana and are delighted to report that the age of chiropractic miracles is not yet done:

Person regained eyesight. Several threw away their canes. Another canceled his appointment with his doctor. Talk about a good day at the office! 3 out of 3 of our helpers want to become chiropractors to take care of their own people here. We are spreading so much light I’m surprised the sun went down tonight!

I’ll admit that when I first read that I was taken aback. How could a Canadian-educated professional individual so sincerely believe that Palmer’s patented back rub for all ailments actually cured blindness? Even Palmer never tried to sell manure of that odour to the public, although his claiming to cure deafness was certainly a stretch. Yet giddy-in-Ghana reports that the blind can see and the lame can walk. I hope those souls didn’t throw their canes too far out of reach. Nonetheless, if a person really did have their sight restored after a chiropractic manipulation, I’d hope – as indeed would the chiropractic profession – that the clinician involved would at least exert themselves to writing it up as a case study. That would show us skeptics what for, what?

Maybe they mean well, and believe that their help wouldn’t go amiss. Ghana ranks 188th in the world for life expectancy at birth. It has an HIV rate of 1.9%. The risk of major infectious diseases is very high: watch out for diarrhea, hepatatis-A, typhoid, malaria, schistosomiasis, meningococcal meningitis and rabies. These disease risks are manageable with the use of vaccines, public health interventions, and good patient care, and Ghana could certainly benefit from better health resources. It is to that end, one supposes, that, the visiting chiropractors have been offering their help:

We were invited to meet several key government officials, including two medical doctors (Regional Health Directors), and the Minister of Accra, Ghana’s largest city and capital. During all of our communications, whether to patients or to government officials, one thing was consistent – we kept the message of chiropractic very pure and simple! Our message was very well received – people in Ghana are so ready for what we have to offer! They know innately that the body heals itself… that’s why chiropractic make so much sense to them.

It might be helpful to point out at this juncture that an evidence base for the chiropractic treatment of HIV, diarrhea, hepatatis A, typhoid, malaria, schistosomiasis, meningococcal meningitis and rabies does not exist. But this is not about evidence. This is about evangelising the original message of chiropractic, evidence be damned, a century of abject failure of the whole idea of chiropractic be damned. It’s about the idea of innate intelligence of the body that flows through the spine, that can be freed with chiropractic manipulation, that can make the deaf hear, the blind see and the lame walk. Chiropractic rejected the germ theory of medicine from the outset. Instead, the straight chiropractic paradigm allows only that diseases arise from subluxations in the spine, malaria parasite notwithstanding. For heaven’s sake, the existence of the malaria parasite itself should be  evidence enough to abandon chiropractic, and sufficient cause to turn back its adherents at the Ghanaian border.

Yet they say their message was very well received. I’d like to assume the Ghanaians were just being polite, but they really shouldn’t have to listen to this nonsense in the first place. They have enough to do with actually treating malaria without having alt-medicine peddlers try to persuade them how not to treat it. It isn’t the first time. We have seen variants on this story before: Matthias Rath took his vitamin pills to South Africa and convinced the government they had no need for expensive anti-retrovirals to treat HIV. As the head of Médecins Sans Frontières said, “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence.” Right now in Ghana, homeopaths have set up a malaria prophylaxis clinic “to help combat the effects of malaria through homeopathic care.” I have nothing but sympathy for their patients. There’s something malodorously colonial about these people, chiropractors, homeopaths and pill peddlers alike, their actions as superficially well-meaning yet utterly pointless as flying four thousand miles just to give a starving child a Bible.

Still, the miracles continue. The chiropractors report that they found evidence of “’the adjustment exchange rate’, that one adjustment in Ghana is worth approximately 10 in Canada or USA.” It’s because the Ghanaians live simpler lives, we are told; “ their bodies are not as polluted, mentally, physically and chemically. Their diets are more natural.” Yes, it’s amazing these people die of anything at all.

I can’t be entirely negative. The Foundation raised enough money from chiropractors and their patients in Canada to establish a children’s school in a village in Ghana, which is a worthy accomplishment. I can’t agree that the world needs more chiropractic, but more access to education is always welcome. I would also welcome it if the homeopaths, chiropractors, and alt-med peddlers would keep their useless nostrums at home where they belong, marginalised in modern medicine and as the placebo of choice for the wealthy worried well.

