Archive for June, 2010

What Is It? #16

Sorry it’s late. Someone fed a mogwai when they got in from the pub after closing time and gremlins got into the machinery, but it’s all solved now!

Last week (sort of), we asked you what this picture was (it would be a crap competition if we didn’t):

The answer is (insert drumroll here)… a dying nerve cell, photographed using an optical microscope. No right answers, although most of you were on the right track in suggesting cells of various kinds, so handclaps all round. Cancer cells were suggested, as was phagocytosis, blood cells and breast tissue. So well done to all who made those suggestions.

As usual we got some more left-field suggestions too, such as the light show at a Hawkwind gig, a curled up caterpillar and a Van Gogh painting. Personally, I think it actually does look like a Van Gogh, though I’m not sure about the other two suggestions! That said I’ve never been to a Hawkwind show. If their light shows are anything like the picture above, then that’s probably a good thing.

Anyway, I guess you’re all reading this to find out what the next picture is, so I’ll shut up now. Ready? What are we looking at in the picture below?

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InKredulous: Episode #005

Episode 5 of our satirical comedy podcast. With questions on skeptical topics, and five guests answering them.

Your host is Andy Wilson (@InKredulosi) of the Merseyside Skeptics Society

Appearing this month are:

You can contact the show at andy@inkredulous.org, and follow us on twitter @InKredulosi to get the early heads up on who will appear on the next show. As always, thanks for listening.

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Bad PR: A Peek Behind The Poll Curtain

Regular readers of the site are possibly familiar with a few reports I’ve done in the past, looking at Bad PR. I’m not sure I ever clarified what Bad PR actually is – instead I’ve just taken a headline or a story touted around the various rags of the English press, and tracked it back to the initial press release issued by some company or other – often only peripherally related to the subject of the press release – and generally banged a big grumpy drum at all of it. Fans of that, don’t dispair – I’m sure I’ll be back some other time, drum in tow, merrily – and of course grumpily – banging away for your amusement. Or something.

But for now, I’m going to put my drum away, step away from the awkward and restrictive music metaphor I seem to have forced on myself, and take you through the other side of this sorry affair that is this whole murky world of surveys, PR and the news.

You see, newspapers need content – gone is the day when a journalist can scout stories, call up sources, check facts, and do all that other good stuff you see in political thrillers, where the diligent and handsome-in-a-shabby-sort-of-way journalist uncovers some political scandal or other, and – after huge rows with his cartoon character of an editor – publishes the lot to international acclaim. Those guys don’t really exist any more. Instead, more often than not, journalists have so many column inches to fill that they barely even have the time to check what day of the week it is.

Because of this, it’s insanely easy for any PR company to hand them a nice juicy press release, a write-up of a public survey complete with numbers and percentages and opinions, topped off with a nicely surprising or sexy finding. Newspapers lap that up, and goes out pretty much unedited, which is where my big grumpy drum comes in.

But where do these survey come from? And what role do they have in fashioning said sexy or surprising findings? Well, I’m always one to put my neck on the line, so I decided to visit the charming website of my favourite pollsters – One Poll, who were responsible for finding out that people think Jeremy Clarkson is probably well hung – and I joined up as a poll-ee, which you might think is a made up word but 78% of the 100 people I asked said it was perfectly valid. See, I’m getting into the spirit already.

Being a pollee is not without it’s benefits, of course. I mean I say that, but it almost literally is without it’s benefits – for each poll you take part in, your account is credited with a generous ten pence, which is yours to do with as you please. Slight catch – you only see the cold hard cashola once you’ve accumulated £40, so unless you’re in it for the long haul, One Poll don’t have to pay you a penny. Excellent. Read the rest of this entry »

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Call To Action: Homeopathy Early Day Motions

The first half of the year has been a fantastic time for the fight against homeopathy. Aside from our own high-profile demonstration, there’s been significant backing from the Science and Technology Select Committee,calling for an end to homeopathy on the NHS. In addition, the British Medical Association Junior Doctors Committee outed homeopathy as ‘witchcraft’, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland condemned the pseudomedicine and its sale in pharmacies. This has all been excellent.

However, there are still significant challenges ahead – not least in the form of David Tredinnick MP, recently appointed to the Health Select Committee despite his beliefs that astrology has a role to play in healthcare, and that surgeons won’t operate under a full moon as the lunar cycle has an effect on the clotting of blood. Both of which are, of course, untrue. This isn’t the extent of Mr Tredinnick’s misunderstanding of health advice – he recently tabled 4 Early Day Motions, urging MPs to support homeopathy and to ignore the findings of the Science and Technology Select Committee. These EDMs are based on flawed science and false assertion, and should not be supported by your local MP.

Fortunately, Julian Huppert MP has tabled amendments to each of Mr Tredinnick’s motions, in order to correct the inaccuracies, misunderstandings and misguided support for homeopathy. These amendments are based on clear reviews of the studies in question, and are backed by scientists and experts in the fields – as such, they also have the backing of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and the 10:23 Campaign.

At the moment, many MPs may not know much about homeopathy, and may not know it is based on quackery and magical thinking; most crucially, they may not know how important an issue it is to you. With this in mind, we urge you to write to your MP to let them know how strongly you feel. The website Write To Them (http://www.writetothem.com/) makes writing to your MP very easy, and for your convenience you can find below a standard letter to copy and paste into the body of your letter.

