Thoughts from QEDcon 2016

QEDcon main hall

In the past, I have questioned whether I belong to the skeptic movement or skeptic community. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure what they actually are, but after spending four days in Manchester at the 6th QEDcon I am certain that I am part of the skeptic movement and a member of the community, too.

There seemed to be a theme in the discussions on and off stage throughout the weekend: the governments of the world are making decisions that see irrationality thrive, and education and taking an evidence-based approach to life is dismissed as elitist. This answered a question that many talks and discussions touched upon: are we wasting our time with skeptic outreach and activism?

Well, there are many examples of why we are not and they were highlighted throughout the weekend, but a number of talks in particular really hit a nerve for me and I’m going to focus on those in this examination.

ADE651
Meirion Jones with the ADE651    Photo: Sean Slater

Sunday at QEDcon closed with Meirion Jones (pictured) who took us through the timeline of the investigation into the ADE651 – a bomb detector that it was revealed didn’t detect bombs. It was essentially a dowsing device built to look as though it had functions that it simply didn’t have.

Jones had two of these devices with him – one priced at $10,000 and the other at $40,000. We audience members got to each hold one of these as they were passed back through the room and, frankly, the ADE651 that I held wasn’t that much more sophisticated than my £3 dowsing rods.

Holding the device filled me with a sense of horror. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of people died as these devices were used to secure checkpoints into and out of conflict zones. Bombs were allowed through as a result and people died so that others could profit from the purchase contracts.

That’s why we bother with skepticism. Not because we personally stop hoax bomb detectors, but because unchallenged nonsense kills people. The idea that asking for evidence is elitist kills people. It is dangerous and deadly and it rips people off. It gives people false hope and it lies.

There were two talks in particular that were rather moving – those delivered by Petra Boynton and Paul Zenon. I think this is because in this past year I’ve left behind a career in arts marketing so that I can study for a degree which will allow me to (hopefully) then train to become a grief counsellor. You see, over a decade of paranormal research has taught me two important lessons (among others):

  1. humans are strange creatures
  2. grief can make you vulnerable to harm

I’ve made the switch to part-time work and living at home for the foreseeable future to make this happen and I’ve had doubts that I’ve done the right thing. Massive doubts.

Then Dr Petra Boynton took to the stage at QEDcon and introduced us to the complexities of the world of advice columns and the role they continue to play. She told us that more people turn to advice columns because of an 18-month wait for counselling on the NHS and because they have nowhere else to go, and what this can mean for those in need.

Paul Zenon spoke to us about psychics and the techniques often employed by stage performers. I know this information already (I’ve even played stooge for a skeptic educational psychic show) but I feel it’s important to remind ourselves that this knowledge is still ignored by the hoards of people who pay upwards of £25 to see touring artists claiming to have paranormal abilities. There was no mistaking the passion with which Paul spoke as he shared his observations from countless performances by such people which brought home the relevance of skeptic outreach in this area.

I also enjoyed interesting lectures by personal heroes of mine, Dr Susan Blackmore and Professor Caroline Watt (but then I am a paranormal nerd…)

The opening presentation by Alan Melikdjanian on behalf of Captain Disillusion was spectacular and gave many tips on how to produce good quality outreach media. He also explained how our first impressions of how a video was created can be wrong and that gut instinct isn’t always correct. A little later in the weekend Cara Santa Maria gave an absolutely kick-ass talk on her experiences working as a science communicator through various forms of media and the successes and challenges she has faced doing so.

I came away from QEDcon with all of this (and more) in my head feeling re-energised, motivated, and inspired. On the train home, I filled a notebook with ideas and thoughts and I hope to put these into practice in the future. If you’re particularly interested in activism related to psychic fraud and you have a couple of hours spare over the next few months please get in touch.

Prior to QEDcon 2016, there were some suggesting the event was an exercise in back-patting. Although there is an element of celebration of successes and achievements during the weekend QEDcon is a vital event in the skeptic community. It’s educational, self-reflective, fun, and important. The team from the Greater Manchester and Merseyside Skeptics should be very proud.

