Importance of minority viewpoints

Originally published as Opening up climate science can cut off the skeptics as a guest post on the Guardian‘s Lay Scientist blog.

It’s not uncommon to find lists of scientists who hold alternative viewpoints being promoted by those who disagree with established scientific theories. Minority groups use these lists as part of the ‘proof’ that the vast body of evidence in support of a theory is somehow wrong, or to imply a greater amount of controversy or confusion within academia over a topic than there is in reality.

In my belief, this comes from the mistaken view that the scientific community need to agree on a single world view for a theory to have a solid grounding. After all, most people’s education of science is of established principles in a school textbook, which are then examined in
a situation where there is usually a single correct answer. This, in turn, leaves those outside of the community to see even a small division of belief on controversial theories as evidence that the leading explanation does not hold up to scrutiny.

Of course, this isn’t true: those in academia are constantly debating and modifying their ideas over time as new evidence comes to light, and those who hold minority viewpoints are valued for their opinion, but only when they can provide evidence for their stance, not for their ability to sign a petition.

The body of science is like a branching tree of concepts and theories: those at the trunk of the tree are concepts for which there is little debate, such as the existence of gravity or that the world is round, while the periphery of the tree is where the research happens, where new ideas develop and grow or die, and as the evidence gets stronger so the branch thickens.

In contrast, issues are presented to the public as if they are black or white. Headlines often read as if scientists have proved or disproved a whole subject in a single study. In reality, topics are sets of theories that evolve over time with the advancement of knowledge. The important thing to understand, though, is that the core of the research is generally a constant; it’s the fine details that keep developing and moving forward.

Of course, sometimes, a result will shatter preconceived ideas, but this is incredibly uncommon. When it does happen, it is also normally the result that will define an individual’s career, not something to be covered up. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity eventually superseded the concept of the luminiferous aether.

If we want people to respect the scientific community and understand its own confidence in its output, we have to also accept that it’s not the individual scientists or skeptics who hold weight. We need to tear down the ivory towers of the past and remove the walls dividing the public and academia. Journals need to be open, and in complex cases, such as the evidence for climate change, we need to provide the skills and tools that people need to discover the answers for themselves. If we ask them to to accept our viewpoints just because we are the experts, we have already lost. We would be no different than anyone who stands on a pedestal and proclaims the truth.

Climate change is a massively complex topic and it is often assumed that dissemination of the body of evidence is beyond the understanding of the public. Professor Andy Parker, who is leading the ATLAS project in Cambridge, recently stated “[We should] give the public a bit more credit, they may not have the mathematical training, but they have the desire, interest and logic to understand”. If Andy believes he can explain the theories behind something as complex and abstract as subatomic particle physics to a lay audience, we should take note.

Scientific inquiry will not always provide the right answers first but, unlike other methods, it will eventually get there even if it has to admit its mistakes. There is plenty that we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that, given the same resources, tools and time, there is no reason for the public to disagree with the established consensus.

Forgotten Knowledge: The Discovery and Loss of a Cure to Scurvy

Humans and their primate relatives are part of just a handful of animals that are unable to synthesise vitamin C due to a mutation in a single enzyme. Thankfully, most fresh food is abundant with it, in particular citrus fruit. This means that the condition is rare in the western world, with cases normally due to poor diet choice. Sadly for those in less industrialised nations, where food is scarcer, or in countries that rely on food aid, the condition still persists. The treatment is to reintroduce vitamin C to the diet, but this requires both a correct diagnosis and a source of vitamin C. Left untreated, scurvy is inevitably fatal. Before the discovery of a cure, scurvy played a massive role in naval history, particularly in the age of sail when there were limitations on carrying fresh supplies of vegetables and fruit, and long periods were spent on board ship. Ships could not travel far from port out of fear of the deadly disease. It was not unheard of for ships to return to port with 90% of the crew having succumbed to scurvy.

