Are you transphobic? Am I?

This is a difficult post to write, but it’s been on my mind for a while. No one is obliged to comment, or to educate me if I’m wrong (which no doubt I will be), but comments are, as ever, welcome, to continue the discussion. I’ll start with some conditions – please read them first and try to bear them in mind if what I’m saying causes some rage. Edit: some very constructive comments have happened, so thanks to everyone who’s pitched in and been civil with it. I’ve also added some stuff to the end of the post.

- Transphobia is real. Hundreds of people are killed and abused every year because society says we must obviously present as male-men and female-women and some people disagree so much, fear and hate so much, that they think murder or assault is justified. It is not. Obviously.

- People within oppressed groups are justifiably angry, and it’s not their job to educate ignorant people. But the ignorant people who want to learn are not enemies.  It can be difficult to judge, and it shouldn’t be their job, but piling on people you’ve decided are worthy of vitriol isn’t necessarily constructive.

- Discussions of sex and gender can become heated, and while scientific-sounding ideas have been used as a justification of hatred in the past, acknowledging the reality of biological sex is not in itself transphobic. That, as a human being, a woman, a scientist, a “liberal” sort of person, is my view. I know people disagree. Please bear with me.

Edit: I think this could be tl;dr summed up as: sex, like gender and sexuality, may well be appropriately considered as a spectrum. However, the existence of spectrum does not negate the existence of its extremes; if we’re thinking greyscale, then white and black are still a part of that. Not more important, but maybe more frequent. Simpler, perhaps, and more widely represented throughout the world (not just in people). Language, however, does not name all the shades of grey, but we seem more capable of understanding and describing black and white.


I believe this is the root of the problem. Many languages are based on the male/female sex binary. While English does not gender* all or most words like some languages do, we can still find it hard to accommodate some concepts because we don’t have the linguistic tools to do so. Given language is an integral part of our lives and predominant means of communication, it’s not surprising that trying to discuss emotive, personal subjects that our language does not even yet adequately describe is fraught with difficulty.
* Gender here being the linguistic term for words that have male/female properties (in reality or only in the language), not the gender expression of people.

It is now more widely accepted that gender is a spectrum; adult human beings are not all just men or women, but individuals often have and show qualities of both (or neither). But, just because there is a spectrum, and we don’t have language to adequately describe it, doesn’t mean that the concept of male and female sexes isn’t a real mammalian biology phenomenon. It is. It’s what the majority of the reproducing animal world does. M+F —> offspring**. That’s not a revolutionary idea, and it’s not false.

People not fitting neatly into the “norms” (a word I don’t like because abnormal has clear negative connotations; defaults? Standards? Typicality? Something like that) of sex and/or gender doesn’t mean they’re not still people who deserve respect and rights like everyone else. People having to alter their reproductive organs or being any kind of trans* doesn’t (shouldn’t) change the fact they’re still people. I’ve written a bit about LGBT+ labels before, it’s a fun tangent.

Edit: I changed the URL for this image due to a comment below, which highlights some controversy around its creation and use.

People have the right to identify as they wish. We have a need to categorise, to define and describe – indeed that’s what science (biology in particular) really does. But here we’ve moved out of biology and into more of a social arena – the two are quite different. While people might be conflating sex and gender all over the place, they’re also conflating biological concepts with human cultural concepts, and I think that’s another hindrance to progress.

The problem is, as I said, that transphobia is real, because we are very much stuck in the sex/gender binary (in language and culture), and discrimination happens because people fear what they do not understand. That shouldn’t be the case, and surely the way to address it is education. But if we actually cannot even talk about it because our language doesn’t accommodate the ideas and people only ever get frustrated – how can we achieve that?

A similar problem

A lot of the anger feels similar to the problem feminism has with its predominant “whiteness” and the justified anger from women of colour (WoC) whose voices are slowly being heard more widely. I would not presume to speak for them and I do believe it’s our responsibility to listen and learn, and not to demand teaching. People sometimes overcompensate and cause even more offence, and make themselves sound like idiots. It can be frustrating when you’re shot down when you think you’re doing A Good Job and it’s important to ask where your own anger comes from – is it because they’re wrong, or maybe you could do better?

Undoubtedly trans* voices need to be more widely heard (when I wrote about Juliet Jacques’ SitP talk, I did so because I found it enlightening, as something I was – and still am – hugely ignorant about, and I hoped more people could learn from it – you can read about her own experiences here). But a lot of the vitriol online is coming from “allies”, whose motives I would question given their tactics. I don’t think everyone they leap on is wrong and I don’t think the conversation is moving forward. Perhaps that’s because of where I’m standing, I don’t know. But I’d like to see an end, or at least a significant curtailing, to the name-calling that seems far more knee-jerk than considered, and far more off-target than useful. In addition, the language problem is perhaps unique to the trans* debate. It can of course also be offensive when other people are discussing you – if you haven’t seen Panti Bliss’ speech on homophobia yet, do take a few minutes.


Sex is a biological concept. Gender is a cultural construction, a social idea, a form of expression  – to which everyone has the right. Both are spectra, both have “exceptions to the rules”. But the exceptions to the biological rules of sex do not invalidate them; its definitions apply to all mammals and many other species.  A problem has arisen where stating this seems to lead to attacks (but here’s a very reasonable reply), where the person saying it is branded transphobic and other things – is that necessary, fair, helpful, or true?

I’ve linked to Gia’s post above, and another situation I’ve experienced was the Soho Skeptics Trans* Panel (which Gia helped to organise, with the help of Bethany Black and Adrian Dalton – you can listen here). The room was full of people, many of whom were likely ignorant of any trans* issues at all, and no doubt they learned things there. But people on the internet decided it was wrong because they disagreed with some definitions and didn’t like that Julie Bindel was there, even though the panel itself got on fine. Bethany even quit Twitter for a while because of the abuse she received after the event.

Discussing the basic facts of biology is not transphobia. It isn’t hateful to say maleness and femaleness are things, that XY sex determination operates in human animals. It isn’t hate speech to say that the XX sex chromosome configuration in people tends to create female biology, and women who can reproduce through conception, pregnancy and birth. Or that XY sex chromosomes, under ‘normal’ (that again) conditions, create testes that make sperm and these can fertilise eggs; inside or outside of a uterus, now we have that technology (and indeed can create offspring without the use of male sex cells at all; but these are technological feats more than biological ones). The existence of the ‘outgroups’, the atypical, doesn’t nullify any of this; exceptions don’t destroy rules.

Just as we typically have 2 arms, 2 legs, a heart with 4 chambers and 20 digits. A human who has atypical biological features is still a human. That is a cultural issue; that we recognise the rights of all. To state that someone with Down’s Syndrome has an extra chromosome is a biological truth, not hate speech. Just as to state a MtoF transgender woman who has XY sex chromosomes is “genetically male”. Although it should be irrelevant in everyday life. The fact that it is not, that some people base thoughts and actions of hate on it, is why education is important.

People discussing trans* issues who want to understand are not doing so to cause harm. People laying into them for having conversations about this stuff, trying to understand, trying to work out better ways of using our imperfect language, of accommodating the needs of people of all sexes/genders – because some needs are specific to some people. One of the very few things I agree with RadFems on is that “women born female/women” will have different experiences from someone who has become a woman later in life [Edit: please see comment with valid point that I’ve phrased this wrongly] and hasn’t always experienced femaleness and the social effects. Culture dictates, experience shows. Arguing that is futile and helps no one.

