Monday, 21 March 2011

Where next for Reading Skeptics?

...In which I try not to become Martin Bryce.

If you live in or around Berkshire, this is for you. I gave a little speech at the Reading Skeptics in the Pub social last Tuesday night, the main thrust of which I'll reproduce here.

As I blogged earlier, we now have two regular events for skeptics in Reading:

Reading Skeptics In The Pub host a different guest speaker each month at Copa. (Frequently on a Thursday but check for upcoming dates).

We also meet for relaxed banter and drinks at RISC Global CafĂ© from 7pm on the third Tuesday of each month.

I'm clearly biased but it seems both these events are terrifically successful and popular, and set to become yet more so. They provide a great opportunity to meet people of a like mind and to learn a thing or two.

Yet many of us committed to promoting skepticism know there needs to be more than just Skeptics In The Pub. There's no doubt we've added something new to Reading's social scene but really our aim is to have a more significant impact, politically and culturally.

Around and about Berkshire recently I've met lots of people who are pursuing the skeptical agenda - getting involved with national campaigns, lobbying their MPs, complaining about quacks to Trading Standards - mostly people who have been in the movement for much longer than I have. And yet their efforts appear to go almost totally unnoticed by the majority of the community.

I feel we would have greater visibility locally and a stronger political voice if we had a unifying banner and degree of coordination.

And so, to this end, I have resolved to found the Berkshire Skeptical Society, with the express aim of promoting skepticism and critical thinking within the ancient bounds of the Royal County.

As well as lending its voice to the various local, national and international campaigns that concern skeptics, this organisation should provide support and resources to groups and individuals in Berkshire who are doing their own thing to further the cause. Now we've got some good things going in Reading, I'd like to think we could give a bunk up to groups in other parts of the county. We might even (and I know this is a hard sell) organise some events somewhere other than a pub.

I don't know the form this this society should take (although I'm greatly inspired by the lovely people at the Hampshire Skeptics Society), nor what my own ongoing involvement might be, but I think such a society could perform a vital role and I will do what I can to get it off the ground.

Thank you to all who have already offered your support. I intend to organise a meeting soon with some willing volunteers to bash out details and to elect the society's officers. Watch this space.

In the meantime, if you have any ideas or suggestions then please share them below. If you have some time to spare and feel you could help in running this thing then drop us a line at readingsitp[at]gmail[dot]com. Or better yet, come and say hello at Copa on Thursday night.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Clutching at Random Straws

A little over a year ago, as I was starting to get switched on to the Skeptics In The Pub phenomenon, I looked around in vain for any skeptical groups in Berkshire. I thought about starting a local group myself but I was afraid I would not find many like minds, since none of my friends or work colleagues appeared to share my enthusiasm.

When I first met John Stumbles in September I saw I wrong to have been so pessimistic. Through his hard work with the Reading Skeptics Facebook* group, his website, leafleting and networking, John had several dozen people signed up to his mailing list, while the skeptics' meet-ups he organises at the RISC Global Cafe attracts 10-15 people every month. I realised then there was clearly sufficient demand in Reading to replicate the brilliant Skeptics In The Pub experience that I had enjoyed in Winchester and Oxford.

And last month I think we did just that. Fifty people at Copa applauded Matt Parker as the first guest speaker at Reading Skeptics In The Pub. Anyone who has seen Matt perform live or heard him on The Infinite Monkey Cage will know he is extremely funny and informative with it.

I have not yet publicly thanked everyone who helped make the event the most excellent evening of rationalism, comedy and beer that Reading has seen. Heartfelt thanks go to John for MC'ing; to Ciaran McHale, John Holden and Dave Hughes for the audiovisuals; to everybody who helped to promote it, most especially David McKnight; to Dan for arranging the inaugural Reading SitCH; to Alex and the team at Copa for being so hospitable and just fantastically cool; and of course to Matt Parker for being awesome.

While everybody had a great time and were keen to come again (at least, nobody admitted to not wanting to come again), the most encouraging thing for me was that only five or six of us had ever been to another Skeptics In The Pub event elsewhere. That means we brought SITP to 40+ new people and got them wanting more. That can't be bad.

I've got a strong suspicion the next event (March 24th) will be even better, when we welcome the brilliant Jourdemayne, blogger, skeptic and student of the macabre. I strongly advise you not to miss that.

* Sorry, I can't bring myself to hyperlink to Facebook. If you have to use that accursed thing you can search for it yourself.

Happy Birthday, Albert

Albert Einstein was born 132 years ago today, in Ulm in the then German Empire. He has been a hero of mine since I was a child and my admiration for him, as a physicist, philosopher and humanist, grows with each new quote that I read.

Apparently some religious people try to claim Einstein as one of their own, misrepresenting his views in the process. Certainly this example of quote mining to imply Einstein's supernatural belief is pretty pathetic.

(It strikes me as ironic that this feeble attempt at an appeal to authority is made in support of the supposed Ultimate Authority).

Make no mistake, Einstein's views on the existence of God are clear.
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
(HT to Shaun Usher, Letters of Note)

If there are arguments for the existence of God then believers must state those arguments honestly. Attempting to recruit a dead non-believer to the cause does that cause no favours.

At the end of his life Einstein reportedly refused surgery that may have saved him, saying. "I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly."

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Skeptics In The Pub comes to Reading

If you live in or around Berkshire and you like your science, you're going to like this. Next Tuesday, 15th February, we are launching a new monthly event in Reading. I'm very excited.

Skeptics In The Pub is an opportunity for people who are interested in science, scepticism, rationalism and critical thinking to socialise and to discuss matters of interest.

The meetings are free* and open to all, regardless of beliefs. Each month we have a talk from a visiting speaker, followed by a challenging Q&A session and general banter. 