In 1747, James Lind conducted what is probably one of the first examples of a formal clinical trial into the prevention of scurvy in sailors aboard ships. His work was based on that of Johann Bachstrom, who had noted in 1734 that scurvy was solely due to ‘a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens’. Lind conducted his work whilst on board the British naval ship HMS Salisbury and, as was common at the time, many of the crew were suffering from the effects of scurvy. He carried out his studies on twelve of the crew who had succumbed, subdividing them into pairs for the experiment. Isolating these six groups from the rest of the crew, he provided them with various treatments alongside their rations, which included cider, acid, seawater and lemons. At the end of the six day trial, Lind had used the entire supply of fruit on board the ship, but his findings would change naval history: the pair who had received the lemon supplement to their diet made a staggering recovery and were once again healthy, while the others had worsened. This study clearly showed that scurvy could be prevented by the addition of citrus fruit to the sailors’ diets. These findings were eventually adopted by the Royal Navy in 1790, but only after a long period of Lind’s work being mostly ignored. The tactical advantage of a cure to scurvy during the Napoleonic wars was massive: ships could now hold blockades for years at a time. Other navies soon adopted a similar solution (although the merchant fleets delivering the cure to the blockade still suffered).

However, during Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole, one of the Royal Navy surgeons is recorded as saying: ‘There was little scurvy in Nelson’s days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it’. So how did the crew on an expedition at the beginning of the 20th century not know how to treat an ailment that had been successfully cured over 100 years earlier? The loss of knowledge has been attributed to several factors. Firstly, Lind showed in his work that there was no connection between the acidity of the citrus fruit and its effectiveness at curing scurvy, in particular noting that acids (sulphuric or vinegar) alone would not suffice. Despite this, it remained a popular theory that any acid would suffice in place of citrus fruit. This meant that when the navy changed from using Sicilian lemons to the West Indian lime, for presumably colonial motives, the result was profound: as the limes were more acidic based on popular thought, it was assumed that they would be more effective, yet they actually contained much less vitamin C and hence cases of scurvy reappeared. Further, fresh fruit was substituted with lime juice that had been either exposed to the air or to copper piping, resulting in at least a partial removal of vitamin C from the juice, negating its effect. The discovery that fresh meat contained high levels of vitamin C, and so was also able to cure scurvy, led to the belief that perhaps it was not caused by a dietary problem but instead was the result of a bacterial infection gained from tainted meat. Finally, the development of steam shipping had led to time at sea being reduced and hence the difficulties in carrying fresh produce were lessened, reducing the risk of scurvy. This meant the reduced effect from either copper pipes or the change to West Indian limes were less profound, and so over time the information was gradually lost.

It was not until 1907 that a professor of hygiene and bacteriology at the University of Oslo, Axel Holst, along with a paediatrician named Theodor Frølich, became interested in beriberi, which is now know to be caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Their hypothesis was that beriberi was the result of a nutritional deficiency, and they used guinea pigs as test subjects for their experiments to prove this. The choice of test subject was crucial: outside of humans and other primates, very few animals are unable to synthesise vitamin C. Guinea pigs, by chance, are one such creature and, while they did not develop beriberi, they did develop the symptoms of scurvy. Had Holst and Frølich chosen almost any other animal, their work would not have discovered that guinea pigs develop scurvy when treated on a diet of just grain. They went on to show that they could prevent scurvy by a simple treatment of lemon juice, something that Lind had shown a century and a half earlier. While their original publication on these results was not well received, as the idea of nutritional deficiencies was seen as something of a novelty at the time, the model they had developed with guinea pigs was vital to the work that would succeed them. It was Albert Szent-Györgyi who used this animal model and who eventually discovered vitamin C in 1930, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

The work of James Lind on board of the HMS Salisbury will no doubt forever be remembered in the history books as a great turning point in science, while the loss of a cure to scurvy will continue to be overlooked. The cost of these past mistakes to human lives may firmly in the past, but the tale still holds relivence within the modern world. Time an again during the history of scurvy indivuals pushed their own agendas and beliefs over the results of science, the consiquences of which should not be forgotten.