Team Spirit Panel Photo: Tammy Webster
Team Spirit Panel. L-R: Me, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Susan Blackmore
Photo: Tammy Webster

I’m thankful to meet with like-minded people from across the globe each year and cannot put into words what it means to have the opportunity to participate in panels with people I’ve long admired such as Prof. Chris French, Joe Nickell, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Richard Wiseman, and Prof. Sue Blackmore to name just a few. I know that I have developed personally as a direct result of attending these yearly conferences and that’s invaluable.

I haven’t even touched upon half of what happened and neither shall I, but I’ll end with a warning:

Skeptics from across the world were in Manchester this weekend organising, communicating, networking and encouraging one another. If you profit from selling snake oil or nonsense to people you can be sure they’re coming for you.

Featured image: Rob McDermott

Talks in October 2016

In a couple of weeks, I will be appearing on a panel at QEDcon in Manchester. I will be part of the Team Spirit panel which is chaired by Deborah Hyde and also features Susan Blackmore and Caroline Watt. As explained over on the website, ‘Our panel will entertain and educate with their tales of their investigations, and in the spirit of rationalism we may learn from the practical realities of parapsychology.’ Tickets to QEDcon are almost all gone!

Following this, you can catch me delivering A Skeptic’s Guide to Ghost Hunting for the London Fortean Society on October 27th. I’m currently in the midst of updating my talk so even if you’ve heard me speak before there should be something different. I’ve been told that half the tickets are gone already and it’s going to be a busy night so pre-booking is advised. Ticketing details can be found on the London Fortean Society website here.

The problem With People Like Chip Coffey

asshole

News broke recently that a paranormal TV celebrity had been arrested in the US. I don’t know who they are and I’ve never watched any of their shows but I noticed that a guy called Chip Coffey (who claims to be a psychic) was quick to take to his social media and give his 2 cents on the subject, having worked on the same shows as this individual in the past.

I made a throwaway comment on Twitter that it’s a shame that Coffey couldn’t have warned people of what was going to happen. If only he had been psychic or something, right?

It’s a joke that skeptics make all of the time in reference to stories that involve psychics not predicting something. Haha. Ha.

Colour me surprised then when a few days later Chip Coffey started to send me tweets about how ignorant I am. He must have searched his name on Twitter and come across my random tweet. I have Storified the convo as best I can here. It got tricky once some of his adoring fans started to get involved so I’ve only included the initial conversation.

Long story short, I am an ignorant asshole for suggesting that Coffey isn’t psychic and for pointing out that there are reasons to believe this. For example, did you know that a group of US-based skeptics led by Susan Gerbic once planted false information about made up characters at a Chip Coffey stage show and he picked up messages from these fictional characters and delivered messages to the skeptics in the audience?

‘[H]e claimed to have seen the two nonexistent people we pretended to have: a sister for Jan and my son Matthew. He “spoke” to Wade’s dead mother who was really alive and is nothing like the personality that he described.’

As his Wikipedia page points out, there are a number of reasons to doubt his claims of psychic ability and I believe this gives strong justification for being hesitant to believe Chip Coffey when he says he is psychic. Yet, instead of addressing these concerns Coffey and his fans would rather dismiss people as ignorant. It’s extremely arrogant and egotistical to suggest that people should accept your claims with blind faith regardless of whether there is justification to doubt them or not.

I wasn’t exactly polite in my twitter exchange with Coffey but frankly, I don’t see why I should’ve been. He and his fans are a good reminder of what the “love and light” brigade are really like if you don’t toe their line.

Keeping Up With The Smiths: 5 Ways Pseudo-Science Shames The Poor

dr-nick

I’ve never been overly well off and I’m cool with that. Growing up in a working class family I learned a lot of tips and tricks for shopping on the high street that would help save money.

Since becoming an active member of the skeptic community I’ve come to realise that these same tips and tricks can also be a good way to avoid pseudo-science and nonsense selling tactics too.

There is a certain pressure on us all to keep up with our friends and colleagues by following certain trends and by living in certain ways. Especially when it comes to our health. Buying certain products and following certain fads seems to almost be expected of us by our peers, but sometimes this can be counter-productive and even harmful.

