My activism isn’t led by battle cry

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For years now I have submitted complaints to Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority about dodgy health claims I see people making to advertise their products.

I’d personally rather make sure that people and companies advertise their products or services in a way that complies with CAP codes (advertising codes). Even if it’s something a bit silly like Reiki, as long as they’re not making false claims in their adverts then I think that’s fine… but for some that just isn’t enough. There exists, it seems, a sort of mob mentality where “quacks” getting silenced is the ultimate goal for skeptic activists. A sort of ‘who can shut up the most woo-pedallers?’ contest, if you will.

When I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the Healing on the Streets group in Bath were making potentially harmful claims that had no supporting evidence, the goal was to make sure those false claims were no longer made. It didn’t bother me too much if the group carried on praying for people or believing that god could heal, as long as they weren’t misleading people or using it as a front for recruitment. So when the outcome was a change to the literature used by the group I was satisfied, but others weren’t because the group had not been shut down completely. It was baffling.

Over time I’ve grown more and more concerned and dismayed with prominent skeptic activists regarding the way in which they engage with those they do not agree with, especially on Social Media websites like Twitter. Every night my twitter feed is full of the sarcastic, dismissive and rude tweets of skeptics with a passive aggressive full stop in front of the username of the intended recipient.

Messages formed out of 140 characters or less that dismiss people as stupid or as wicked con artists are thrown into an echo-chamber where good debate goes to die. It’s pointless chest beating and it has driven a feeling of deep disconnect between me and those I used to consider skeptic activism allies. The very people who used to inspire me to do what I do.

As a consumer and as a member of society I am aware that I have the ability to try and instigate change where I think it is needed most, but I have no desire to use that ability – that consumer power – to shut people down or to silence them. I don’t want to belittle people for thinking differently than I do, especially when research has shown that it often does nothing at all to change minds.

Instead I want to empower other consumers and make sure that we all have the ability to make properly informed choices when it comes to what we purchase or subscribe to. When I trained as a constituency campaigner with Oxfam UK it was so that I could gain the skills that would enable me to use the political power I have as a citizen to make a positive change, no matter how small it might be. I see using the Advertising Standards Authority, Trading Standards, OFCOM and other regulatory bodies similarly – they should be used as tools for positive change, rather than as weapons used for enforcement.

It is the latter approach that creates a ‘Them vs. Us’ mentality that I feel “rational people” could do so much more to combat, but ultimately I guess that sneering at silly people, mocking them on Twitter, and waving the ASA complaints form above your head like a sword proves more appealing for those who know they’re right.

Gail Parminter on Gender & Advertising

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Gail Parminter gave a talk at TEDx Bradford on Avon in 2012 about gender and advertising. I was present for this event but re-visited this talk recently after finding this article about a patronising advert selling bourbon.

They patronise both women and the majority of men as dumb sissies.

I drink bourbon… I also build my own furniture… who are these people trying to sell their products to, the small number of people they’ve managed not to patronise?

Anyway, Gail Parminter’s talk was really insightful so I’m sharing here as part of my ‘Interesting Things’ feature.

View other Interesting Things I’ve shared by clicking here. Or don’t. Your choice.

Boris bikes for BoA? Donelan is cycling up the wrong track

boris bike

On May 13th Mayor of London, Boris Johnson visited the local area and spent some time chatting to Michelle Donelan (who is standing to be the next Member of Parliament for the Chippenham constituency which covers Chippenham, Corsham, Bradford on Avon, Melksham and the surrounding villages) who, on her blog, states how she asked Johnson for his thoughts about investing in a local bike hire scheme in Bradford on Avon to ease the congestion problems faced in the town.

Donelan writes: 

Traffic congestion is a serious concern for residents and businesses Bradford on Avon. I have been listening to their frustrations and I share their concerns about it and the impact on air pollution in our town. One idea could be a cycle scheme similar to the London Boris Bikes. This won’t be suitable for everyone and there will costs, although in London that is heavily subsidised by sponsorship. We also have the hills to contend with so we might have to look at ideas around electric bikes.

Bradford on Avon Town Council have spent a lot of time studying a Traffic Survey that they hope will identify for them where the traffic is moving to and from when it causes congestion in the centre of town. In April a post to ‘Bradford on Avon Matters’ suggested that we would soon find out what action needs to be taken to help reduce the traffic and its impact on the town. 

Chair of the Bradford on Avon Air Quality Alliance, Cllr Rosemary Brown, said: “We have been waiting for a long time to get a better understanding of the facts about the town’s traffic issues. The traffic study will provide the detail we need. And the valuable work undertaken by volunteers and groups during the extensive Priority for People consultations will then help us put some detailed proposals together that may finally enable us to deliver improvements.”

On May 16th Peter Duford posted to Bradfordonavon.com that the Bradford on Avon Area Board had agreed its priorities for 2014-2016 at its meeting on 14 May based on the evidence from the Joint Strategic Assessment for Bradford on Avon and voting outcomes from the “What Matters To You in Bradford on Avon” event held across the town in February.

Included in these priorities was:

-To respond to the findings of the Traffic Study, including developing new traffic management and signage strategies across the community area and beyond

I very much doubt that Boris Bikes would have been considered as a strategy considering that it’s likely that most traffic causing congestion in the town is coming from outside the town and travelling to a destination outside of the town as although early numbers from the traffic study show that 16% of traffic starts and ends its journey outside of the town boundaries and the rest either starts here, ends here, or is totally within the town boundaries, a bike hiring scheme would not have an impact on traffic that travels outside of the town. Only traffic that goes from A to B within the town limits.*

How exactly Boris Bikes would act as an alternative for out of town traffic is beyond me. Especially considering that common destinations like Bath and nearby Wiltshire towns are at least 5 miles away in most cases.