From @boodleoops:

To say women’s oppression is rooted in female reproductive function is (clearly!) not to say that only those who reproduce experience it. What it does mean is that oppression of those believed to be female has its origins in a fear of, and need to control, female biology.

It’s frustrating because people arrive instantaneously with online hate-flamethrowers – and again I understand why they’re angry because there are transphobic people all over the place (a good place to start is deleting “tranny” from your vocabulary, which I’ve heard from too many who should know better. See the link for more.) – shutting down potentially helpful dialogues. Like the Soho panel. As I said at the start, it’s not other people’s responsibility to teach us – we need to listen too, but if you can’t even start a conversation without people viciously trying to silence you straight away, how can we expect to get anywhere at all?

More biology and culture

The species of animals living on Earth are typically composed of two sexes; male and female. Males and females together produce young. In human society, however, there are layers of culture on top of our basic biology and instincts, we have laws and rights and these do (or should) extend to every individual. We have choices, and we are as a whole and as individuals more than a basic desire to procreate. Discrimination, persecution, oppression and exclusion based on any physical characteristic or life choice (where others are unharmed) is unacceptable and any “social justice movement” seeks to address this.

** There are many exceptions to the male/female sex binary – it can be far more complicated than the simple dichotomy we tend to see and learn about from the get-go, for example things that asexually reproduce like bacteria, plants, fungi and aphids, but even then there are often further complications to that basic idea; hermaphrodites (animals with both sexes’ reproductive organs, usually invertebrates); gynandromorphs (animals with generally male and female physical characteristics, e.g. male on one half and female on another) and so on.

The major exception to binary sex that’s relevant to humans is of course intersex. But the issues that intersex people face are fundamentally different, as explained well in this short link. And the very real existence of intersex people (and other animals) does not mean that maleness and femaleness are not real. The issue with being assigned one sex or the other, the insistence on putting children in one of two boxes, is different from not personally identifying in gender terms with the sex of your own body. There are discussions around the usefulness of the “cis” and trans terms that I don’t think I can get into here.

Of course, women who do not choose to reproduce are no less women than those who do (though we childfree people have to battle with this a lot; with the inappropriate and intrusive questions, with the dictation of your own plans and future decisions by others, with the questioning of your purpose and morality, of being labelled selfish…) and women who cannot reproduce ever in their lives or following surgery/other treatments are also no less women than those who can.

So gender certainly is not dictated by our physical bodies – any trans man or trans woman is the gender they live as, defined by them, not their bodies. But  sex is also somewhat independent; surgical alteration of the body does not change one’s chromosomes. Cloning an adult trans man who was female at birth would create a female child (HT @flayman for that point). Whatever comes after that is irrelevant – from the biological viewpoint (again separate from the cultural one), that child will develop a female body as her XX-containing genome dictates. She may or may not become a woman. Questioning the concept of male and female because gender, and our language that describes it, is imperfect – and because some believe gender is a matter of brain differences, again I’m not going there – is an argument built on shaky foundations and a refusal to acknowledge genetics and developmental biology.

“But, were they a man or a woman?!” That is not important to us, get on with your day.

A major problem I see is choice and beliefs around how that works. If we can choose our gender (can’t see why not) can we not also choose our sexuality? Again some radfems would say no, and even that bisexuality isn’t a real thing. I don’t entertain that argument. Perhaps it’s partly genetic (most things are) – but is that important? Maybe, like sex and gender, it is also a spectrum – not just of preference, but of choice. Some choose, some do not and cannot. Some change over time. The bottom line is we are all people and must be treated as such. The hurdle to overcome is fear of difference; and not difference in a negative sense, but in the sense we all differ in many ways from each other, and that is not a bad thing.


Because the groups of people who do not fit into the categories we are comfortable with – both biologically and socially – are relatively small (not insignificant), others traditionally have taken advantage and because of their fear have caused them pain, which is wrong and something that many activists, Gia included, try to address if they can. That doesn’t mean we’ll never be wrong just because our intentions are good, far from it. But perhaps we could reassess who or what the enemy really is.

This piece on fear is excellent. It says what I want to say:

A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.

I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge.

So if you want to call people transphobic because you think they’ve misstepped in their handling of our imperfect language in an imperfect culture, which we are all hoping to make better, for everyone, then you can do that. It might be abusive, though. And it really doesn’t help.

Edit 20/02/14: I didn’t elaborate much on the background before this post (most of which I’ve not been involved in), or the other aspects of sex that aren’t genetic. If that’s something you want to read about, go here –  a good post that explains why (again, quite justifiably) a lot of people are angry about this stuff. It’s life, and human lives are complex, and – again – the oppressive culture that affects many people is very real but can easily be ignored by those of us who are not directly affected. Further insight to be found at TransHollywood.

The comments below are important, too. I did not wish to chime in on this to be “splaining” and condescending to those for whom it is all very old stuff; like a man telling feminists what to do. It’s come across like that, however, and that’s a failing on my part. What I meant to do was ask why this particular issue is so hard to discuss compared to some other things, and my personal conclusion is that it is partly down to the limits of our language. I think the complexity of human sex and gender is inadequately covered by our current vocabulary, understanding, and ability to express these ideas and lived experiences. An interesting article on the effects of language on our thoughts and behaviours has come out, showing that specific gender references in language can cause us to identify in certain ways at certain times, compared to speakers of other languages.

My main point is that, while I absolutely acknowledge that these restrictive ideas and the words themselves can be and are used to oppress (which I do not condone), it is surely not the case that any use of them is, in and of itself, oppressive. We have to have language to communicate. Scientific language specifically is by definition reductive; words are used and created to describe ideas and discoveries. We cannot at every point explain the fine details, the exceptions, the contexts, of every single word we use – if we did that, we’d be like Ents, and we’d never get anything done.

Alex’s article makes the fair point that perhaps the scientific language could, therefore, change – if circumstances require. It is after all up to science (and scientists) to accept new findings and alter conclusions accordingly. I think the sex/gender issue is peculiar to human mammals – even if other species exhibit similar exceptions to a simple male/female “dyad”, the cultural issues of gender expression, of oppression in society, would appear not to exist. This was a point I tried to make in saying we could distinguish between biology and culture. Obviously science does not stand apart from culture entirely, it is part of it – one affects the other. But it is still the case that procreation is what life on this planet does in order to continue being life, and mammalian animals do that, primarily, with two sexes. Humans are of course more complex, we live and we love and we die – the sex bit (both the act and the state of being) is rather more complicated than it is for our animal cousins.

I hope these extra words clarify some things, along with the extended discussion below. Edit even more: I’m really not Lewis’ biggest fan by any means but enjoyed this on intersectionality “uses and abuses”, *and* the comments. And I can say I’m not a fan without turning into a bully, remaining willing to listen.


  • The categories were made for men, not men for the categories” The winning it’s-about-language argument. Meandering, interesting and convincing – it’s about definitions and helping people.

Invisible Lives

It’s a skeptics in the pub write-up!

