Posts Tagged 'skeptic'

“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.

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.

Rational Thoughts

It has been a nearly a decade since the first claims that there was a link between MMR and autism hit the news, yet despite a mountain of evidence against the link there is still talk as if the debate is ongoing. The evidence is clear – there never was and isn’t a link between the two, but why do such ideas persist? The answer is that we are all terrible at rational thought due to what is called ‘confirmation bias’, a tendency for us to prefer information that confirms our preconceptions regardless of whether they are true. We’re all guilty of it – go in to any science lab and even there I’m sure you’ll find some ritual or voodoo for using a piece of old machinery which no-one dares question in fear that it might stop working.
Campaigning for rational thought appears to be a growing pastime, slowly breaking into the mainstream with advocates like Ben Goldacre and his ‘Bad Science’ column in the Guardian. In a growing number of cities one can find a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ group for rational debate on topics ranging from easily dismissed UFO and paranormal stories to the more emotive issue of holocaust denial. Times are changing and scientific method is growing up and leaving the classroom. Of course you may wonder what this has to do with you – you’ve never tried claiming you’ve been abducted by a UFO, well except maybe that one time you were embarrassingly late to a party and even then you didn’t think it would hold up against the inebriated crowd.
One may think that the average member of the public can continue to go uninformed with little risk, but the truth is far more sinister. In 2007 Russell Jenkins, who ran a centre which offered complementary medicine, died from a minor injury.[1] The reason was that on suffering the injury he shunned conventional medicine, and when it became infected with gangrene he instead treated it with honey and magnesium sulphate. While Mr Jenkins’ death is tragic and probably avoidable with a simple course of antibiotics, he died at age 52 as an adult making his own choice based on his beliefs – a freedom I’d have trouble denying and something on some level we should all be able to respect, though not without some remorse. The story of Gloria Thomas in Australia on the other hand is far more disturbing. Gloria died at the age of just nine months from eczema after her parents treated her with homeopathic remedies instead of conventional medicine. The parents were both charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence.[2] In light of these events can anyone really say that this pseudo-science is harmless? It’s hard to look at such an event without feeling that everyone has lost due to the lack of understanding of the dangers and risks of letting these myths persist. The list goes on – in 2006 a Newsnight investigation showed homeopaths advising customers to take their ineffective alternatives to anti-malaria drugs[3] and there are even some homeopaths who claim to treat AIDS.[4]
For those who are unaware, homeopathy was invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann and is based on his idea that ‘like cures like’. For example, if I have a problem getting to sleep I would take a dilute solution of something that keeps me awake or if I was ill I would take a dilute solution of a substance that causes the same symptoms. An important bit to the homeopath is the dilution which is carried out in successive steps with vigorous shaking, termed ‘succussion’. Homeopaths call this ‘potentization’. Hahnemann advocated the use of 30C dilutions, where C is his own centesimal scale, representing the number of times the solution has been diluted by one part in a hundred. I would hope at this point homeopathic remedies have lost all credibility with the reader, as a 30C dilution represents a dilution to 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1 % of the original concentration. This dilution is less concentrated than adding a single molecule of water to the entire mass of our sun! Or if you prefer probabilities, the chance of finding one molecule in the final dose is less likely than winning the national lottery jackpot five weeks in a row. The pseudo-scientific counter to this is that the water ‘remembers’ the material added to it, an idea first proposed in 1988 by Jacques Benveniste, nearly two hundred years after the method was originally put forward. In 2005 a Nature paper showed that all ‘memory’ of structure in water was lost in fifty millionths of a second.[5] From this we can say that unless the remedy is created by and administered to the comic book character ‘The Flash’ (and that his super-powers extend to his rate of metabolism) that any such memory will be lost before it passes the user’s lips. Even more importantly homeopathy has been tested in randomised controlled trials far beyond what is needed to conclusively show that it does not work beyond the placebo effect. This research is all to appease those who argue that science cannot explain everything (a totally null point I might add, as all researchers know science can’t currently explain everything, otherwise they would soon be unemployed). Often advocates will claim a few select examples of trials where it has appeared effective, but these are either not properly conducted or too small to be statistically significant. Depressingly, they cling to this evidence, displaying a perfect example of the aforementioned confirmation bias. Despite all this you can still get homeopathic treatment on the NHS, which spends around £4 million every year on it, and the government also supports four NHS Homeopathic Hospitals. It is even possible to walk into any Boots store and buy a 30C remedy, with no clear indication that the product you are buying is completely ineffective and only a placebo. Many homeopaths would argue this is about patient choice. I would argue that an uninformed choice is not choice at all.
The dilute nature of homeopathy makes it an easy target, sometimes to the detriment of the highlighting of dangers of other alternative medicines. For reasons that will become clear why I feel it should be highlighted, one example is chiropractic. You may think modern chiropractors no longer believe that they can treat anything by manipulating the flow of energy though the body as their founder did (chiropractic first being used to treat deafness), but rather, as I thought, that they concentrated on back pain. In reality, many offer a wide range of treatments. In an article in the Guardian, science author Simon Singh commented that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) promotes ‘bogus’ treatment to help with childhood issues such as asthma and colic, despite no evidence that they are effective.[6] The result was that, instead of being engaged in a scientific discourse, he was sued for libel by the BCA. You may hope that this kind of use of the libel law in the UK is limited to just alternative medicine but two years ago Henrik Thomsen, one of Europe’s leading radiologists, presented his evidence relating to the possible dangers of the drug Omniscan, with the result that he is being sued by GE Healthcare for libel in the UK. It would seem that at the very same time that people are starting to finally give call for rational thought, the UK libel law is being used to squash scientific debate.
[5] Cowan ML, Bruner BD, Huse N, et al. (2005) “Ultrafast memory loss and energy redistribution in the hydrogen bond network of liquid H2O”. Nature.
[6] This article originally appeared in the Guardian on Saturday April 19 2008 on p26 of the Comment & debate section, it has now been removed due to legal action.