Would drivers really want to cycle that far through areas where there are often no cycle paths and just fields full of cows for miles? Where would they leave their cars in Bradford on Avon, a town that has a shortage of parking for residents, let alone out of town visitors? There are more questions that answers with this frankly bizarre suggestion from Donelan. 

It should be obvious to anyone that Bradford on Avon isn’t like London when it comes to commuting or travelling. Providing Boris Bikes here is not the solution so badly sought by residents who are starting to run out of the patience they have so long maintained.

This is a town with poor air quality and poor pedestrian access throughout.  A town where local businesses are struggling while the town council work as fast as they can to find a solution. What we don’t need is a potential member of parliament for our constituency making ill-informed decisions about what’s best in an attempt to show that she really cares. Michelle Donelan has demonstrated here that she might not have her finger on the pulse of a town she so badly wants to represent. 

*Thank you to Shay Parsons for bringing my attention to early stats from the study I wasn’t aware of at the time of writing.

‘What I wish I’d known when I was 18’

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Stephen Fry on ‘What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18’

I would say the worst thing you can ever do in life is set yourself goals. I think goal orientation is absolutely disastrous in life. Two things happen, one is you don’t meet your goals so you call yourself a failure, secondly you meet your goals and you go “Well I’m here, now what?” – Stephen Fry

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster

LOCH NESS

‘The water in there is like looking through a glass of coca cola” Steve Feltham told us, rolling the clay between his hands as he created another of his much loved Nessie models to sell to tourists. I was sitting in the cosy van he calls home that is parked on Dores Beach, overlooking Loch Ness from where Steve maintains his twenty-year-long vigil for Nessie whom he believes does exist. 

From my position perched on the piano stool (for yes, there is a piano in that van) I could see through the windscreen that has a great view of the wild, choppy waters of Loch Ness where tourist boats make regular journeys up and down, trailing dark waves behind them that roll around mysteriously for minutes after the boat is out of view. My dad wandered along the beach outside, battered by the wild winds, taking in the stunning views of the Loch, and sitting to my side on another stool was Joe Nickell who was visiting from the US. We had travelled directly from the 2012 QEDcon conference in Manchester where Joe had delivered the closing talk and I had been a panellist alongside him and Deborah Hyde, talking about Cryptozoology. 

We were in Loch Ness to take in the atmosphere that surrounded Nessie and during our visit we watched the waters from various sites, including near Urquhart Castle where some of the best historic sightings have been made, and also from The Clansman hotel restaurant where we ate lunch before boarding a tour boat on which we watched sonar scans as we sailed over the choppy Loch. We also visited the Loch Ness Visitor Centre at Drumnadrochit, where we talked over a cup of tea with naturalist and Nessie researcher Adrian Shine, and we interviewed the world’s only full-time Nessie Hunter, Steve Feltham as mentioned above. 

Do I think there is a monster in those waters? No, I don’t, and neither do most of those who do good business from the legend. Joe asked the man who sold us out boat tickets if he thought we would see the monster while out there, and his response was ‘you’ve got a better chance of seeing the monster in here than you have out there’ while gesturing at the Nessie toys on the shelves.

As I write this post there are two Nessie’s looking down at me. One made by Steve Feltham and the other the TY Beanie toy sold at the visitor centre. I do love a good folklore story, and the Loch Ness Monster is one of the best there is. I secretly look forward to the annual newspaper stories about the latest sightings of Nessie. Most of it is good natured, and those bits that are more sinister are usually shot down instantly by those who live in the heart of the legend of Nessie. Steve Feltham himself, for example, exposed one of the biggest recent hoaxes.

At the Loch Ness Visitor Centre Adrian Shine has created an incredible educational resource that centres around the legend. As you walk through the exhibit you are taught about the history, geology and the environment of the area. The Loch Ness Monster story is pulled apart piece by piece and examined rationally. It is absolutely fascinating. 

There is not enough food in the water for a monster…
Those strange photos? This is what they probably were…
Those eye-witness testimonies? Probably faulty, here’s why…

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Operation Deepscan. photo: loch-ness.org

Yet, despite this deconstruction of the myth you leave the centre with your sense of wonder still intact and you leave having learned about all the research that has been done in the hunt for Nessie, like Operation Deep Scan. The visitor centre is a great example of skeptical outreach at its best, and it’s reaching hundreds of thousands of people every single year. That’s why I’m a little bit forgiving about those silly Loch Ness headlines.   

The black and white photos of men stood on the shore of Loch Ness with binoculars and the photos of Operation DeepScan in progress all serve as reminders that this is a folklore story that, though long in its roots, is still forming around us. We are all part of the story.

I’m not going to write paragraphs defending the use of folklore to drum up business as I honestly do not think it is as sinister as many people believe. I don’t believe that most tourists who visit Loch Ness really believe there is some large beasty lurking beneath the cola-esque waters of Loch Ness. The story is what lures people in regardless of whether the monster at the heart of those stories is real or not.

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster – not as a monster, but as a cultural phenomenon. There is no feeling like that you feel standing on the edge of the wild Loch where so many have stood before you, looking out, and thinking just imagine…