Archive for November, 2018

Celebrate 10 years of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, at MSSX

Ten years ago, we started the Merseyside Skeptics Society, as a way of building and supporting the critical thinking community of Liverpool and the surrounding areas. In the decade since then, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has gone from strength to strength, organising over 100 monthly skeptics in the pub events, publishing almost 350 episodes of our three podcasts, leading international campaigns against homeopathy, investigating local cancer quackery talks, curbing the sales of pseudoscientific sportswear products, and much more.

By way of celebrating the first decade of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, we have decided to invite some of our favourite speakers from the last ten years to join use for a special, one-off, day-long event. Taking place in the Liner Hotel in Liverpool on July 6th, 2019, MSSX is our chance to say thank you to the skeptical community of Liverpool and beyond, for supporting our work and being part of our sceptical world over the last decade.

Tickets to MSSX will be strictly limited (we promised ourselves this won’t become another QED!), and will cost just £29. Tickets will be on general sale from February 1st, 2019, with early-bird tickets available to purchase in person during our January Skeptics in the Pub events.

We’ll release more information about our event soon, including how to buy tickets online, so keep listening to Skeptics with a K and checking this website and for further details.

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #238

Tearing apples, parole hearings, social media, and judicial reviews. Plus brightening lamps, magic soap, laddered tights, and conspiracy theories. With a big announcement, it’s Skeptics with a K.

If you need to skip through Emma’s discussion about sex offenders, it runs from 0:45:00 to 1:08:10.



PAVA Palaver

About a month ago the latest prisons minister Rory Stewart announced a countrywide rollout of PAVA (synthetic pepper) Spray for all prison officers in male prisons in England and Wales following a ‘successful’ pilot study of its use. At the time of his appointment Mr Stewart stated that he would resign within a year if the levels of illicit drugs and violence had not reduced. And so this announcement appeared to show he was taking decisive action to keep his promise.

A screen grab of the press release from the MOJ titled "Prison officer safety equipment rolled out - prisons minister announces roll-out of PAVA incapacitant spray to prison officers across the country" dated 9th October 2018

Violence within the prison estate of England and Wales has sky rocketed in recent years. For example, between March 2017 and March 2018 assaults on staff increased 26% whilst the prison population remained static or only slightly increased. There is a negative correlation between the levels of violence and a significant reduction in staff numbers since 2010. At least seven thousand operational staff have been lost in that time with a modest increase in recent months.

This is obviously less than ideal for a number of reasons that go beyond just the physical damage caused by such violence. Unstable and unsafe prisons are not places where people can be rehabilitated and helped to lead positive, crime free lives upon release.

There have many pronouncements by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) as to what they intend to do about this problem in recent years. PAVA is the most recent. News of this roll out did not include the pilot study itself or outline what exactly was meant by ‘success’.

The pilot study was initially somewhat elusive and none of its details were contained within any of the reporting, apart from this apparent ‘success’. A number of people including Rob Allen, an independent researcher in this area, made FOI requests to the MOJ who obliged and provided the report which can be found here

The Pilot Study

So now we are able to see what the aims of the study were and what is being defined as ‘success’.

The aims of the study were to answer the following:

  1. How does presence/use of PAVA impact on prison violence and use of force?
  2. How does presence/use of PAVA effect perceptions of safety?
  3. How does presence/use of PAVA impact on relationships between staff and prisoners?
  4. How do staff and prisoners perceive the presence/use of PAVA?
  5. What are the risks or issues presented by the presence and use of PAVA in prison?

In order to achieve these aims pilots were undertaken in 4 prisons where officers received half a day of training on the use of PAVA. Officers were advised that it should only be used in exceptional circumstances where control and restraint were unlikely to be effective. Four ‘control’ prisons without PAVA were also part of study. The eight prisons involved totalled 7651 prisoners and 2972 officers out of a total England and Wales population of 83,163.

A photograph taken through the bars of a prison cell with an out of focus bed, sink and desk in the background

The study ran from December 2017 to June 2018. Results were gathered both quantitatively and qualitatively via recording the number of uses of PAVA and by interviews with those involved in some of the instances of use.

PAVA was used (either drawn and/or deployed) 50 times in incidents involving 56 prisoners across the four study sites. It was actually deployed 30 of those 50 times. However the levels of violence in both the pilot and control sites remained at similar levels and indeed increased, continuing current trends. This raises serious questions about how this study was considered to be successful.

The main way it appears to have been deemed successful is in relation to the second aim, namely perceived safety. The study notes that “staff felt better able to deal with it and better equipped to arrest escalation and prevent harm with PAVA”. Of course perception of safety and actual safety are two different things as is made very clear by the fact that levels of violence were unchanged by the introduction of the spray.

More than just a last resort?