In case you missed it, I luckily made it to Westminster Skeptics to see Juliet Jacques give her talk,

Thinking critically about transgender issues

and you can listen to it on the Pod Delusion but I shall write up my notes for those who prefer to read!

Firstly Belinda Brooks-Gordon introduced the talk by saying that trans rights have not really moved forward along with women’s rights. To try to highlight this and educate people, Juliet has a Guardian blog where she posts regularly about trans issues.

Now we can hear what Juliet has to say – it’s a lot of stuff, hugely informative, and it was a great talk!

I’ve put in a few thoughts of my own with [Comment: …] along the way.

Transgender” is almost deliberately a loose term. There is no commitment to a transsexual (TS)/transvestite (TV) distinction; the two not being the same thing, in case you’ve never thought about it before.

It turned up in late 1960s United States literature and became popular in the 1990s as an umbrella term for gender non-conformity and gender-variant identities.

Terms such as male/female (referring to bodies) were challenged by transgender communities.

A Whistle-Stop Tour of Trans History

Gay/lesbian histories and identities are far better explored (also bisexual but to a lesser extent) and it is much easier to define these terms.

In the Victorian era, modern industrial cities like London were giving people the chance to cut themselves off from their families and old friends, to reinvent themselves and be isolated from their past.

Thus, LGBT identities became possible.

However, men who dressed as women in public were arrested and sent to court. The Met, from 1829 onwards, accused the offenders of being ‘sodomites'; Victorian authorities associated cross-dressing or, officially, ‘men in female attire’, with homosexuality.

[Comment: at this point I’m reminded of one of my favourite comedians. Now, it might piss some people off that I bring it up, but having had close family dismiss him for his transvestism when I was quite a lot younger, since then I’ve felt uncomfortable when people poke fun.]

Men would often try to have the charges dropped using a defence of humour; “it was just a lark”. They dismissed their actions in this way to avoid prison.

In 1870 two men were often seen out and about as women. The mainstream press showed photos of them and they were well-known in London theatre. One was also associated with the aristocracy. They were charged with committing an “unnatural offence” and were subjected to examinations trying to prove they had engaged in anal sex. This (unsurprisingly?) failed and new charges were brought:

“Conspiring to incite others to commit an unnatural offence”

There was no frame of reference. Law and the media were reacting to events, creating legislation. The prosecution tried to prove cross-dressing was innate in order to suggest that sodomy had occurred.

There was the basic assumption that these people were deliberately trying to deceive men into having sex with them, by pretending to be women.

Obviously everyone’s lives revolve around heterosexual male perceptions!!

Women were also not accorded sexual agency; feminine sexuality was also suppressed.

[Comment: it was in the Victorian era that genital mutilation really took hold culturally; sex was something to be ashamed of and dampened, for both men and women. Circumcision was touted as a cure for boys’ masturbation ‘problems’ and female circumcision became popular to suppress female sexual desires and ‘hysteria’]

A new defence was then brought: that they’re actors! Actors continuing their roles outside of the workplace. Male-female cross-dressing was a long tradition particularly in English theatre so there was an assumption of performance associated with it, and that London was a City of vice.

The judge did not like the police; he felt they had violated the men’s human rights with their invasive ‘questioning’. Public support increased due to this mistreatment.

In 1885 an amendment to criminal law was made: 2 years in prison for male-on-male sexual acts (which ensnared Oscar Wilde and he was sent down under this law).

Germany’s Paragraph 175 outlawed homosexual behaviour. After this, sexology developed, in order to classify and understand human sexual behaviours.

The medicalisation and pathologising of ‘conditions’ such as homosexuality and transgender/gender-queer identities then began.

Medicine and Media

In 1909-1910 Havelock Ellis published a book called The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress.

Language is always evolving but there was little to describe transgender behaviour. Transvestite was coined as a broad term then, but is obviously more specific now; referring only to the act of wearing clothes traditionally thought of as being suitable for the opposite sex.

During World War I, Edwardian British and German sexologists were less active. There was still no separation of maleness vs. masculinity or femaleness vs. femininity.

In 1928 The Well of Loneliness was published, one of the first accounts from female perspectives.

The Institute of Sexual Science was founded in 1919 and pioneered sex reassignment surgery. A Danish painter, Lili Elbe, died after attempted ovary and uterus transplantations (Niels Hoyer wrote an account of her life, Man Into Woman). In 1933, the National Socialist Party closed the Institute down and people photographed the book burnings that took place.

These events caused the study and understanding of gender issues to be significantly held back.

Gender verification in sport also became an issue, resulting from people’s suspicions and prejudices, particularly those of Avery Brundage. Examinations to determine (mainly female) competitors’ sex were introduced with the intention of identifying people with an ‘unfair advantage’ – i.e. those born physically male but living as women.

In 1945 the first female-male sex reassignment surgery was performed on Laurence Michael Dillon who later wrote his own book, partly inspired by The Well of Loneliness.

Male-to-female transitions drew attention. A TV/TS schism formed, and also between TS and Gay/lesbian – the latter emphatically not desiring of surgery.

Then the first male-female transsexual was a friend of Dillon, in the early 50s; Roberta Cowell, an ex-pilot and racing driver. Her transition was serialised by the then equivalent of OK/Hello! magazine.

The front page of the New York Times featured Christine Jorgensen, a former US army conscript, in 1952. Her doctor, the sexologist Harry Benjamin, emigrated to the States during WWI. He worked on medicine for TG people, and with those who believed in pathologisation of the ‘condition’. He was closely involved in the development of phychological assessment and requirements for patients to follow ‘paths‘ to get the treatments they wanted.

The medical establishment was in control; unreasonable demands of femininity were made of M-F trans people (F-M were somewhat invisible – people assumed that women did this for practical reasons, to assume more powerful and respected roles in society); antiquated ideas of femininity were forced on people.

In ’66 Benjamin’s book The Transsexual Phenomenon was published, which detailed types of TS e.g. ‘Type 4′ – those with no desire to undergo surgery. These were all ideas articulated by non-trans people.

TS people became aware of the book. People understood the boxes to tick to get what you want - answering the questions posed ‘correctly’!

In 1960, April Ashley had surgery in Morocco. She had been married to Lord Corbett. He took her to court for divorce and the ruling was that she should still be considered male, so the marriage was void and there was to be no settlement. This set a legal precedent in the UK – that TS people’s sex is defined by what is printed on their birth certificate.

In the 60s, transitions and who could afford them were strictly controlled. ‘Sects’ emerged, for example in San Francisco. Sex workers funded their surgery. Police often harassed and blackmailed them in Compton’s Cafeteria, eventually causing them to fight back and a documentary film was made covering it.  Later the New York Stonewall Inn bar, rented by the LGBT community, was scene to more famous riots, where Sylvia Rivera stood up to police oppression. This led to the modern movement of Stonewall as the gay liberation front (gay in this context being queer & non-conforming identities).

People became more vocal about trans not being equal to gay and vice versa. Many were trying to integrate with ‘respectable’ hetero society. It became a cliché in the press; “I was born into the wrong body” – people started to think it was a new idea.

Lesbian and feminist groups became prominent in the 1970s. These were women-only spaces; M-F transitionists, did they fit in at all? Sport was also a bi-gender separated space. Trans decisions (and often requirements) to conform to patriarchal ideas of femininity annoyed some feminists.