Previously published in the Michaelmas 2010 edition of BlueSci and on the Naked Scientists website in November 2010

Credit to Maciej Cegłowski who’s own piece on Scott and Scurvy, brought this tale to my attention

“It was a triumph”

On Tuesday 26th October, Ian Ridpath spoke at ‘Skeptics In the Pub’ in Cambridge on the subject of UFOs and common misinterpretations that lead to their being assigned as extraterrestrial. His talk was fantastically successful: the room was rammed, and every feedback form that we received said that the speaker was excellent. While Ian shot to fame over 30 years ago following his investigation and explanation that the Rendlesham Forest incident was not extraterrestrial in origin (his evidence on which I felt was both compelling and complete), on Tuesday he provided up-to-date and relevant examples – quite a contrast to Nick Pope’s beliefs that Ian’s arguments are wide of the mark!

‘Skeptics In The Pub’ is not limited to skeptics; all are welcome to attend. So for me, the real success of the evening was that we had a true believer in the crowd, whom I will call “Steve” as I did not catch his real name. When the crowd was asked at the start if anyone in the audience is a believer, Steve made himself known and sat patiently throughout the entire talk. During the break, he spoke politely to my co-organisers and explained that he had large misgivings about Ian’s theories. He behaved exactly as a civilised person should, despite his contrasting views, and that is something I both appreciate and respect.

The Question & Answer session at the end of the talk provided Steve with an opportunity to voice his views on the subject. (Please be aware that I am writing from memory rather than notes.) His linchpins were firstly the Disclosure Project; and secondly sightings of TR-3B, stating that his friends and family had told him that they worked on UFO-related technologies in the United States. Ian responded that he felt that the Disclosure Project was doomed to failure, but with regard to the latter there was little that he could comment on without evidence from either side.

Steve voiced that Ian’s dismissal of the Disclosure Project was insulting to those behind it and many people were facing jail for what they had said. He unfortunately did not elaborate on this; however, Ian provided the names Sgt Clifford Stone and Gary McKinnon. From his comments, Ian obviously thinks little of Sgt Stone, and I will leave you to investigate him if you wish to find out why this may be the case. Gary McKinnon, who was accused of hacking into the United States military and NASA computers between February 2001 and March 2002, is of course an interesting character, but while it has been established that he did break into the military systems, he has no evidence to show for his troubles.

One interesting and sound point about the Rendlesham Forest incident that Steve made, and that had not been mentioned up to this point during the course of the evening, was that four keys witnesses had visited the landing sight, had seen a craft, and had made a note of the symbols that were on the side of the said craft. Ian responded that there was only one witness, not four, who had claimed that these events had occurred. Also, the notebook detailing the symbols only came to light within the last five years, some 25 years after the incident occurred. He continued that the dates and times in the notebook did not correspond with the witness’s statement (although the witness himself claims this is not true). Ian therefore felt it was reasonable to dismiss this evidence. (As a further point, when I drove Ian to the train station later that evening, he elaborated that the witness claimed the ship was not an alien craft; that he had received messages telepathically, telling him it was actually a ship from the future searching for human DNA, sent to solve their failing gene pool. Interestingly, Ian suggested that this is often overlooked by those who seek UFO evidence.)

During his talk, Ian also mentioned and showed footage of the Phoenix Lights, which he claimed are in fact the result of flares on parachutes used by the military to light up the ground in the dark. Records of the dates, times and locations of these flares being dropped correspond with those of reported sightings. Steve, however, stated that evidence suggests it was laser light, not that of flames. The respectful nodding and polite disagreement from Ian up to this point quickly changed to an adamant disagreement. It took a while for the audience, who were unaware of this theory, to catch up. Once Steve confirmed that the spectroscopic analysis was carried out using a recording, the audience tried to explain the flaws of this method: film or digital recordings do not capture the whole spectrum and instead only record how it is made up from primary colours. This problem is confounded by the fact that television screens only display images in terms of red, green and blue. An example of this problem would be a yellow sodium streetlamp: a recording of it would show it as a mixture of red and green (which, due to limitations in the human eye, is indistinguishable from the actual streetlamp), while spectroscopic analysis of the streetlamp would show just two sharp lines of colour at two different frequencies of yellowish light. There is also the additional problem that laser light has a general property of coherence, which is not replicated in video recording and is also lost over the distances at which the recording is taken. It was at this point that Steve agreeably took his seat at my request, to allow other attendees to ask their questions to Ian. While he was obviously very frustrated and in strong disagreement with the speaker, he never lost his temper, and to this I give him credit.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, Steve was not able to finish voicing his viewpoints and opinions. I, for one, believe we need to listen to and discuss a variety of topics such as this when someone is bold enough to attend a Skeptic event. I agree it is frustrating, but personally I have an interest in gaining a deeper insight into and understanding of what people think and why they believe what they do. (Hence, I was disappointed on leaving the venue that another attendee said ‘Thank you for shutting that idiot up’. I never intended to ‘shut anyone up’, rather I just wanted to give everyone a fair chance to ask questions.) I have therefore invited him to submit a talk for Soapbox In The Pub on 8th February 2011, to which I hope many of you will attend, and I hope that if Steve does take up my offer then it is an experience he will find useful.