Please, take 2 minutes to let your MP know that homeopathy is not an effective healthcare option, does not offer value for taxpayer money, and should not be supported. Ask your MP to sign EDM amendments 284A1, 285A1, 286A1 and 287A1. Ask your friends to do the same. Spread the word – together, we can make a difference.

Visit http://www.writetothem.com/ and paste the following into the body of your letter – as Write To Them blocks identical letters, please adjust the wording in the letter as you see fit, to best express your views Read the rest of this entry »

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Joe Power, non-Psychic non-Detective: A Clarification

From time to time in the world of skepticism, something happens which you really don’t see coming – something totally unexpected. Often, these are positive things – like the media interest in our 10:23 Campaign, or the random discovery that comedy-legend Ed Byrne knows who you are. From time to time, they’re somewhat negative things – like discovering childhood-hero Johnny Ball thinks farting spiders are responsible for the high CO2 levels in the world. And then there are the things that are just utterly unpredictable, out of the left-field, and hard to wrap your head around.

On Friday of last week, I got a phone call. From Ormskirk police. The polite and friendly officer assured me there was nothing to worry about, but that he was looking into alleged threats of violence coming from people on Facebook. Specifically, within the group page of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. And aimed at non-psychic non-detective Joe ‘I’ll just pop to your toilet‘ Power.

This was news to me. It was also utterly untrue.

As I explained to the officer, we at the Merseyside Skeptics Society have never made threats to anyone, ever, and nor would we; further, we’d NEVER condone physical or personal threats made by anyone else. Aside from a complete and utter aversion to violence – which for one thing has been shown by many people in history to be a truly terrible way to get a point across – making personal threats would go completely against the whole point of what the MSS is about: examining the evidence, and pointing out where the claim (and subsequently the claimant) is lacking. In fact, when I met Joe over a year ago, I went to great lengths to remain calm and even-tempered while he continually insulted me in increasingly bizarre and surreal ways. Paedophile? OK Joe, go for it. Homosexual? Sure, if you like. Atheist? Absolutely (well one out of three isn’t bad, for the Man Who Talks To Dead People. Or at least 1/3rd of dead people, presumably).

Fortunately, having spoken to me for a good five minutes, the officer was able to assure me that he was quite confident no wrong-doing nor anything malicious had taken place. After I’d explained Joe’s full history with the MSS, our polite insistence that Joe at some point, some time, in some way – any way at all – shows some evidence that he can indeed contact the dead, and the fact that when I met Joe a year ago I ended the conversation by wishing him well – after I’d explained all of this, the officer concluded that I’ve almost certainly not gone beyond practising freedom of speech, which is true.

He also asked whether I’d mind clarifying my lack of violent or threatening intent to Joe – which I’m more than happy to do: I’ve never, in anyway, suggested or advocated anything threatening in the direction of Joe or his family.

You can probably imagine my surprise – and, indeed, deep disappointment – to now hear from Joe via the police, with tales of his wife being ‘unable to sleep’ due to worrying about threats made against him. It’s a shame, but not really that much of a surprise, that Joe decided to go direct to the police with these unfounded allegations of threats, rather than email me – I am, after all, easily reachable and more than amiable. I’m sure it’s nothing more than a simple misunderstanding, which I’m happy to clear up. Because, were it that Joe was creating spurious reports of threats in order to use the police to silence entirely reasonable criticism of the magical claims he makes, that would represent a serious waste of police time, which is in itself not a laughing matter. Still, Joe’s not one for wasting police time, really, so I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ernst Praises Hahnemann?

Resident MSS Doctor and Skeptics in the Pub goer Selva shares his views on Edzard Ernst and Samuel Hahnemann…

In a recent Pulse magazine article professor of complementary medicine Edzard Ernst praised the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann.

“In my view, Samuel Hahnemann, the German doctor who invented homeopathy about 200 years ago, is a man who should be celebrated.”

Can this be true? Surely one of the most respected proponents of evidence based medicine cannot be advocating homeopathy as a treatment.

In his article he cites the hammering homeopathy has received over the last year including the House of Commons select committee’s damning report, the BMA describing homeopathy as “witchcraft”, and my particular favourite – comedians taking the “homeopathic mickey” (sadly 10.23′s not insignificant role doesn’t get a mention).

Fortunately normal service resumes further in the article – to quote Prof Ernst:

“His primary achievement is not to have developed homeopathy. His true achievement is that, in the course of doing this, he has shown us how important non-specific effects – often also called the ‘art’ of medicine – are in terms of getting patients better. To put it bluntly, Hahnemann has taught us that patients can improve even when we give them nothing but placebos.”

This somewhat conciliatory line is admirable, but I think also provides the crack which has allowed homeopathy to be practiced for so many years as an NHS treatment. Most doctors either haven’t been aware of the implausibility of homeopathy, or have been happy for other practitioners to provide placebos to patients, in the knowledge that there is some perceived benefit. Homeopathy is often given for intractable problems, where EBM doesn’t always provide sufficient benefit. As Prof Ernst says, the act of being empathic and providing sufficient time is often enough to make the patient feel better. Read the rest of this entry »

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