Janice Raymond wrote ‘The Transsexual Empire: the making of the modern she-male’ and other anti-trans feminist literature, very aggressive in its content.

She managed to suggest that TS women were worse than rapists, that the appropriation of female bodies “becomes a total rape” (!). [Comment: hovering dangerously close to a no true Scotsman, I feel that ‘feminists’ being so obviously prejudiced against gender non-conformity would run against the very core of feminism itself, but maybe that’s just my view of it.]

She claimed [comment: epic invocation of Godwin’s law here] that TS technology was perfected in concentration camps, but there is no evidence for this. She interviewed 12 TS women (TS men didn’t fit; they were mainly dismissed as butch lesbians). This was prominent in the media.

Carol Riddell addressed Raymond’s comments in 1980. Sandy Stone also responded with The empire strikes back: a post-transsexual manifesto.

The Victorian persecution of cross-dressers made trans people invisible. Clinicians were free to frame the experience in a light designed by them alone, to propagate stereotypes, create legislation and silence trans people.

The mainstream media/trans schism developed as trans people were not used in film, TV etc. – the experiences presented were not framed by trans people themselves.

Authors stepped forward to promote the anti-transphobia cause, including: Jan Morris (Conundrum: An Extraordinary Narrative of Transsexualism, 1987); Kate Bornstein (Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women And The Rest Of Us, 1994); Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come, 1992); and Viviane Namastie (Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, 2001).

The organisation Press for Change was established in 1992 and finally the UK government passed a bill to create the Gender Recognition Act in 2004.


Trans identities have some constitution now. The meanings of words for ‘Gender-queer’ individuals (TS, TV, TG etc.) are still evolving. We are experimenting with the language. The challenge is tackling transphobia and in a sense this is following on from the gay liberation movement. Homophobic violence is still often based on gender expression and identity.

Fear of unknown and unusual drives people’s prejudices. This is often reinforced in the media, a prominent example being Psycho; in which Norman Bates fits the ‘all crossdressers are crazy!’ stereotype. [Comment: I’m reminded again of Mr. Izzard’s distinction between TV people in general and the “fuckin’ weirdo transvestite!”]

Work is ongoing to close the gap between the mainstream media, trans people and how articles are produced. Also questioning the usefulness of bracketing TG with mental illness; at the moment it is still in the DSM of mental disorders. Perhaps we can overturn the idea that TS is a mental health issue. TS people do have a fear of ‘coming out’ so to do so may help.

In tackling transphobia there is a need for good language use and critical thinking on these issues.


Q. The ‘Real life experience’ requirement – no scientific basis to it; just tradition?? Good reasons for it potentially being harmful. Barrier and ritual humiliation. People coming to harm via the ‘Hormonal black market’ – e.g. oestrogen without prescription.

A. Especially in Britain. The Trans pathway is structured by the NHS’ fear of being sued; transition and regret. Public money and anxiety over its use! People often suggest decommissioning of gender reassignment to save money (approx 70% comments on Guardian!).

Need for some gatekeeping. If there’s no test; it’s an irreversible surgery. Russell Reed: hormones as diagnostic tool (effects are reversible) – one can stop and revert.

Bit of an endurance test. Street hassle, everyday things become an ordeal. Some programmes do away with the psychiatry element. Difficult – more flexibility? Equality? They were allowed x time… cut-off points?

Increased acceptance – more people – pressure from the right to not spend money?

Q. Language. LGBT(Q) bit awkward? Internal disagreements – your view?

A. Ever-expanding acronyms. LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex) – a way around?

Umbrella term. But PC & this are kind of concurrent. Press fatigue with ‘PC’. Introduction of new words isn’t really tolerated now cf. 70s/80s.

“PC” is now pejorative. Causes some friction? Sexuality =/= gender identity. The state didn’t separate these.

How do to this but keep an ‘alliance’? Tend to occupy the ‘same spaces’. Contesting rights (Belinda BG). Trans & bi rights trampled! Medicine/sci/law intersection and research is behind –> guesswork policies.

Q. Liz D. Popular culture e.g. Coronation St. (did it badly?) M-F trans people e.g. in Little Britain – offensive?

A. C St. Hayley. History of trans people not given a direct voice/part. Spurred dialogue and was sympathetic to the issue.

Dana international won eurovision; informing people that TG different from L/G etc. “City of Lost Souls” TS singer in lead roll. Autobiography “Man Enough to be a Woman”. Warhol, punk etc.

Tara O’Hara character. Argument on need for surgery and ‘womanhood’.

Little Britain:  trans women as comedy. Trans men ignored; men who want to be female/feminine are funny whereas if women want to be men it’s practical. Merton & co. should be more careful with jokes.

You don’t always know how your creation will be perceived eg.. Al Murray pub landlord! Taking the piss out of people but then they adopt it; uncritical identification and missing the point.


Stereotypes often have a basis. Not being critical of them, historical context needed. The LB catchphrase “I’m a lady!”  is now shouted at people; people aren’t aware of transphobia.

Q. Pronouns. He/she/it ?? Queer has pejorative connotations (depends on who it’s from) – are you happy with the bifurcation?

A. Personally, yes. Have there been attempts to create new terms for people who don’t fit M/F and or don’t want – outside the binary; se/hir.

If you’re not sure, ask! Give the right of ID to the person rather than imposing your definition, but if you can’t…

e.g. Sonia/David Burgess and tube incident. Press coverage was awful.

Transmedia watch. Work with media creators; gap in education. Social innovation camp; trans techies, media, journos/broadcasters – contact us @transmediaact @transmediawatch

Q. A utopia where law does not interfere with people and their gender? Legal M-F/F-M transitions.

A. There was; they just existed. Legislation and pathologisation led to project to re-normalise.

Q. Change of language ?? To reflect diversity of trans group?

A. Complicated! TG is useful for many. Weird stereotypes around TV e.g. otherwise successful men putting wife’s undies on at home.

Trans cf. privacy issues. Often that history is irrelevant and incidental.

Q.  Is the goal to erase negative or balance negative with positive?

A. Balance. People will share strong negative opinions inevitably.

Q. 1. is use of ‘proper’ pronouns a barometer for accpetance? 2. Maybe human minds are wired to categorise things. 3. Sexuality =/= gender… do you think it might be useful to dissociate completely from LG(B)?

A. 3. Trans people have sexuality; B or G or L… L&G esp have fixed gender associations and so are inadequate to deal with trans. Hence, LGBTQ(I) more relevant.

BBG: Stonewall etc. have resources and can often help.

1. Principle: right to self-determination. Choose your own pronouns (cf. ms?) Changing beauty standards related.

Q. Scientific studies e.g. on brains etc. If there is a ‘trans test’, is it good or potentially harmful?

A. It would change dealing with transsexuality.

Q. Ignorance. People are unaware of the issues; do trans people need to ‘get real’ and understand that people generally have no knowledge of these things?

A. Panic about making mistakes can increase their frequency; allay people’s fears – better for all – some trans responsibility here.

LGBTQQ… we’re all beaten up by the same people!

A call was made for a Corrie/LB blogpost.

