Archive for May, 2011

Skeptics in the Pub: Brian Deer

MMR and Autism: An Elaborate Fraud

How the Case Against the Vaccine Was Built

Brian Deer

by Brian Deer
When: Thursday, June 16, 2011 8.00 – 11.00 PM
Where: The Head of Steam, 7 Lime Street, Liverpool

As the Wirral becomes the latest area of the UK to suffer a measles outbreak in an unvaccinated population, investigative journalist Brian Deer visits Liverpool to speak about how he uncovered the “elaborate fraud” behind the MMR scare.

In February 1998, the Lancet medical journal triggered a global alarm with research proposing a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. The researchers’ leader, Andrew Wakefield called for the vaccine to be “suspended”. But all was not as it appeared to be. Following investigations over a period of 7 years for The Sunday Times, the British Medical Journal in January denounced Wakefield’s research as “an elaborate fraud”.

The story raced round the world. A Harris poll in the United States found that 47% of Americans had heard Deer’s story. The New York Times said his work was “extraordinary.” Now, on 16th June, he comes to Merseyside Skeptics Society to talk about how Wakefield rigged the research linking MMR with autism, how he did it, who paid him for it, how much money he expected to make out of it, and the years-long investigation which finally nailed him. This is one of the big science stories of today.

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Creatures, cavegirls and kids

In a fit of nostalgia, I recently decided to hunt down copies of a particular TV show I remember from when I was a kid.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised by this.  I am, at the age of 32, just as much of a Doctor Who nut as I was 29 years previously.  I also have every episode of the Children’s ITV gameshow Knightmare on VHS.  Nostalgia and the completist, collectors instinct are a dangerous pairing.

My latest whim is the 1982 animated version of The Incredible Hulk.  No, not the dreadful Bill Bixby series of the same name, which it seems everyone but me remembers fondly.  I’m so bored of hearing producers talk about how the Hulk movies are failing because they lack a resemblance to the TV show.  I’m sometimes not wholly convinced that these people realise the Hulk is actually a comic book character.  Bill Bixby has, I fear, doomed all subsequent live action versions of the Hulk to emulate his version of the character, instead of Stan Lee’s.

But I digress.

One episode of The Incredible Hulk, titled The Creature and the Cavegirl, features Bruce Banner attempting to use a “time projector” to go back in time and prevent the gamma ray explosion which first turned him into the Hulk.  As you might expect, things go awry and the Hulk ends up travelling “a million years back in time”, where he rescues a woman – the eponymous cavegirl – from a bear-like monster and a marauding dinosaur.

This is the point at which I started getting frustrated. Dinosaurs and humans living together?  Who died and made Ken Ham the script editor?  Modern humans living one million years ago? Seriously? Come to that – dinosaurs living one million years ago! Really?! You’re going to put that in a kids TV show? Irresponsible much?

Then I took a step back.

Sure, this show is telling kids (albeit indirectly) that humans and dinosaurs lived together a million years ago. But it is also telling kids that getting caught in a nuclear blast with turn you into a green, quasi-Jekyll-and-Hyde monster in magic elastic pants.  And that it is possible to traverse the fourth dimension via a device called a time projector.

These things are just as crazy, but I don’t find them in the least bit objectionable.

Why not?


Bad News: Are Kids Turning Their Backs On Sports?

The following is taken in part from Episode 46 of our podcast ‘Skeptics with a K’, give or take the odd addition.

A generation of children ‘turn their backs on sport’ – so said the BBC recently. And they weren’t alone, with similar stories gracing the pages of the Daily Mail, The Independent and pretty much every other media outlet going. But I’ll focus on the BBC, because I respect them most. Moving on with the story:

A generation of British children are turning their backs on sport and physical activity, a survey suggests.

The poll for British Triathlon and Tata Steel suggests 10% cannot ride a bike and 15% cannot swim.

Connoisseurs of my PR takedowns in the past will spot the brand names right there in paragraph two – British Triathlon and Tata Steel. The latter are a steelworking giant who sponsor the Tata Kids Of Steel – a community programme to drive kids into exercise, and in particular into the swimming, bike-riding and running that constitutes the triathlon, as promoted by British Triathlon.

Now, it’s worth pointing out at this point – just because the British Triathlon federation and its corporate sponsor Tata Steel have a vested interest in telling the world that children are no longer riding bicycles and swimming and generally triathlonning, it doesn’t mean the survey involved here is dodgy. But it does mean we should be treading a little carefully, and we should certainly be examining the claims being made perhaps a little more skeptically than if an entirely independent body were making the same claims.

As a brief aside at this point, it’s worth pointing out that the first thing I thought when I glanced over this story was ‘who are Tata Steel’ and ‘what have they got to do with sports’ – questions which were soon answered with a mild Google. These big businesses aren’t stupid, and I’d speculate that for every pound spent on this sports initiative, a corporate sponsor would see two pounds or more come back to them in either goodwill, reputational benefit, or convenient blind-eyes to some of the inevitably murkier elements of a large-scale industrial business.

Anyway, back to the BBC, and the story we’re being cautiously skeptical about, and here come the statistics Read the rest of this entry »

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #046

My Little Pony and God’s CV.
Witches, psychics, awards for coffee.
Running and biking on the BBC.
It’s Skeptics with a K. So mote it be.



Skeptics with a K: Episode #045

Jumping stones, massive dogs, lousy heads and meta keywords. Plus, unicorns, replicating studies, first-person shooters and the Alternative Vote.



Skeptics in the Pub: Alan Henness

The Nightingale Collaboration

Alan Henness

by Alan Henness
When: Thursday, May 19, 2011 8.00 – 11.00 PM
Where: The Head of Steam, 7 Lime Street, Liverpool

In 2009, Alan Henness heard about the British Chiropractic Association’s libel case against Simon Singh for the article he wrote for the Guardian about bogus therapies. He started to look at chiropractors’ websites and was appalled by the claims being made – he decided to do something about it. Alan submitted complaints about 524 chiropractors to their statutory regulator in June 2009; nearly two years later, many of those complaints have yet to be decided.

Simon Singh’s case encouraged many skeptics to see what they could do to challenge misleading claims. However, many were unsure how best to make complaints and also saw the need to have larger, coordinated campaigns if they were going to make a real impact. The Nightingale Collaboration was set up to enable sharing of knowledge and experience in challenging misleading claims in healthcare advertising, and to encourage anyone who is concerned at protecting the public from misinformation in healthcare promotion to join them in challenging it. The Nightingale Collaboration aims to improve the protection of the public by getting misleading claims withdrawn and those responsible held to account.

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