This new Reading event is the latest in a growing international network of Skeptics In The Pub groups. The original London group started in 1999 and now claims to be the largest regular pub meeting in the world, with around 200 people attending each month.

If you are not familiar with the term, a skeptic (the American spelling is deliberate) believes we should evaluate claims with the best tools we have; not intuition or ‘common sense’ as those can mislead us; not ideology, as that is often grounded in our own personal prejudices; but with empirical observation and a critical analysis of all the evidence.

I hope to return to this topic in more detail in a later post.

Our guest speakers will cover a very broad range of subjects, possibly including
  • Developments in science
  • Issues in science education, communication and funding
  • The evidence base supporting government policy, for example in such areas as health, the environment and social policy.
  • Issues relating to the law and human rights, particularly free speech.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine
  • Belief in the paranormal
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Religion, religious freedom and religious privilege.

Our first guest is Australian comedian and 'stand-up mathematician' Matt Parker.
Did aliens help prehistoric Britons found the ancient Woolworth's civilization? Matt will look at how seemingly incredible results can actually be meaningless random patterns. Matt Parker is a highly enthusiastic Mathematician whose life goal is to make people more excited about Maths. Using a range of presentations and hands-on activities, he communicates Maths in a very engaging and entertaining way. Matt talks about Mathematics for organisations including the Royal Institution and the BBC and he was the People's Choice Award in the 2009 national Famelab competition. His favourite number is currently 496.
I've seen him perform several times, most recently this past weekend at #QEDcon in Manchester. To my mind he is the very best sort of stand-up; informative, thought-provoking and piss funny.

If you can get to Reading next Tuesday, do come along and get your frontal lobes tickled. 7:30pm at Copa, Kings Road, Reading. Subscribe for news of future meetings here.

* Sort of. We only ask for a small voluntary donation to cover expenses.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Libel Reform mass blog

I have to be very careful who I criticise on this blog. I'm not wealthy and the English libels laws are currently so skewed in favour of rich litigants that, were I to be sued by someone I had offended, I would not be able to defend myself.

Even if I were in the right, even if I were highlighting a major danger to public safety, I could be very swifly silenced. I don't think that's right.

I'm not the only one. Simon Singh writes:
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at
(And if you don't know Simon's story, where have you been?)

Monday, 18 October 2010

Letter to Trading Standards re BioFirm Danish Detox Plan

Dear Trading Standards

I wish to complain about the sale of "BioFirm Danish Detox Plan" by Boots UK Ltd. Specifically, I am concerned by the marketing claim that this product "is a gentle, yet effective formula, containing herbs which naturally supports the body’s own internal processes of elimination and detoxification."

The Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 require the company to be able to back up any claims with evidence. However I can find no evidence that such "detox" formulations provide any benefit.

Indeed, Dr Catherine Collins (Chief Dietician, St George’s Hospital Medical School, London) is reported as saying "The concept of 'detox' is a marketing myth rather than a physiological entity."

Professor Edzard Ernst (Professor of Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter) has been quoted as saying "The basic concept that our bodies need help eliminating toxins is both wrong and potentially dangerous....Proponents of various detox therapies have never been able to demonstrate that their treatments actually decrease the level of any specific substance in the body."

The marketing of such detox products may also be hazardous to health. Professor Ernst has warned "A person might easily get the idea that they can over-indulge, i.e. poison his or her “system” with toxins, and then put everything right by applying this or that detox method. This could prompt many people to live unhealthy lifestyles in the belief they could avoid harm by periodic detoxification."

If Boots UK Ltd are not able to produce robust evidence that this product does indeed work, they should not be selling it, as a customer may be misled into believing this product to be anything other than worthless.

Yours sincerely,



Thanks to Simon Perry, firstly for inspiring me to some skeptical trouble-making with his recent talk at SitP Oxford, and then for removing any remaining excuses for inaction.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Aussie anti-vaccination group loses charitable status

Oh, this is good.

Of all the peddlers of fraudulent, bogus and dangerous healthcare advice, it's the anti-vaccinationists that stir me most to anger. Of the anti-vaxxers, few deserve censure more than the AVN and its head, Meryl Dorey.

To the unwary, the Australian Vaccination Network might sound like a responsible establishment promoting public health through immunisation, but in fact they are the opposite. Through their persistent campaigning against the use of vaccines they have reduced the immunisation rates in some areas of Australia to desperately low levels.

Dana McCaffery was just 4 weeks old when she died from pertussis (whopping cough) in March last year. She was far too young to be vaccinated herself and in the North Coast region of New South Wales, the home of the AVN, far too few people around Dana had protective immunity. There is no cure for whopping cough.

If you can, read the account by Dana's parents. Their fortitude is remarkable.

Even before the baby's funeral Meryl Dorey was telephoning the Director of Public Health for the NSW North Coast, trying to obtain the private details Dana's death and disputing the diagnosis.

Within days, the Toni and David McCaffery were confronting the AVN on national television, during which debate Meryl Dorey continued to try to dispute the facts of Dana's death. As Meryl has previously said, on the subject of measles and whooping cough:
“You didn’t die from it 30 years ago and you’re not going to die from it today”.
(Needless to say, Meryl is no doctor of medicine).

I wonder what Meryl thinks of the 9 infants that have already died in the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California.

So it's encouraging to read that the Australian authorities are acting to limit the activities of the AVN. Public awareness of the need to vaccinate is growing, through initiatives like this and this. In this pro-vaccination movement, the work of Toni and David McCaffery is a big inspiration.


Many thanks to Phil Plait and Rachael Dunlop for keeping me up to date with the anti-vaxxers' shenanigans.