Also: David Walliams played ‘Vulva’ in Spaced; when wearing some make-up after filming and walking through a park – he was verbally abused and stones thrown – he wrote about it and was apparently amused by this?!

Also listen to the Pod Delusion report by Liz in Episode 107! Transgender and the Media (41:00) ft. Nathalie McDermott

Science Wooseum update

I said watch this space so here’s some stuff to fill it!

What’s happening?

It’s been a pleasingly eventful week; recovering from QEDcon (see previous 2 posts and links therein) and watching this discourse with the Science Museum unfold.

Many thanks to everyone who’s been sharing the story, stating their views etc. and particularly to Martin for hosting our post on his Guardian science blog. It’s a reply to the Museum’s official statement that I linked to previously.

There are a lot of good comments on the post now; some of my favourites including:

the museum could have a permanent room for Homeopathy along with astrology, tarot card reading, crystal gazing, tea leaf reading, internet urban myths and radionic arse scratching. A sign saying ‘Welcome to the Wibble Room’ could be placed over the entrance.

No one “values” “alternative” medicine. Poor people will be stuck with it, and can’t get any proper medicine; while rich westerners use it as an extension to their cool lifestyle.

One might as well put flying carpets in the transportation section.

Science is science, irrespective of locale. The same as truth, and proof.

Alex’s original post has been linked to by Regan Forrest and I’ll put my comment here (and expand on it):

Why bring it up?

I hosted my colleague Alex’s post on my blog because I thought it was important to share with people who, like yourself, hadn’t had a chance to see the exhibit yet – but would be interested by its content.

My reply to the Museum’s official statement is now on the Guardian science blogs site.

We posted this on the same day as David Colquhoun’s research and criticisms:

I’d like to go through your points and share my views…

Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?

When that museum is the Science Museum, I’d say the clue is in the name, so yes.

the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content.

As was carefully pointed out in the original post, it is not that the Science Museum chooses to talk about alt med that is the problem. The problem is the way in which it is presented; in terms of the content. For more on this, I recommend DC’s post in particular. On why homeopathy is not medicine, jdc posts.

Of course ideas in medicine that don’t stand up to scrutiny, have fallen by the wayside over time etc., have their place. There are many practices that have been and gone.

Hopefully many things still popular today will dwindle into obscurity too – but just because they haven’t yet, does not mean we need to pretend they’re just as effective as validated medicine. To do so seems to me more like trying to avoid offending people instead of educating them (the latter being, in my view, what museums should be doing).

Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented.

Yes, I do believe the museum has a responsibility to be truthful and educational with its content. Otherwise the authority and respect it (rightly) commands would be somewhat without cause.

Mission Statement

From the Museum’s site:
“The Science Museum is the world’s pre-eminent science museum. It houses outstanding collections relating to science, technology and medicine, and is one of the most prestigious and respected organisations dedicated to the promotion of public science and technology.”

the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.

Exactly. Because research, as the exhibit says, has been done into many alt med practices, and found them to be ineffective. There was and is good reason for the Evidence Check report and its results are why many are unhappy with the NHS’ spending on homeopathy and other complementary medicines (see many great posts on the EvCheck, listed by @xtaldave)

Again, it is the way the exhibit is presented, not the mere fact that it is about CTM, acupuncture etc.

the ’march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people feel a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t think the prospect of making people uncomfortable is good reason to shy away from facts, especially in this context. What if there were a holocaust denialism exhibit in a war museum?!  Quite a few high profile people subscribe to that ridiculous ‘theory’. I expect the WW2 atrocities make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that is no reason to twist and distort the truth – indeed, it is even more reason NOT to do so.
(Have I just Godwinned myself?! Crap.)

let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?

Can we (not just yourself, a lot of people are doing it) stop trying to insert a crowbar between ‘scientists’ and the rest of the population? 1) It’s not only scientists that are annoyed by this exhibition 2) we’re just people too, you know!!

The scientific method is not the sole domain of scientists; it’s used in many fields (including history). It’s a philosophy. An aim of skepticism is to promote critical thinking and the scientific method not just among the scientific community but in the wider sense – to arm people with the tools to… well, detect BS.

Anyone can comment on this and many are. See also the comments on the official statement (e.g. Chris Richards) – many visitors are unhappy about this, for the reasons I’ve outlined and more. People do expect the Science Museum to show science, and where they’re showing things that are unscientific, to make that very clear.

display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.

Indeed, and again referring to DC’s post and the guardiansciblogs piece, I do not think it is clear at all and would leave many visitors with a sense that Alt Med is pretty good stuff – precisely the kind of misinformation that campaigns like 10:23 etc. have been working hard to correct.

To expand on the point made in the Guardian piece, legitimisation of ineffective medical ideas can do a lot of harm; such as in this case, in which parents wish to treat their paralysed child with non-medicine, because one of them has some kind of ‘qualification’ in it. The courts are having to step in. Unfortunately that does not always happen in time.

DC wrote of the power of blogs – the internet has changed the way we do things. Those with the power to make changes will listen if enough people are talking. If you’ve seen something that really should be addressed, don’t just talk about it – get it out there!

Further to that point, Mark Henderson (science editor at the Times) and Dr Evan Harris were at Westminster Skeptics this week – Mark’s writing a book called the Geek Manifesto about the ‘rise of the geeks’, if you will. The biggest achievements to date (such as the libel reform campaign), its potential  as a political force and changes that might be  facilitated, the ethos behind the ‘movement’ and so on. It’s interesting stuff and I look forward to reading it, but for now Mark’s still scouting for ideas about what to include (it’s a fairly expansive topic!).

Someone’s written a nice little post on the event and stated how they feel the skeptical movement isn’t just beneficial to Science but also to the Arts, which I’m inclined to agree with.


Alex enjoying the power of blogs.

Maria Wolters writes her thoughts very coherently, going into some more detail on the potential problems of claiming such approaches as the museum has and the difficulty we have reconciling that with what is actually on show.

Criticism of the criticisms at

My reconnaissance assistant, @anandamide with his views.

A contribution from a Finn (sorry, poor Google translation!)

Sceptical about Skeptics?

This week’s Westminster Skeptics was presented by Frank Swain (@sciencepunk).

I’ve square-bracketed most of my own thoughts that I’ve added in to the write-up, as I occasionally have before.

Every so often we should be self-critical

Frank began with a little disclaimer; he does love the skeptical movement and wants to see it do well. As do I.

Who are the Skeptics?

Is this even a useful question?

You probably know if you’re a part of it, voluntarily or not, using the ‘special k’ spelling or not.

We have a passion for science and critical thinking. Or just enjoy meeting like-minded people! Engagement is the next step and not by any means a compulsory one.

The most powerful thing I can do as a writer is to change someone’s mind

The power is similar to that of parents; the ability to shape someone’s way of thinking, how they form opinions.

[Or unfortunately in many cases, simply which opinions they should have; this is why I think philosophy should be more of a core school subject, since we’re rarely taught how to think about things; this comes later, if at all, and I believe is one reason why so many people are sucked in by scheming con-artists and misinformation].

Skepticism now isn’t changing people’s minds

[I’m not sure I agree 100%; whenever someone new is brought into the  ‘skeptic world’, however (im)permanently, they may or may not change their entire outlook, but even if someone used to think seeing a chiropractor would be a good idea after their car crash and now realise it probably isn’t, that’s something – and to me, a positive result. Also, changing people’s minds isn’t necessarily the main goal.