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In defence of being a dick Sat, 21 Aug 2010 20:07:01 +0000 Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8 has generated a lot of discussion. He exhorts us to be diplomats, and asks when, in our progression from believer to skeptic, did we ever have our minds changed by being called an idiot. There’s a lot of merit to pointing this out and it is a really quite obvious point to make: why indeed be a dick? If being called an idiot didn’t work on you, why should you expect it to work on anyone else?

I am, by nature, reasonable and diplomatic. I prefer discussions to arguments and talking rather than shouting. If I am ever talking to someone about an issue where they are in the wrong, it would never occur to me to tell them that they are an idiot, as after all, the reasons why people believe weird things can rarely be reduced down to personal idiocy. People, if they believe in a religion, usually believe in the religion of their parents, not because they are intrinsically stupid people and Hinduism just seemed like a good idea to them one day. If someone believes in homeopathy, they probably know someone who has used it and vouched for it, or they tried it themselves because they saw it on a pharmacy shelf, took that to be a sure sign that there was something to it, and attributed their subsequent recovery to the use of homeopathic medicine. Believing weird things is a part of the human condition, and it takes a certain mental discipline and a skeptical mindset to be aware of how we fool ourselves and others. There’s not much that’s easy about skepticism. It’s hard to do, but deeply satisfying, and it is something that I want to share, so why would I want to be a dick about it?

Even so, there are times when dickery works. Such times are rarely going to be in face to face, personal encounters, but the notion that skeptics and atheists should always strive to be diplomats is wrong. That may not have been the point that Phil Plait was making, but here’s the point that I want to make: sometimes being a dick is necessary.

9/11 was a truly awful event. 9/11 also spawned the truth movement, a whinging, drooling shirt stain of basement-dwelling carbuncled teenage and twenty-something conspiracy theorists who believed that the US government was behind the attacks, that the towers were brought down with controlled demolitions and the Pentagon was hit with a missile. This truth movement was met head on by an active skeptical and debunking movement, one which had as its nexus the conspiracy theories section of the forums of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I used to spend a fair bit of time in the forum myself, in the mid-2000s, and it wasn’t the friendliest place to any truther that stopped by. But my point is that, as unpleasant as that forum was to visit for conspiracy theorists, it was effective. Its denizens picked over every conspiracy claim that came their way, and debunked it in no uncertain terms, leaving an extensive amount of material for inquiring minds to find. JREF members also joined conspiracy theory forums, taking them on directly, or at least until they got banned. The 9/11 truth movement was called out for what it was in impolite, intemperate language: the truth movement had zero credibility, and here were a group of people making that very clear. Sometimes, and this is the relevance, really, to what Phil Plait was talking about, the conspiracy theorists would come visit to try to argue their beliefs, and the conversation that ensued would often be, shall we say, less than pleasant. The members of the forum knew their stuff and defended the evidence strongly, often turning to ridicule. Of course some people would remain polite to a fault, but the overall tone of the site was far from accommodationist.

And it worked. Opinions were changed. By way of evidence, here are some comments from JREF members in response to the question: “What convinced you back from truther to non-truther?”

“The first chink in my armour was a forum called Protestwarrior, which I trolled at, and those guys just made me look like a chump…so I avoided dissenting opinions in order to settle my cognitive dissonance. Then the South Park episode…that lead me to Screw Loose change, which lead me here.”

“I expressed some opinions here and received some slaps in the face (some tactful, some not) with good plain information. But – having a good scientific background – I was able to see that at least some of the tripe I was pushing was just flat wrong. This gave pause for serious thought. Plus, here and elsewhere, I was beginning to find links to the debunking sites. Of course a lot of this could have been avoided simply by putting “9/11″ +”debunk” into Google in the first place, but I suppose the desire to believe in something wacky can lead one astray.”

“Once I saw Zeitgeist Addendum I thought I REALLY had it all figured out and tried to start a local Z:Movement chapter. It was then I thought I was equipped mentally to take on the skeptics, whom I thought would love the idea of the Zeitgeist Movement (a “scientific method” pseudo science based, godless society? What’s more to love? Right? WRONG!!!). So I took to JREF with all that I had learned and jumped into the skeptics Zeitgeist forums. I got pwned with questions I couldn’t even begin to answer and when I looked up answers to those questions, it was then I realized that it was all a silly utopian fantasy, sprinkled with pseudo skepticism and a Technocratic, communist-like agenda disguising itself as peace….”