If you are interested in applying to give one of several 15 minute talks yourself, please do contact me. Details can be found on the Soapbox In The Pub website.

Note: I’ve tried to make this as unbiased as possible and not to present either side’s arguments in too much detail. I would be very interested to read about your own experiences, and hope that you will add them to the comments.

In Defence of Faith

Originally published as Truth and Consolation in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free – Belief section.

When my grandmother, a devout Catholic, faced death she turned to the
only atheist in the room: my father. The cancer had metastasised throughout and she was left blind, in pain and barely able to speak, yet she still found strength to proclaim that “even this is better than oblivion“.

That event was over twenty years ago and it is now roughly ten years since I shed the religious indoctrination of my childhood. Instead, I now run a successful meeting group for sceptics and critical thinking, an environment where atheism is almost ubiquitous. I hoped in such an environment that constructive discussion would always prevail but, as with any tribal belief, there are few within the group who are willing to truly discuss religion out of fear of undermining their social standing. The result is that arguments supporting faith are given the condescending rebuttal that a parent might give to a child’s fanciful stories.

Why, then, defend what I don’t believe in? When a religion demands faith and stipulates that God will never provide evidence of His existence, we have a dilemma. Science is based on the idea of a hypothesis and testing, but there is no clear test to prove or disprove the existence of a god. While a rational thinker will explain that there is no need to invent God to rationalise the existence of intelligent life, there is always an infinitesimal chance that they are wrong. The result for a sceptic is that they should have no issue with discounting God as implausible.

Beyond science, though, there is also the human aspect of faith. The inevitable reality of death haunts the thoughts of many. Science promises no hope of a different outcome and the majority of us will be forgotten a few generations thereafter. For some, faith provides the answers and they are comforted by the hope or belief of a purpose or life after death. I use the word “hope” as, for many, faith is not absolute, which many sceptics fail to appreciate. When a religion is called stupid or irrational, it is those with doubts who suffer and the perceived insults will only alienate them, while those with absolute faith will not be swayed by any amount of logic.

We therefore have to accept that science does not contain answers for that which cannot be measured. Furthermore, it is inappropriate to apply it to such concepts. There are at least some for whom religion provides a hope of answering those questions that science cannot, and in doing so facilitates the enjoyment of life. I therefore question if it is morally right to take away that hope when you cannot provide a suitable alternative.

Should we ignore religion altogether? No, but do not attack it for being without evidence; it is a pointless discussion. Question it, fight it even, when it is used to oppress, control or exert superiority over others. Just do not hurt the individual, the believer who does not want their hopes shattered. Perhaps I am wrong and it is nothing more than the ‘opiate of the people’, but if we want to promote rational and scientific thinking then trying to wage war on God is both pointless and futile. Instead, we should find common ground with those religions which are open to discussion and work to promote that. Many sceptics define themselves on the principle that factual truth is more important than belief. In the experimental laboratory, this is an absolute, letting belief cloud judgement makes science worthless, but in life a simple belief can provide the strength to enjoy the world. I believe the right to enjoyment of life is far more sacred than being right.

In spite of these views, I accept that when my grandmother made that final reflection to my father, her faith provided no comfort. At that point of already having undergone her last rites, it was the atheist she looked to for hope.