Based on a post-talk discussion we had, I’d say skepticism is fairly political. Just as political campaigns target the swing votes, so does skepticism. Few people really believe you can change the mind of a diehard fundamentalist (in either direction), so they’re not the focus. It’s the fence-sitters, the undecided and indeed uninformed who we hope to reach. Edit: as this Youtube video describes perfectly.]

Skepticism is a new community, for example compared to environmentalism and animal welfare. We have no infrastructure to speak of and that imposes a limit on engagement and progression possibilities.

A criticism: distance has formed in recent years. Behaviour and attitudes are a turn-off to many people who, as a result, don’t want to be associated with skepticism.

Are you talking to me?

Who do we reach? Is it just a big echo chamber?

People, for example when starting a blog, pick a topic, angle and tone of writing. This narrows the audience and there’s a danger to that; becoming simply like-minded people patting each other on the back, because it’s gratifying.

[I did give this as one reason for restarting my blog; it is nice when people agree with you! However, I also like to share things I care about precisely because not everyone does agree, which makes for interesting discussion and a chance to reflect on one’s own views.

When people only agree, opinions stagnate, stubbornness and ignorance grow and the once-sensible person can end up as fundamentally rigid – and indeed wrong – as the people they vilify. I see this in my own family now and try quite hard to avoid it.]

This doesn’t really reach anyone and falls into the confirmation bias trap.

People go to their family, friends, neighbours, doctor, priests etc. for advice – not always the internet.

We trust other people … Not everything is on Google

How many people could reach, for example, this blog? Well, 7 million in the UK are apparently illiterate while 0.5 million have no internet connection. A big exclusion from the outset. Then there are other factors like language, culture and so on. There’s sometimes a common attitude: “That problem’s solved: I wrote a blog about it.”

A blog is the equivalent of a post-it on your bedroom door It’s arrogance to think that blogposts and Twitter hashtags make problems go away

Because a campaign changes minds, whereas these activities often don’t; they demonstrate the degree of support and can help bring like-minded people together but it’s not a campaign in and of itself. It’s mostly people “agreeing with their mates”.

[However, today David_Colquhoun said while listening to the Pod Delusion recording of the talk:

Listening to @sciencepunk. He’s dead wrong. We have changed things in real world

I think the truth is somewhere in between; I do think online campaigning (or however you want to classify it) has an effect; the first I took notice of was HSBC’s restoration of graduate overdrafts after immense pressure that originated on, and was almost exclusively from, Facebook. The Libel Reform Campaign would not be as successful without the online efforts either.

Also I think the impact goes beyond grand outcomes, overturned convictions and the like – it’s also personal. Several people to have spoken at skeptics, particularly those facing and enduring libel cases, have said that the support has kept them afloat or at least helped in hugely stressful times. I don’t think that should be waived aside as unimportant.

I did say to people around our table that talking to people on Facebook, particularly when I was at university, really did change my views on a number of issues; my opinions differ quite a lot from those I held at school, which were mostly just hand-me-downs from my parents anyway. I like to think that, like a proper scientist, I really can change my mind if it’s logical to do so, if the evidence suggests I should.]

Frank then lists his reasons for not granting funds to TAM, concerns over which have also been voiced very eloquently by Skeptobot.

It’s centralised (in London), expensive, does not stream its content (and DVDs will cost £16) and the JREF operates in the USA – so he cannot justify giving tax money to it.

[The self-congratulatory attitude is also the reason I’m not spending >£200 going to TAM this year, amaz!ing as I’m sure it’ll be, since I’ve seen a few of the people before at skeptics in the pub – with a much more intimate atmosphere and glorious price tag <1% of TAM’s – and it is getting a bit cult/church-y.]

Mum’s the word

Mothers worry about the health of their children constantly. It’s probably still fair to say that most haven’t been to university (though not for much longer, I expect) and tend to find having their beliefs challenged by kids quite intimidating.

My mum is my litmus test

Frank frames his questions with the most important lady in his life in mind;

How can I explain it? Would she care? Is my blog useful to her, could it change her mind and is it respectful?

[To which I might add, will she respect me for writing it? My mum reads my blog and lets me know what she thinks. Let’s remember, though, that unconditional love tends to lead to bias!

My supervisor has told me the similar; try to explain in a way that your mum can understand and if you haven’t done that, you haven’t explained well enough. However, I don’t think it applies to everything; for science writing and general engagement it does.

It depends on your target audience. It’s not relevant to, say, scientific journals and as Evan Harris said after the talk, often not to influencing policy either. If you always have to explain everything from the ground-up, you’ll never get anywhere; every article would be a whole text book. Context matters. I agree thatt trying to make things mum-friendly is often a good idea].

One of my favourite charts

Frank attacks the charts&graphs/data-worship culture and asks if the ‘evidence or fuck off‘ kind of attitude is really funny anymore – it’s just an aggressive tone and arguing is different from engaging.

Arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly

Facts don’t speak for themselves … they are dry and boring

Campaign groups like PETA and Greenpeace, FOX etc. understand this but many skeptics don’t

Sometimes the scientific background is a problem. We may be correct but ineffective in using facts to argue.

Most people have used the old line “The plural of anecdote is not data” but Frank goes on to say that the plural is a convincing argument.

[I think this is just because it’s the easier way to think about things. We identify more readily with personal stories than numbers, more with faces than bar charts. It’s more difficult to see the big picture – it takes time and effort to understand compared to, say, looking at a picture and going on our gut feeling. That’s the tabloid tactic - there’s a reason appeal to emotion is classified as a logical fallacy and why many of us rail against using it. As features on my ‘quotations‘ page:

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. – Henry Ford

I realise it’s Frank’s point that being convincing may be preferable to only being right, and fact-based arguments can be condescending, or rely heavily on argument from authority; skeptics should stop being offensive, calling people stupid etc. But I think it depends on why you’re a skeptic. I’ll come back to that*]

We often can’t actually prove things ourselves – Frank used the example of the Earth orbiting the Sun (he could show it with a simple experiment!) – in reality, not very many of us can.

Stories are more effective but we shouldn’t abandon facts. It’s reasonable and rational to utilise emotion and there’s no one right way, though foregone conclusions with no attempt to consider other people’s views can’t be productive.

Why is arguing from facts cowardly? You go into an argument knowing you are right and the arrogance shows

[I have to agree with James‘ take on this statement but I see where Frank’s coming from.]

On to a controversial point now really stirring things up on Twitter:

10:23 was not engagement

Informing people doesn’t change the fact that it “works” for some people [I add the finger-quotes]. Facts are not everything; there’s philosophy, feelings, culture etc.

[I don’t think that 10:23 set out to be solely an engagement activity, nor do I agree that no aspect of it was engagement. Michael Marshall, who played a big part in the campaign, said earlier today:

@SciencePunk By the way, sooo many people who responded during #ten23 didn’t know there was nothing in homeopathy, were annoyed to learn it.

Studies showed most people thought it was ‘herbal’, hence we were engaging with those who used it without knowing about it.

10:23 aimed to inform people who were unsure or confused about the nature of homeopathy, to improve understanding and question the validity of NHS funding CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) – not an insiginificant issue.

