Archive for September, 2011

On Cheese, Sleep and Nightmares

Unlike Mike, who spends his days in a dinosaur and doctor who lined back bedroom surrounded by overly-sociable cats and DVDs of 90s kids TV, I work in an office for a living. Which means, office conversations, where office topics come up. So it means I know rather too much about Heat Magazine, Glee, Tinnie Tempah and films like ‘The Hangover’ and ‘The Hangover 2: Hangoverer’. And it also means when a standard nugget of urban myth or popular received wisdom comes up, people look in my way to dispute it.

Sometimes, that’s not too difficult – it turns out the world is in fact facing genuine climate change, and the US government were not involved in 9/11, and that dog’s CAN look up.

Still, there was one that caught me out for a little while, when a colleague of mine casually mentioned avoiding cheese before bed, so as to avoid getting nightmares. This is something that’s a real piece of received wisdom here in the UK – I’m not sure of it elsewhere in the world – but it’s something most people would have heard of. It’s the kind of thing your mum says to you, like the thing about not feeling the benefit of your coat if you wear it indoors. It’s also the kinda thing Mythbusters would look at, although it would represent a bit of a low-fi myth to bust, a bit like proving that once you pop you can actually stop if you like.

Now, I was fairly certain that it would be unlikely, as I couldn’t imagine a mechanism, but that doesn’t mean as such that it’s untrue, and I’m often wrong – probably more often than not. No, wait, that’s not right. See, I’m at it again. So I thought I’d check it out. First stop, Google, which picked up a few Daily Mail articles and the BBC Focus Magazine, the latter of which suggested:

“Any heavy meal before bed can make you spend more time in REM sleep and therefore dream more. But there is no evidence to suggest that cheese is particularly effective at causing dreams, good or bad.”

This seemed decent information, but a little obvious. How would a folk myth arise when the answer was so simple? I wasn’t sure, so I thought I’d look into it a little more. Read the rest of this entry »

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Skeptics in the Pub: Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Testby Jon Ronson

When: Thursday, November 17th, 2011 8.00 – 11.00 PM
Where: The Head of Steam, 7 Lime Street, Liverpool

When the journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist who has recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail he is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for answers, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness. Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths. Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power.

Jon Ronson is an award-winning writer and documentary maker. He is the author of two bestsellers: “Them: Adventures with Extremists” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, and two collections, “Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness” and” What I Do: More True Tales”.

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‘Psychic’ Nurse Sacked For Data Misuse

With the issue of data security and information privacy very much in the news here in the UK with the ongoing public airing of a decade of dirty, dirty News International laundry, it’s almost too convenient that another case of information intrusion is currently being investigated over in America – and though it may be a lot less high-profile, there’s a neat little pseudoscience element too it.

Lori Neill is a former occupational nurse in Colorado Springs, who recently resigned from her job. She is also, she believes, psychic. And she believes those two facts are related, and I’m inclined to agree, though doubtlessly for very different reasons.

Lori’s story is that her psychic abilities made her supervisors uncomfortable, and that on the occasion she had told her supervisor he might be suffering from a life-threatening illness, and that he should seek medical help, he was so angered that he made up allegations about her, to force her out of work.

Officials at the hospital and city, however, tell a different story. They have accused Lori of accessing the medical records of around 2,500 patients. Given that Lori worked not for the hospital but for the city, they argue she had no medical need to look at those records. Especially given that most of the accessing happened outside of work hours. Their implication is that Lori is not actually psychic, or able to spiritually intuit the illnesses of people by tuning into the other side (where diagnosticians are ten a penny, I’d presume). They claim instead that the reason she was able to accurately tell people what ailments had befallen them, was that she’d read their medical records. Read the rest of this entry »

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Skeptics in the Pub: John Walliss

It’s (Not) the End of the World As We Know It

John Walliss: It's (Not) the End of the World As We Know Itby John Walliss
When: Thursday, October 20th, 2011 8.00 – 11.00 PM
Where: The Head of Steam, 7 Lime Street, Liverpool

On 21st May 2011 the end of the world should have begun. This prophecy, from evangelical Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, however, did not come to pass. Christians all over the world were not raptured, the Tribulation period did not begin, and Camping, who has subsequently suffered a stroke, and his followers are having to come to terms with the apparent failure, or at least delay, of the prophesied events to occur.

Camping however, is not unique in religious history. Numerous other prophets and religious leaders have made claims that the world will end on a specific date with events subsequently proving them wrong.

John will examine the phenomenon of prophetic failure, drawing on the wealth of literature that we have developed in the social sciences over the last 60 or so years. In doing so he will hope to answer such questions as what happens when prophecy fails and does prophecy ever really fail?

John Walliss is the senior lecturer in the sociology of religion and Director of the Centre for Millennialism Studies within the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University..

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Skeptics in the Pub: Stuart Ritchie

The Science of Pornography and Anti-Porn Campaigners: A Skeptical Look At The Debate

Stuart Ritchie by Stuart Ritchie

When: Thursday, September 15th, 2011 8.00 – 11.00 PM
Where: The Head of Steam, 7 Lime Street, Liverpool

Is pornography turning us all into sex offenders? What effect does it have on societal attitudes towards women? Is porn taking over the internet? If certain recent books – such as ‘Pornland’ by Professor Gail Dines – are to be believed, pornography is having all these effects and more, and is a hugely detrimental force in our society.

But what does the best scientific evidence say? Stuart Ritchie, a PhD Psychology student at The University of Edinburgh, takes a skeptical look at the arguments for and against pornography.

NOTE: This is a replacement talk for “How to be a Psychic Con-man” by Ash Pryce, which has been postponed until further notice.

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