Liquid Death

Warning: The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered accurate. The use of this information to cause harm to another individual is in no way condoned by the author and is a serious criminal offense. If you are reading this article with a view to self harm or suicide, please seek immediate professional help.

How dangerous is dangerous?

EU Toxic SymbolDMSO, or dimethylsulfoxide, is one of those chemicals in the laboratory that actually scares me since, in itself, it’s not obviously that dangerous: the risk phrases in the health and safety data just list it as irritating to the eyes, respiratory system and skin, which is pretty much an everyday event in the lab of a synthetic chemist. The safety information isn’t much different: it advises you to wear gloves and safety goggles when using it, and if you do get it in your eyes then to wash them out with water. No real surprises there.

To keep this in perspective, if you look up the safety information for water, it too recommends wearing safety goggles. It even goes on to suggest that if you get it in your eyes, you need to wash them out with water (presumably from the eye wash station, rather than the stuff you just got in your eyes).

Measuring toxicity

A convenient way to measure the toxicity of a chemical is to calculate its LD50 (median lethal dose). This is the amount of substance that, if given to an individual, they would have a 50:50 chance of living. While there are many limitations with these values, for example varying methods of administration, it provides a good guideline. In addition, as animals don’t come in uniform shapes and sizes, these are often quoted per kilogram weight of a typical animal, and rats are generally used over human test subjects for obvious reasons. However, it is important to take into account that the LD50 is only a measure of the median dosage; some unlucky individuals will not survive much lower doses than that.

As an example, the LD50 for the oral administration of water to rats is 90 g/kg. Assuming that rats and humans are not too dissimilar in their metabolism of water, the equivalent would be for you to attempt to down 8 litres of water (the same as four large bottles of cola). Obviously, there is a far greater risk of drowning in 8 litres of water than the accidental self-administration of it orally (which still probably holds a significant risk of drowning before consuming the entire volume). Yet the point stands: in cases when large amounts of water are consumed, typically highlighted in the media as a side effect of recreational drug use, the results for the individual can be fatal as the brain swells, which pushes on the skull, causing death.

To compare, DMSO has an oral LD50 in rats of 15 g/kg, which is about 1.2 litres when applied to an adult human. Now I don’t advise placing bets on these numbers (unless you are a rat that is fully literate in English – if so, please do leave a comment on how to contact you). There is a large chance these numbers are way off.

The table below contains a rough list of the oral LD50 of some standard toxins:

Toxin LD50 (g/kg)
Botulinium toxin 0.00000005
Tetrodotoxin (Fugu/blowfish toxin) 0.0003
Hydrogen cyanide (gas) 0.001
Potassium cyanide (solid) 0.2
Hemlock 1.7
Methanol 6
Potassium ferrocyanide 6.4
Ethanol 10
Water 90

It’s not just content, delivery is important too

Interestingly, potassium ferrocyanide is a poor poison yet was once part of an alleged terrorist attack attempt on the US Embassy in Rome, Italy in 2002: the terrorists’ plan was to place 9 lb of the compound into the Embassy’s water supply. The reality, though, is that it certainly would not have been enough to make it toxic: the chemistry behind potassium ferrocyanide is that iron in ferrocyanide tightly co-ordinates the cyanide anion around itself, and the acid in the stomach is unable to displace it from the iron (the ferrocyanide presumably then passes through the body and is excreted as waste).

Chemical structure of potassium cyanide and potassium ferrocyanide

While potassium ferrocyanide contains more of the toxic cyanide anion, the tight binding of it to the iron (Fe) centre reduces its ability to be displaced by stomach acid.

As for Agatha Christie’s weapon of choice, potassium cyanide, however, the LD50 for our hypothetical human would be 15-20 g, roughly two and a half teaspoons. This is not an insignificant amount to ingest by mistake. Admittedly, it’s much less than the 8 litres required for water intoxication, but within a lab the risk involved in its use is low if the right precautions are taken. On the other hand, a would-be assassin would have little trouble administering the material since potassium cyanide is very soluble in water: 70 g will dissolve into 100 mL of water at room temperate (a cup of tea by comparison is about 230 mL and its raised temperature makes the poison even more soluble).