It seems to me that it was quite successful, though I didn’t learn about it until I’d wormed my way into the skeptics. However, since then I’ve found myself having conversations with colleagues and friends about it, so it has reached a wider audience than SitP alone, and I’m sure others also found this.

Simon Perry echoes my point about targeting ‘swing-voters’ in his response.]

Dogmas of the Skeptic Society

- We all know each other! [Skeptics can be a bit incestuous, but I usually meet at least one new person at each event. It depends on your reasons for going and what kind of person you are as to what your experience will be; again I’ll come back to that later**]

- People are elevated to God status and become immune to criticism (Dawkins etc.)

- Others (people and ideas) are reduced to demons

- Some things are assumed to be unworthy of debate because of knowledge and understanding not everyone has.

Frank praised the ‘communication skills’ of American evangelist Billy Graham, who has advised 12 US presidents and spoken to more than 2.2 billion people; he gives a positive message [not sure I entirely agree with that] and doesn’t tell people they’re stupid. He’s convincing and charismatic; a great communicator. Why can’t we follow this positive model? [Again, I’ll come back to this*. @medtek said: My assessment of last night’s #WestSkep – Agreed with some of it. Disagree with Billy Graham analogy. Felt a bit preached to, usual for SITP]

He gave examples of utterly vitriolic, ad hominem attacks from the skeptical sphere; which I (and most others) join him in condemning. It’s unproductive and certainly not what I personally condone or consider acceptable. One or two in the room did see fit to prove his point, though, by claiming it’s funny.

Regarding the recent Gillian McKeith fiasco, he questions the success of it; she’s just been chased off Twitter. She’s still got 10 books, it’s just that now her stuff doesn’t reach us. Is that the goal of many, to shield themselves from things they disagree with?

Bullying people out of the sphere is more of a ‘weed-whacker’ than ‘weed-away’ strategy; it doesn’t tackle the root of the problem.

You should empathise with people [something I totally agree with; I do believe a well-developed sense of empathy is the best way to be a ‘good’ person, in the general sense] and understand them. For example, parents want to protect kids and avoid danger, so their fears need to be addressed in order to convince them.

Who’s in the club and who’s put off? The format of presenting to people at SitP, for example, can be intimidating. We should invite the people who do/use the things we criticise but for all the above reasons, it’s difficult to achieve.

[Talking to a long-term attendee afterwards, this used to happen. Perhaps word has got out and people are afraid. To be honest I don’t blame them; I’d never volunteer to go and speak to a room full of PETA members, for example; I’d probably get stabbed on the way out. Not that we’re at all stabby, you understand.]

Woo” is the closest thing the skeptics have to the N-word

It’s born of intolerance, prejudice and hatred, describing other people’s beliefs based on your prejudices and leads to write-offs. [We’ve all used it, Frank included as he admitted. There are arguments to be made regarding the value of ridicule in tackling certain ideas, but I don’t think I’ll go into it here. I’m thinking of things like the Mohammed cartoons/Achmed the dead terrorist].

How do we face these challenges?

- reach more people?

- improve our communications skills?

- be more inclusive?

Ask “What can I do, as a skeptic, to be a better person?”

So ended the talk, to great applause (“maybe more than Prof. Brian Cox”, Jack of Kent joked).  [Edit: I joined in vigorously myself, because it was a very good presentation and I agreed a lot, but of course not entirely.  Kash has done a good summary of some major issues. Della has also shared her thoughts., along with David from across the pond] Tom Morris shares his views on the talk here and the list of Tweets is here.

I wonder…

* Here I’ll come back to why people are ‘skeptics’ and, perhaps, why we find it difficult to change the way we communicate. Personally, something I value most above all else is truth; honesty. My view of overly-emotional, sensationalist arguments is that they’re generally dishonest. Using anecdotes may be convincing but it’s not necessarily accurate. A lot of people’s problem with snake-oil merchants is the lies, twisted-truths and sneaky tactics used to convince others. We don’t want to lower ourselves to that level. I don’t want to, anyway.

After the talk I spoke with Roger and Joe and we agreed it was important to get some perspective.

** Can’t we compare skeptics (in the pub) to other groups who get together, meet new people, have social events, make friends, have a laugh etc.? It’s a personal experience and people have varied reasons for attending. Skeptics in the Pub isn’t really a public engagement exercise (to continue a Twitter conversation I was having earlier) – otherwise it wouldn’t be in the pub. Gimpy mused on this recently.

Making use of locking myself out of the flat one evening

I don’t think any other group sits around wondering if its activities are morally justifiable; can’t see bridge clubs or trainspotters brainstorming ideas on becoming more inclusive, for example. Do we really have to apologise for wanting to make friends who share our ideals, with whom we can have fairly deep conversations and a good laugh? Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t hold each other to account – far from it. Criticise away. But keep the perspective.

Personally, I did not want to move to London, I had few friends outside work and my flat and was pretty depressed about everything. Skeptics is a niche I’ve taken to and it’s played a big part in making me feel better about myself and improving my social life. I’ve met some truly brilliant people, which I’m very grateful for, and now I love living here (yes, you’re excused to go and vomit). I’ve never really had friends who appreciated my cynical nature and it was even actively discouraged by my partner at university, sometimes friends too. All contributed to my being quite miserable, to say the least.

I agree we need to be introspective if we’re to avoid being hypocritical, but I don’t think people should criticise things like SitP for not being inclusive. It’s a grass-roots thing, anyone’s free to do any skeptic event they want – no one owns it, it’s not a brand. Let’s go to the park, to a coffee shop, do it at the créche if you’re a mum, away from bars if you’re muslim. As you want!

[Edit: on the (in)effectiveness of fact-based argument and how it may actually strengthen irrational belief, jdc325 reviews an interesting paper from Schwarz et al. on the subject – PDF link in the post]

I also highly recommend this article. To quote from it:

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

I find this particularly fascinating because of the analogy to antibiotics. Are some of the skeptics’ tactics exerting some evolutionary pressure on the kinds of ideas we seek to counteract, the memes if you like, and strengthening their hold? Is it time to step back and let natural selection take its course?

The problem is, sometimes I feel like this wouldn’t be the right thing to do – I recently posted a Quackometer article on Facebook about a homeopathic organisation promoting their ‘malaria treatment’ in Kenya. A friend said it was

just darwinism in action, let it take its course…

To which I said

No it isn’t, it’s exploitation and manslaughter of the ignorant, desperate and impoverished. It’s not funny and it’s not people getting what they deserve.

I don’t think we can, in good conscience, leave everything behind. Nor was Frank suggesting we do. But it’s probably time to reassess the effectiveness of our methods.


Possibly the longest Q&A I’ve ever witnessed.

Have you considered context? Is it really a ‘Goldilocks’ situation of getting it just right? There are other situations e.g. 1) Litigious people/organisations. Facing down threats of litigation to open debate. 2) Regulators (ASA/TS) – telling them there are no facts presented can lead to success. - Jack of Kent

No there isn’t a one-size-fits-all to skepticism/engagement etc. Robust defences are sometimes necessary but not ad hom insults. What do you mean by success?