A large percentage of the incidents where PAVA was deployed and/or drawn, 16%, were not instances of violence (either between prisoners or towards staff) but instances of ‘passive non-compliance’ or self-harm. This raises the concern that use of PAVA during the study went far beyond it being a weapon of last resort. A Panel that reviewed each incident concluded that between 4 and 11 of the incidents went beyond expectations of professional conduct. Some of the case studies seem to be particularly concerning. For example case study 33 is recorded as follows:

‘PAVA is deployed 3 times in 2 incidents running concurrently involving 1 prisoner and 2

officers. Prisoner suffers from mental health issues and is awaiting formal assessment. Two

CMs respond to alarm (officer A and officer B) and find Prisoner is resisting staff attempts to

close his cell door. Prisoner A is warned and sprayed at the cell entrance and again on his

bed. Upon healthcare assessment 5-10 minutes later, PAVA is sprayed again as prisoner A

is refusing to withdraw his hands from his observation flap.’

There is no indication that this prisoner was being aggressive or causing harm yet he was sprayed with PAVA twice in succession. This goes completely against the guidance that indicates that PAVA should not be used simply to gain compliance.


There were also worrying discrepancies in how the physical effects of PAVA were described depending on whether it was prisoners or staff who were feeling the effects. In 13 of the 33 instances where the spray was actually used the staff involved were affected by the spray. It was described by staff and prisoners as “nasty”, “unbearable”, “like your skin peeling off” and “acid attacked”. However overall the staff involved described the use of PAVA as a ‘minor’ use of force towards prisoners but ‘awful’ when staff were hit.

The limitations

The study did include some limitations which were noted by the authors. For example the definition of a deployment did not include instances where officers were covertly drawing a cannister behind their back with the intention of using it if needed. It is not known how often this happened and so the 50 instances recorded in the study could actually be a significant under-report. To be fair the study does make this and other limitations clear and highlights that the results should be seen as indicative rather than definitive as a result. In my view this makes the fact the MOJ have used it as a basis for a wholescale roll out pretty odd. This is especially true as there is a general lack of previous studies about custodial PAVA use to also relay on. This is something the study also concedes.A screen grab of the PAVA pilot study report titled "PAVA in prisons project evaluation report" dated 2018

There is no doubt that prison officers do a very difficult job in extremely challenging circumstances and the need to protect them in volatile situations is vital. However, introducing more weapons into this already toxic environment on the basis of this study is at best questionable. In conclusion, when it comes to reducing violence in prison, the MOJ have a funny definition of ‘success’ and Mr Stewart is still someway from keeping his promise (and his job).


A photo of Emma McClure, she has long brown hair and is smiling at the camera

Emma McClure

Emma McClure is a solicitor specialising in prison and public law whose work sees her regularly representing prisoners during parole hearings and bringing judicial reviews against public bodies. She has given talks around the country on the way in which over-confidence in the veracity of forensic science can lead to miscarriages of justice and has gone undercover to investigate psychics, faith healers and Mind Body Spirit fairs.

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You Can’t Moisturise Away Depression – The Commodification of Self Care

I live with anxiety and depression. I’m not alone in this with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem each year. I regularly feel like getting out of bed is an insurmountable task, that I’m drowning in the weight of my failings and that life is hopeless. Sometimes the world is so scary, so fraught with risk, that I’m not sure I can keep myself safe. When I’m in a particularly low ebb, it can feel like I won’t ever get better and I rely on self care to get me through the day, and maintain some amount of wellbeing for other days.

Self care is a difficult, but essential, part of recovery for a lot of people. It isn’t glamorous or hashtag Instagram worthy for the most part. It’s doing the basic things you need to do to survive, and hopefully thrive at some point. It’s getting out of bed, showering, sticking to a treatment plan that works for you (be that therapy or medication or a combination of both), working towards good sleep hygiene, cooking and eating something nutritious, exercising in a way you can and paying your bills. A lot of this might seem pretty easy to a well person, but it’s not. It can be hard but it’s necessary.Two Instagram posts from @makedaisychains from the artist's "boring self-care". On the left is a bed reading "changed my bed sheets" and on the right a heart shaped dinner plate with the words "cooked and ate a nourishing meal"

Self care has become a huge trend on social media, in fact this week is #selfcareweek. Your social timelines are likely to be filled with pictures of people practicing self care, though it might not look like what I just described. Self care has been utilised by brands and influencers who have everything you need to be better…at a price. There is no shortage of companies willing to exploit illness to sell their bath bombs, face masks, cosy blankets and scented candles. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things, what I don’t love is that self care is being redefined to be about expensive pampering sessions and products that aren’t going to have the impact they claim.A woman relaxing in a bubble bath surrounded by lit candles

To get a real idea of the problem, let’s look at some of those products, shall we? Goop have a ‘Self Care for the Cubicle-Bound’ kit which promises to “sharpen your wits, improve your mood, and liven up your skin”, for a hefty price tag of £380. If that is too much for you to invest, don’t worry, the combination of “potent, miracle” face oil, cuticle cream, lipstick and dental floss probably wasn’t going to be all that helpful anyway. For the much lower cost of £25.99 you could purchase an Anxiety Kit, but it’s contents of an aromatherapy roller, positive thinking deck and healing crystal are no less problematic.  If a subscription is more your thing, you could pay £38.00 monthly to receive a WILDWOMAN box which claims to be able to make you “live the life you truly desire and deserve” through a book, stationary, crystals and sweet treats.