Whereas ferrocyanide is relatively inert, potassium cyanide administered to the victim via a fatal cup of Earl Grey tea would react to form hydrogen cyanide on contact with stomach acid.  This is due to the cyanide anion not being as tightly bound to the potassium as it is to the iron in ferrocyanide. The cyanide anion is then transported into the body, where it binds to the iron within an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. The ability of the cytochrome c oxidase to bind with oxygen is consequently disrupted, a vital step in the chain of reactions required for our cells to convert food and oxygen into energy, and thus parts of the body that are particularly dependent on this start to fail, particularly the central nervous system and the heart.

Water off a duck’s back

Oil and water don’t mix. In chemistry, we divide these liquids or solvents up into the categories of polar and non-polar. Water is a polar solvent: each molecule, while not carrying a charge itself, has a partial positive charge on the two hydrogen atoms and a partial negative charge on the oxygen, hence we call this a dipole. This, in part, results in water molecules sticking together strongly (and why it has a high boiling point for a liquid) as the partial negative charge on one molecule of water is attracted to the partial positive charge on one of the next molecule’s hydrogen atoms. It also means that it dissolves ionic compounds (that is compounds made up of positive and negative ions, such as sodium chloride/sea salt) very well as it can stabilise the positive charge of the sodium cations and the negative charge of the chloride anions floating around in solution.

On the other hand, we have the non-polar solvents, such as hexane or chloroform. These are very poor at dissolving salt as they do not have the ability to stabilise the ions in solution like water. Therefore, the ions in salt would rather bind together and stay as a solid. The converse is also true: water is poor at dissolving compounds that are not charged or polar as it would far rather stick to other water molecules, and so pushes the compound out of solution.

DMSO, while being a polar solvent like water, has an unusual ability to mix with a wide range of both polar and non-polar solvents. In addition, it is pretty much able to dissolve nearly anything. These properties, combined with the fact that it is fairly inert to reactions, make it almost a perfect solvent to conduct chemical reactions in. Well, that is until you want to get the product out of solution, at which point you start cursing it for being such a good solvent.

Chemical structures of various solvents

Water and DMSO are examples of polar solvents while hexane is non-polar. The arrows show the polarisation of the bonds, pointing from the partial positive charge to the partial negative one. Together, this pairing of positive and negative charges is known as a dipole.

Only skin deep

The fact that DMSO is a fantastic solvent means that it can be a nightmare in the lab, but the problems don’t stop there. Due to its ability to mix with such a wide range of solvents, it can do something most compounds won’t: it can efficiently and quickly penetrate our skin. Apparently, after contact with the skin, it is possible to taste it minutes later. I’ve never tested this anecdote, and you’ll forgive me if I don’t recommend anyone else attempt to confirm it.

For most compounds, the LD50 for oral and skin toxicity are widely different. Skin has evolved as an effective barrier against the environment and, if not damaged, works well at protecting us. Yet despite this, DMSO’s impressive miscibility allows it to bypass this defense. Combined with its near universal ability to dissolve anything in the lab (including gloves), this has terrifying consequences as it will then go on and carry potentially more harmful toxins into your body.

The result is obvious: combining DMSO with the wrong compound will rapidly increase the risk of the situation and, if you’re unlucky, the results could be fatal. One such compound DMSO will dissolve is potassium cyanide, making it a liquid that will  poison you on contact with the skin or through your gloves. It is not surprising that this mixture of properties has earned it the reputation of ‘Liquid Death’.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

During my PhD as part of my transferable skills training, I was given the opportunity to take a course to develop my presentation skills. The irony, however, was that the individual running it was awful at presenting and did the whole course using PowerPoint slides.

When Frank Swain presented at Westminster Skeptics last week, I had high hopes for his talk as I certainly have concerns about some of the motives within the Skeptics community, for example that skeptics seem to meet at events just to pat each other on the back. I had heard that Frank is an engaging speaker, and I expected a constructive critique of what we can do better in terms of reaching out to the public. I was disappointed with his talk and had little to get excited about: I am not so bold as to say that he is a poor public speaker (in fact, I believe the contrary is true) but he was highly critical, confrontational, and only in a few places did he provide any direction on what we can do to improve. It stank of a talk that was not about providing tools and engaging the community but simply to cause a stir.