Being impolite is not an impediment to successful skeptical activism. Challenging people directly can change people’s minds, and the tactic of challenging ideas with ridicule should not be kept out of bounds. Let’s say that someone was undecided on a 9/11 conspiracy theory, searched on Google for the term “debunk 9/11”, found their way to hundreds of discussion threads ridiculing 9/11 truth and then decided not to take the truthers seriously after all. Would that not be a success for skeptical activism? So why not use ridicule? Ridicule is an ancient and acceptable tool in the rhetorical arsenal. If Phil’s point is that to be effective, we must be polite and let reason carry the day in order to persuade, then I know the Ancients would disagree. There is more to persuasion than mere logos.

I’ll allow that it is probably true that more minds will be changed with politeness and a kind word than outright dickery, but sometimes anger and emotion, a rhetorical appeal to pathos, are essential partners in persuasion. P.Z. Myers is not the gentlest writer on the internet, but the emotion and indignation of a Pharyngula post can be cathartic, persuasive, and inspiring. Emotive, passionate argument is very effective at conveying the wrongness of the harm that results from giving uncritical thought a free pass. By presenting an emotional point of view with which the audience can empathise, one enables and activates a powerful method of persuasion. We are hardwired to feel emotions and to respond to emotions in others.

I don’t know if the New Atheists are as effective as changing an individual’s mind as would be a cup of tea and a bit of a chat with the local humanist group, but they do play an important role in discourse. There’s a lot to be said for discarding diplomacy and pushing the boundaries of debate. The US has constitutional limits on freedom of religion and the role of religion in the state, so why not test those limits? Go ahead and desecrate a communion wafer, or publish a cartoon of Mohammed. I don’t know that doing those things have persuaded anyone to give up their beliefs, or to become more skeptical about their beliefs, but such actions have pushed the boundaries of deference to religion and tested the extent of secular rights. Any movement needs the strident fringe as much as it needs the moderates, otherwise how else will it gain ground?

The one example Phil provided in the talk was of a conversation with a girl who self described as a creationist. She asked an astronomy-related question that revealed her reliance on incorrect information. In response, Phil was not a dick, pointed her toward a different way of looking at the question and recommended she expand her sources of information to outside the creationist literature. Apparently, after the talk, a number of the attendees – theistic skeptics – expressed gratitude for the message of the talk. Theism wasn’t mentioned, as I recall, but they took comfort from it nonetheless.

I get where the theists are coming from. Skepticism is hard. We aren’t wired to do it well, and doing it well can lead one to confront uncomfortable truths. I am deeply content now to live life without a deity, but I wasn’t at first. Losing god was a dislocating, wrenching experience, and one that I would not wish on anyone else. Nobody took faith away from me; I was cursed with a constant sense of curiosity about the universe, a curiosity that the religion in which I was raised could not satisfy. The moment when I truly internalised the implications of the second law of thermodynamics, the moment when I realised that there was no escape clause for my mortal soul, nor for my species, nor for anything in the entirety of the cosmos, that moment hit me like a bag of hammers. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. So I quite understand how it is that people in the skeptical movement can be deeply critical, rational thinkers, but at the same time also be theists, and I understand if they rankle at having their beliefs challenged by other skeptics, a discomforting experience for anyone. I don’t think that theism limits the effectiveness of skepticism, and religion isn’t an issue that I personally care about. I’d rather focus my energy on science denial, chiropractors, homeopaths and other charlatans than convince someone that there is no god. The same is true for most of the self-identified skeptics that I know; discussing atheism and religion is for the humanists. They care about it a whole lot more. That’s not to say that deistic skeptics don’t have a hard time of it. A Venn diagram of atheists and skeptics would show considerable overlap, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the topic arises, but then again, theists shouldn’t be surprised if they find skeptics want to challenge their beliefs. It’s a part of the skeptical condition.

Apart from moving me enough to write this post, Phil’s talk just didn’t really move me, as I guess I struggle to see where the problem lies (and he provided no examples). It’s obvious that a kind word and simple consideration is effective and appropriate most of the time, as that is how human beings conduct most of their discourse, most of the time. We really do tend to want to get along. Yet I believe that the skeptical movement is richer for having an argumentative, impolite JREF conspiracy forum, and it is richer for having a boundary-challenging articulate foe of all things religious in P.Z. Myers. Richard Dawkin’s documentary, The Root of all Evil, was so good because it wasn’t nice. Penn and Teller have a delightfully sweary show on Showtime called Bullshit! and you can bet with a title like that, they don’t play friendly with the subjects of their show. For the rest of us, indeed for most of us in the skeptical movement, being friendly, that is, not being dicks, surely that’s really rather easy. It’s just how we live life. Being a dick, and doing it effectively, that’s the challenge, and we are fortunate to have people who are good at it.