A selection of brightly coloured cut crystals on a wooden table

As well as hawking chocolates, pretty stationary and beauty products, most of these packages also include the usual pseudoscience culprits. Crystals feature heavily, which makes sense because those who endorse crystals claim they support and heal your body, and can be used in many ways including wearing in a locket, rolling on your face and even inserting inside yourself. However, there remains no scientific evidence that crystals are useful at all. Similarly, aromatherapy products are included in a lot of these self care kits despite there being very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. With all of that considered, you could be setting yourself back hundreds of pounds to receive a whole heap of nothing useful, and potentially end up feeling worse that it hasn’t worked when you were promised that it would.

If having a bubble bath or taking a nap under a fluffy blanket makes you feel better, great, do that. Taking time to enjoy small pleasures is definitely an aspect of self care, but it isn’t the whole story. Mental health conditions are never going to be cured by having a dewy complexion or wearing a necklace with a phrase of affirmation on it. It’s important we don’t accept that potentially vulnerable people are being peddled luxury (and mostly useless) products in the name of self care. Commodifying recovery isn’t okay and it shouldn’t be a trend we allow to go unchallenged.


A photo of Christina Berry-Moorcroft. She is a white woman with dark, curly hair. She is wearing a brightly coloured scarf and bright pink lipstick. Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a dementia carers charity, and Trustee for a women’s refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked internationally on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality.  In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ChrissieBM for political ramblings, mental health honesty and far too many selfies.


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Skeptics with a K: Episode #237

Doctor Who, socialised empathy, an overstuffed walrus, and extreme male brains. Plus indulgent milkshakes, Body Worlds, six hundred thousand babies, and the Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Excited by cars, it’s Skeptics with a K.


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Can video gaming help save lives?

Gamers get a bad rep in society (no seriously, we did a panel on it at QED) but every year gamers of all kinds get together to do something brilliant: Extra Life. What is Extra Life? It’s a fundraising event started by gamers back in 2008 which has raised over $40 million for children’s hospitals. Each year from November 3rd people all over the world stream marathons of games of all kinds: from video games to Dungeons and Dragons. They do it not for prestige or fake internet points, but to fund lifesaving treatments for sick kids.

A blue background with a family (two parents, two kids, two grandparents) playing a board game. Over is white lettering saying "game day is November 3!" and the Extra Life logo with the tagline "play games, heal kids" plus the logo for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals'"

MSS have never been involved with Extra Life before, but this year more than any other it’s something I feel strongly about so I reached out. Why?

On April 28th a little boy named Alfie Evans passed away from an untreatable, progressive neuro-degenerative disorder. If you’re a layman like me, translation: he was born with a rare genetic disorder that affected his brain and got worse over time. You may have heard of Alfie Evans, probably not for the excellent work of the doctors and nurses who treated him during his 18 month stay in the ICU at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital here in Liverpool, but for the extended legal case between Alfie’s parents and Alder Hey which dominated the news in the early part of this year.

You can read more about the case all over the internet, but it is an unfortunate example of where religious agenda, poor media reporting and pseudoscience can harm not only patients; but hospitals and scientific institutions who become embroiled in their controversy. It is estimated that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital spent over £145,000 in legal fees during the case which concluded that continued life support was ‘unkind and inhumane’, and with pediatric ICU beds costing the NHS around £2000 per day that could amount to an additional £250,000 during the time where Alfie was kept on ventilators against doctors advice.

However, people’s lives are worth more than money: and the most heartbreaking thing about this case was not the NHS funds that could have been used elsewhere but the unnecessary suffering endured by Alfie himself, the exploitation of Alfie’s parents grief and the abuse of Alder Hey staff at the hands of misinformed protesters dubbed ‘Alfies Army’. My thoughts go out to Alfie’s parents, the families of seriously ill children everywhere, and I stand in solidarity with the medical professionals who work bravely and tirelessly each day to do what is objectively best for their patients. Even in the face of hostility from media and misguided public opinion.

A photo of Alder Hey Children's Hospital - the hospital was recently redesigned and rebuilt using ideas from children. Two of the blocks of windows are surrounded by coloured tiling and the roof is curved and sloped.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

So this year for Extra Life MSS are kindly donating £250 to Alder Hey, thank you! November 3rd has come and gone, but it’s not too late to join in by donating yourself, or watching and supporting an Extra Life stream to see what all this gamer stuff is about.

A photo of Lana's face. Lana is white with blondish red, straight hair just past her shoulders. She's wearing a black top and smokey dark eye make up. She is looking at the camera and smiling.

Lana Donaghy

Lana Donaghy is a former games developer and professional video gamer: spending years questing through Azeroth, competing with some of the world’s top World of Warcraft players. These days Lana works in software development and is still a devoted gamer who loves esports. If you want to read more of her ramblings and obscure video game jargon or see pictures of her cat you should check out her twitter @lanadonaghy

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