My concerns started as Frank implied that the Skeptics community is a homogeneous set of ideas and beliefs, yet he refused to define exactly what the Skeptics community is and weaselled his way out of explaining several other strong points. Vibes of the mainstream media tactics employed in the recent story on the oral contraceptives in 11-year-old girls rang throughout his talk. Frank seems to have very personal ideas of what engagement is and what is the singular way of progressing the movement: the 10:23 Campaign, for example, was always a protest aimed at Boots and their continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, but his view is that it was not an engagement. Even if this were the case, in my opinion this does not mean that 10:23 did not educate or achieve something (I will not dwell on this point for long as it has been covered well elsewhere).

In November 2009, I launched ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ (SITP) in Cambridge. The major aim of the group is to bring people together to gain a greater understanding of the world, to promote critical thinking, while engaging the non-university population in the hope of bridging the town-gown divide. Holding the talks in a pub, rather than a lecture theatre, is one of the attractions of the group to our target audience. Due to the sterling work of Simon Singh when we launched, our main press engagement was through BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. We never tried hard to pull in the Skeptics crowd; they found us by themselves.

At the talks themselves, we may at times be guilty of preaching to the crowd, but SITP is an engagement activity on some level. Considering that I have never been to another SITP meeting, I came up with the format for the Cambridge group with no prior knowledge as to how the other groups were presented. Looking at other Outreach projects within Cambridge, I found there was a hole that needed to be filled.

Despite Frank’s attempts to debate the field as a whole, skepticism has a wide range of active supporters; therefore, you cannot critique a casual blogger in the same way as you would the achievements of Evan Harris, who campaigned for many causes in Parliament. The implied result is to tar a group in Cambridge (which works in conjunction with a world-leading university’s Communication Office and alongside some other amazing societies such as Triple Helix, Café Scientific or Pugwash Society) with the same brush as someone who writes a blog in the corner of the web. This is not unfair, it is nonsensical, and is about as valid as saying that those who blog about and attend football matches are Premier League footballer players. (That is not to say that you do not need both.)

My feelings on the subject as a whole are that there is not really a Skeptic community or movement yet. Skepticism is a way of thinking. For many, it is hobby more than protest, which is a great thing. For me, SITP was never about skepticism; it was about letting others and myself gain access to topics that we would just love to hear about. I am not a skeptic or hobbyist but a full-time research scientist. At work, I use critical thinking and reasoning. When I go the pub, I am just interested to hear other people’s opinions, and that is exactly what you get at the SITP talks: opinion, not fact. They are always interesting and you never know what might inspire people.

The beauty of skepticism is that it is never going to be a singular idea. It does not force people to agree, rather it is a way of thinking and working with information. Skepticism and critical thinking is the basis of not just science and maths but the arts too: I have fond memories of GCSE History lessons involving discussions based on both fact and opinion. While every university has an Outreach department, while people work in school engagement or communication, then skepticism will keep growing.

Here is my solution to what you you should be doing. Create engaging activities, blogs or websites. Do not necessarily make them about skepticism, but do incorporate it. Have your own agenda, do not follow that of others for the sake of it. SITP is a wonderful brand but do not rely on it, there are plenty of other things to be done. If you are successful, you may get noticed, but do not expect thanks or money.

I will end on this point: if Frank’s talk had really covered the points well and engaged us, we would have learnt from it and currently be planning what we could do better. It is a shame as, even though he had some important points that we really need to take notice of, he just failed to communicate them.

Not-So-Harmless Placebo

A while ago, I wrote to Pregnancy & Birth magazine complaining about an article which had homeopathy next to conventional medicine. I was unhappy with how they unfairly portrayed conventional medicine for varicose veins (there isn’t a magic bullet to stop them), while allowing the homeopath to say, as expected, they did have a treatment in the next column on the page. The result is that you make the conventional medicine look bad for being honest, and promote a placebo-based medication. You can see the letter (which Pregnancy and Birth rewrote) below and their response.

Please note that I’m not a medical doctor. When I sent the letter, I clearly stated that I am a researcher and have a PhD, hence the title.


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