I remain unconcerned that skepticism will be tarred by association with the stridency of certain vocal skeptics, or rendered ineffective by discourtesy. Suffragettes turned to militancy, but women still won the vote. Black Power did not prevent the successes of the civil rights movement. And calling someone an idiot will not be the death of skepticism: at the right time, it might be just what the situation demands. That ‘idiot’ may not be le mot juste in a one-on-one conversation hardly needs saying, but in public fora, ‘idiot’ may be the perfect choice of word, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.


Other voices:

On the Utility of Dicks

The Dick Delusion

Don’t be a dick

Furious Purpose

Not a dry eye in the house

Are we phalluses?

Richard Dawkins comments

Vacancy for a Hydropath Wed, 18 Aug 2010 15:05:51 +0000 From the 1852 edition of The Water Cure Journal, in the Varieties section:

Vacancy for a Doctor – Greiner, the Indian agent in New Mexico, wrote home on the 31st March, that he knew of an opening for an enterprising physician – a vacancy had happened, and he told how:- One of the Eutowa on the San Juan river was taken sick, and an Indian doctor from Rio Verde was called in to attend him. Owing to the strength of the disease, or to the weakness of the prescription of the doctor, the patient died and was buried. After the funeral the doctor was taken by the friends of the deceased, tied up, shot, and scalped – his wife’s hair was cut off; his house burned, containing all his property, and all his animals killed. This is the law of these Indians, regulating doctors. The vacancy is yet unfilled.

[Had this poor “tied up, shot and scalped” doctor, practiced the healing art, on Hydropathic principles, instead of the killing art, no such “vacancy” would have been made. But we trust some Hydropath will at once fill the vacancy, and cure all sick Indians.]

I don’t know if a Hydropath ever took up the burden and cured all the sick Indians of Rio Verde, but one has to marvel at the faith of the author that such a thing would even be possible; hydropaths of the day apparently held no doubt as to the success of their nostrums. Although I really can’t tell if we were supposed to take the piece seriously. Possibly not, as a little later, the journal offers the following advice:

How To Make Hens Lay – Tie a stout string round the body, and lay the bird upon its side upon a board, and fasten the string underneath. You can then put a pillow under its head if you wish. Hens secured in this manner will lay for any desired length of time.

That would work.

An anecdote to sum up everything that I hate about the NHS Tue, 17 Aug 2010 19:22:58 +0000 About ten years ago, like many other young UK graduates of MSc programs, I was working temp jobs for a short while. One contract had me working for a primary care trust, although thankfully it only lasted for about three days. The money wasn’t great and the work was dull, consisting of filing files, photocopying files and shredding files.

I found myself in the basement photocopy suite one afternoon, when, skirts swishing with officialdom, a woman barreled down the stairs, headed straight toward me and proclaimed: “Out of the way! I have to performance manage three hospitals this afternoon!”

There’s not a lot you can say to that. Of course I stood aside. Bureaucracy was about to happen, and I was the obstacle in its path.

Just think of it. Three hospitals! Only one afternoon! Performance-managed, with a photocopier, for some reason, and I’ll bet she was paid more than three nurses to do the job. Who were then fired for not performing with adequate cost-effectiveness, as determined in just one third of an afternoon by a performance-manager, and replaced with a homeopath.

I made that last part up, but you have to wonder if it is people like this behind these kinds of decisions; like the decision of NHS Tayside to sack 500 staff, but hire a £68,000-a-year homeopath instead. Maybe someone in an office building, performance managing the hell out of NHS Tayside, decided this was a cost-effective, performance-enhancing strategy for optimising the effective delivery of strategic and operational goals.

Which I’m sure is nice, but it won’t help at all with delivering actual health care.

In which I also apply for a job as a homeopath Tue, 17 Aug 2010 14:33:11 +0000 News reaches these Canadian shores of an extraordinary job opportunity: a £68,000 per year post for a homeopath to work just two afternoons a week. I have decided to apply.