Below I have summarised 5 ways in which we are sold expensive lies on the high street and how to avoid being tricked out of our money.

1 – off the shelf medication

Own-brand painkillers are equally as good as their fancily branded counterparts. You can buy a pack of 16 500mg Paracetamol pills for 25p from Superdrug or Tesco. Sainsbury’s do a pack for 32p. You can hold the packs next to their branded counterparts and you will see that they have the exact same ingredients – you’re literally paying for the fancy packaging.

Also, ladies: don’t be fooled into buying those tablets marketed as relief for period pain. Check out the ingredients on the packaging and you’ll realise you can save money by buying store-brand pain relief pills for a fraction of the price. You can then spend the money you saved on chocolate. True story.

2 Organic food

When I talk about organic food I am speaking of food which is bought from the high street and not food grown at home. If you grow your own veggies I think that’s cool! However, walk into any supermarket and you’ll find organic produce marketed to you as the luxurious version of standard meat and veg.

You can end up paying more than 100% more for organic produce and there’s really no justification for doing so.

Many people cite the use of pesticides as the reason they choose organic food over non-organic food, but according to evolutionary biologist, Christie Wilcox “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.” Plus, studies have shown that there is really no nutritional benefit to eating organic meat and produce, or to drinking organic milk.

The idea of eating genetically modified food (GMOs) scares some people but, in reality, they’re perfectly safe and, actually, better for the environment than their organic counterparts. If you eat organic food you’re making the world a worse place for poor people in other countries.

Also: when buying produce don’t be so quick to grab the pre-packaged veggies and fruit. The loose versions of these can often be cheaper when you weigh them out – even in the same quantities as the pre-packaged stuff. It’s also beneficial to ask yourself if you really need a bag of a zillion mini-red onions when one loose onion might suffice. Doing this has reduced our food budget and the amount of food waste at home. Kerching!

3 Vitamins and Supplement pills                                 

I used to take a multivitamin every morning until I discovered that we don’t need them because we should be getting all of the nutrients we need from the food that we eat. But even if you have a deficiency a vitamin pill probably wouldn’t be the best way to solve that issue and you should speak to your GP.

The National Health Service website actually states that ‘many people choose to take supplements, but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful.’

Alternet reports that vitamins can be marketed in a way that doesn’t make the health risk obvious. They also report that in the US a ‘Trader Joe’s Women’s Once Daily Multivitamin & Mineral supplement contains 200 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin C, 286 percent of the recommended dosage of selenium, and over 400 percent of what you need in the way of Vitamin B12’ which is not good news, folks. I think that’s actually quite scary!

Maybe think twice before buying those expensive bottles of tablets?

4 Superfoods and Clean Eating

Darling. Everyone is doing the Clean Eating thing, didn’t you know? The only problem is that dieticians and doctors think it isn’t as useful as many people make out. There are some elements of the clean eating movement that are just good old fashioned common sense- like eating more veggies -and then there are elements that are fictional as fuck, like the idea that you should cut gluten out of your diet even if you’re not allergic to it because it’s “toxic”.

There is a great piece over at theconversation.com that explores this in more detail by looking at the inaccurate claims made by people in the Clean Eating movement. Don’t be ashamed of what’s in your basket because it’s probably not as bad as you think.

“I despair of the term ‘clean eating’…it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad.” Nigella Lawson

As for superfoods… we’ve all heard that chia seeds and coconut can work miracles for our bodies because of the magical nutrients they have in them, and it’s tempting to run out and buy the newest (and never cheap) supplements that contain these super ingredients from Holland and Barretts. But here’s a general rule of thumb that has seen me well through my life so far:

If it’s described as a miracle it’s not going to work because magic isn’t real.

“Whether it’s coconut oil, chia seeds or apple cider vinegar,” Duane Mellor, an assistant professor in dietetics at the University of Nottingham told The Guardian, “there is no scientific evidence to suggest that if you top up your diet with any ‘miracle’ or special food that you’ll get any of the promised effects.”