To HR, NHS Tayside:

Herewith, my application as candidate for the position of Specialty Doctor of Homeopathy in your hospital.

Statement of Principles

Homeopathy is an important and essential healthcare modality. No other treatment protocol has so effectively medicalized the interpersonal neodialectic discourse that is the essence of healing, or, to put it in the crude vernacular, a ‘cup of tea and a bit of a chat’. I applaud NHS Tayside for standing firm against the totalitarian paradigm of evidence based medicine, and for their willingness to challenge the patriarchal dogma of so-called ‘Clinical Excellence’.


I have received many years of education at the patellae of my matrilineal elder, who elucidated a profound critique of modernism via juxtaposition with her own critical Marxist theory. The class divisions inherent in hospital hierarchies are ripe for desublimation and subversion and, in accordance with cultural libertarianism, I consider myself fully qualified (that is, unqualified, or, to use a postdialetic neologism, de-qualified) to excel in the position of Specialty Doctor of Homeopathy.

I do not hold any medical qualifications, although I do have a doctorate in the biological ‘sciences’, which I hope will not be held against me; admittedly, while the extensive exposure of the self to the microfascistic paradigm of so-called ‘peer review’ and ‘scientific standards’ may be seen as an impediment to the successful practice of a pre-Enlightenment system of knowing such as Homeopathy, I believe it instead gives me the critical perspective to self analyse, deconstruct and reject the status quo of rationalism that is the abundant narrative in hospital care.

I have a lifetime of experience in making, pouring and drinking tea, both alone and with other people, and am able to, at the same time and to a very high standard, listen to other people talk about their medical issues, pets, kids or gender conflict and sexual identity in the patriarchal, neo-liberal relational terrain of marriage to the differently-gendered (or like-gendered) ‘other’.

Finally, I am able to dispense homeopathic remedies while maintaining the standards of pseudo-scientific, Enlightenment-challenging narrative and discourse that is the defining characteristic of this particular treatment modality. This application is submitted as evidence of this ability.


I do currently reside in a different country, but rest assured, for £68,000 a year and for just two work sessions a week, I would move to Tayside in a regular, non-artery-clogged heartbeat. I hear the deep fried Mars Bars are to die for, as well as standing as a marvellous symbol of the paradigm-challenging nature of this job opportunity; in a country with the worst health outcomes in all of Europe, it takes guts to de-employ 500 proper health care workers and hire a homeopath instead.

Thank you for your consideration,



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Poe’s Law, vaccines edition Tue, 22 Jun 2010 22:10:30 +0000 Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

With that in mind, enjoy these facts about thimerosal

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Chiropractors get Royal seal of approval Tue, 22 Jun 2010 22:06:17 +0000 The College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences (Canada) is to be named the Royal College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences (Canada). Her Majesty has apparently only handed out 45 such Royal designations since 1952, so I have no idea why she would grant this one. Her usual powers of discrimination have surely failed her.

The CCSS work with athletes and are thoroughly intertwined with sports at the national level here in Canada, for example attending Olympics as part of the health care team. That’s nice for the chiropractors, but I wonder if it does any good at all for the athletes.

Let’s not forget what happened to one young Canadian. At the previous Olympics, Canadian hopeful Samantha Cools was knocked out of commission by her chiropractor after he “over-rotated her neck during a routine adjustment, tearing tendons and muscles”. Granted, he may not have been a member of the CCSS, but a chiropractic manipulation is just as pointless and potentially dangerous whoever is performing it. One wonders if the CCSS avoid the brutal, stroke inducing, headache causing types of manipulations, because they know that they are pointless and dangerous – despite such manipulations being an integral part of chiropractic.

Chiropractic has bugger all evidence to support its use beyond, perhaps, treating lower back pain, and that’s probably because it’s not much different to a good lower back massage, and equally as effective. There’s little reason to expect chiropractic to be effective in the first place: it was created out of whole cloth by a charlatan who imagined chiropractic could cure deafness, and just about everything else under the sun, through the correction of entirely imaginary ‘subluxations.’ The Queen has gone and given the Royal Seal to an organisation predicated on magical thinking.

“Chiropractic Sports Specialists keep active Canadians at their best by treating mechanical imbalances or dysfunctions”. Canadian chiropractors have also left people in comas, paralysed vocal chords, and induced strokes, resulting in death.

My advice? Canadian athletes can keep at their best by staying the hell away from chiropractors. Go see a sports physiotherapist instead.

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