That should be an open and shut case, but it isn’t. Look around the high street and you’ll see Superfoods everywhere but popularity doesn’t support the accuracy of the claims that surround them.

Remember: fad diets are bad diets.

5 Alternative Medicines & Treatments

I’ve been a part of many workplace teams where everyone else was from a middle-class background. At first, it was a culture shock to see just how many of my colleagues relied on alternative medicinal practices like chiropractic, homeopathy and reiki but it soon became common to find any skepticism of these techniques being sneered at because personal experience apparently outweighs clinical trials and scientific research.

Let me just do a quick run-through of all of the bogus health fads people often use that have little or no benefit. Some of which can actually be dangerous:

Homeopathic medicines: there are no active ingredients in these diluted solutions and water does not have memory. Don’t bother. Learn more here.

Chiropractic: manipulation of your spine may offer short term relief but so does massage, and massage doesn’t run the risks that come with chiropractic treatment. The evidence also suggests that Chiropractic doesn’t work and isn’t worth the money.

Reiki/Shiatsu: there is no evidence that such thing as energy healing exists. Reviews of clinical research into these methods concluded thatthe evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”

Acupuncture: there are claims that the needles release endorphins which help ease pain, but it’s an expensive way of getting an endorphin rush! Plus, other studies suggest that any relief from acupuncture is just a placebo. Harriet Hall goes into more detail over on ‘Science-Based Medicine’ here.

Finally, my favourite pet-hate:

Echinacea: Every time I saw someone use this to treat their cough I wanted to scream at them because using this botanical remedy is pretty risky. Read about it here and then throw it away.

As you can see, many of the fads I have covered here all have links to the idea that natural and traditional is best but such thinking can wander into the realms of fallacious thinking. Natural remedies that have medicinal values become medicine and if alternative medical treatments worked they would be… well… medical treatments. There’d be no alternative to them.

Here is a list of websites I use for no-nonsense information about health-based claims when I want to find out if there is any evidence to support them. As someone on a low income, I can’t afford to be misled into spending money on expensive alternatives just because they’re the latest trend. I need evidence.

Hayley’s ‘Evidence or GTFO’ go-to resources:

Science Based Medicine
The National Health Service website
What’s The Harm?
Cochrane
Bandolier Knowledge

Ask For Evidence

Musings on Greta Christina’s List of Insulting Questions…

green-wtf

In a blog post titled ‘9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks!’ Paul Braterman criticises Greta Christina for writing an article on Everyday Sexism suggesting people should stop asking atheists the following questions as they’re insulting:

  1. How can you be moral without believing in God?
  2. How do you have any meaning in your life?
  3. Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
  4. Isn’t atheism just a religion?
  5. What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
  6. Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
  7. But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
  8. What if you’re wrong?
  9. Why are you atheists so angry?

Braterman points out, quite correctly, that to dictate so finely the grounds on which any discussion can take place is to impede discourse. He writes that ‘no one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts.’

I agree. But what really struck me here wasn’t the suggestion that these questions were insulting, but the way in which Christina seemed to think it was her right to insist on what other people be allowed to say based on the fact that she might find it insulting.

Christina wrote ‘Sometimes the questions are asked sincerely, with sincere ignorance of the offensive assumptions behind them. And sometimes they are asked in a hostile, passive-aggressive, “I’m just asking questions” manner. But it’s still not okay to ask them’.

No. It is okay to ask them. Just as it’s okay to ignore the questions being asked if you chose to. We all find offence in different things and that’s okay too, but none of us has a right to have our sense of being offended catered to. Life just doesn’t work like that.

But also, I think we need to accept that as we write about this subject- about this silly list of questions -we do so from a position of immense privilege because we do not face extreme consequences for speaking openly about our atheism. I am sure that in America there is greater social stigma for atheists than there is here in the UK but it is still pretty safe to speak openly about being good without god in the states. Right now, being openly atheist is dangerous in certain parts of the world where you risk being murdered on the street for simply turning your back on religion. Bangladesh, for example.

To try and dictate what is and isn’t civil discourse about something that affects such a diverse group of people that is so much bigger than any of us is a little bit mind-blowing, to be honest.