Me & Lenin in St Petersburg! (Formerly Leningrad)

Do we need a bit of Leninism? [Lenin wrote Что делать? (Shto d’elat’? – What is to be done?) – naturally, I loved the Russia reference!]

We are knee-deep in ‘woo’ – the government, the Sun newspaper. Should we not make policy changes to ensure a better future, an educated populous?

Why do we assume evidence-based thinking is the best way? Why force our view on others? Exploitation is an issue.

The thing that bothers me most is the tone and the insults. Subtleties of the position are ignored.

What do we do when we find members of our own community ‘behaving badly’? We don’t like to ‘speak out against the mothership’ – but we should just point it out.

Leninism isn’t very pleasant!

We’re in danger of getting into the ‘People’s front of Judaea/Judaean People’s Front’ argument here [watch Monty Python’s Life Of Brian if you don’t get this! Actually, watch it anyway].

I’m religious, I know homeopaths etc. – the exclusivity and intolerance means you throw away potential ‘members’

One question I didn’t really catch the drift of (only question mark I got was at the end of “How does one engage with… everything?) but what the overall gist seemed to hint at was

Should we employ spin-doctor tactics?

Which goes back to what I was saying about dishonesty. This makes me uncomfortable.

Frank: We need to understand why people should care first.

How do we take people from being wrong to being right, without too much pain?

Be careful assuming they’re wrong in the first place! Understand!

Should skepticism be more considerate of people’s circumstances, like feminism? For example people with childcare commitments, disabilities etc.

Again I’d go back to the point about starting skeptical stuff anywhere. Sure, pubs aren’t for everyone, but they’re for a lot of people! Otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular. People are welcome to cater to other audiences should the ‘market’ exist.

If stories are better than facts, why did Gillian McKeith pretend to have a PhD and why do cosmetics employ the ‘science!!’ tactic?

Science is the benchmark of truth in society; it’s a ‘clothing’ of fact [I’ve discussed this weird double-standard before].

Regarding how to challenge people, I have two approaches

1) Socratic Questioning – lead people along a reasoned path while showing interest, without being confrontational.

2) Comment when people are dicks [re: skeptic ad hom attacks]! So that others see and know people disagree with it.

See this blogpost for more on his ideas.

Is skepticism really a ‘movement’? [Example slide, right – Frank showed a lot of exerpts from emails/Twitter DMs he’d received prior to the talk]

Most of us would, I expect, say no.

There are at least 3 approaches to a campaign, including changing policies, winning over the base and new people. It’s legitimate to go with policy and evidence-based argument with respect to policy-makers. - Evan Harris

Support the non-scientists!

One humanities graduate in attendance (of which there are many, I’d say at least 30% of the room!) recalls her introduction to skeptical issues by the likes of Dara O’Briain and Tim Minchin. I completely agree; comedy and other popular non-scientific areas are also valuable fora for communication.

Dean Burnett also wrote for Birmingham Skeptics on the use of the personal approach, including in comedy, and some hilarious hands-on skeptical ‘techniques’.


Frank used to write a ‘zine‘ entitled War on Error, thinking that was a brilliantly clever title; but made the unfortunate discovery in 2004 that all the internet media of that name had already been taken. So, clever but not original. Thus was Sciencepunk born.

He hasn’t left scienceblogs as a part of the “Pepsigate” mass exodus

because I love the free Pepsi too much

He used to be part of Sense About Science too and created Gavin Henson’s Human Guinea Pig, which was described as “Monkey tennis TV”, apparently – I’m not even sure what that means… Oh, wiki to the rescue as usual.

Also in attendance was the now-famous Councillor John Dixon (who’s a thoroughly nice bloke, by the way), awaiting his disciplinary hearing in about 1 month.

Sorry it’s so long; this is one of the most thought and discussion-provoking talks I’ve seen so far! It’s still going strong in the Twittersphere. Thanks for reading!

(I might add some Youtube videos if I bother to edit out the excessive swearing!)

A crash course in skeptical activism

Simon Perry, convenor of Leicester Skeptics, gave his talk at Westminster Skeptics on 12/7/10.

After a rousing introduction from another super Simon, Mr Singh, we were given a run-through of the results of Mr Perry’s desire to complain about things that deserve to be complained about; amongst them, the great Quacklash – read more about it over at Zeno’s Blog!

Skeptical Activism & The Quacklash


I’m more of a troublemaker than an authority.

Lots of us see things that we find objectionable and annoying. However, especially if we’re English, actually bothering to do something about it is quite rare. The world would much likely be a better place if more people took a bit of time to point out when something is amiss, so I respect Simon’s efforts – even if he mainly does it for fun!

I’ll recount:

1) the story of the Quacklash

2) Simon’s tips on complaining to the ASA and a few ‘case studies’

3) post-talk questions and comments.

The BCA (British Chiropractic Association) claim that spinal manipulation was used in China and Greece from as early as 2700-1500BC, but if you ask a historian; this predates writings by about 1000 years. So they’re off to a good start.

The BCA sued Simon Singh for libel; you can become familiar with the story via most skeptical blogs (including this one!). Since he couldn’t help Simon out directly, Mr Perry decided to look at the BCA’s members – all making the same kind of spurious claims.

Simon wrote a program to search the BCA member database using (but checked their claims by hand!) for practitioners’ claims and addresses of local Trading Standards Offices.

Mail-merge was well-utilised and letters posted; with 3 letters per ‘quack’ for good measure.

Similar was done for the GCC (General Chiropractic Council) – Zeno got out 524 complaints!


245 websites are now down. Some websites are still making claims but far fewer than before.

Editor's comment on Ernst's examination of the 'evidence'

The GCC was reported to the ASA ; it has protected people (chiros) it should be regulating. Practitioners had to pay £1000/year to the GCC to be members; but if you’re being investigated you didn’t have to pay! The resulting investigations would have cost the GCC £600,000 so… they changed that rule.

The ‘evidence’ for chiropractic was released and debunked almost instantly by the blogosphere, many science blogs and indeed Prof. Edzard Ernst (left).

A review of the ‘evidence’ presented led to the judgement that the BCA was

not dishonest, just incompetent

The GCC admitted that there is no evidence for the existence or, therefore, pathological effect of subluxations; the fundamental principle of chiropractic. For more, see Zeno’s Obituary and Skeptic Barista.


A choice exerpt from Skeptic Barista’s post being:

“..the treatment of non-musculoskeletal conditions has yet to be properly explored in terms of efficacy and safety, and in terms of what both the patient and the clinician believe to be the purpose of the osteopathic intervention.”

Another admission that there is insufficient evidence, more worrying is the fact that its ‘safety‘ has not been properly explored!  



Use the ASA - they only work with leaflets and promotions though.

Going to Trading Standards won’t work the first time; multiple complaints from different people along with follow-up are required. One letter with hundreds or even thousands of signatures is useless; it’s still just one letter. But if many people have been ripped off/conned, they’ll listen.

Use the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to access documents you’re entitled to see.

Use regulatory bodies; if they should be discredited, it’s more like tackling the root of the problem.

And finally, he really encourages people to go for it! Which is nice, when there’s been a lot of ‘blogging is pointless’ sentiment around lately (as there always has been, I think).

Sorry; seemed like an obvious one to me

If enough people do then it starts coming up in Google results and can overthrow the misinformation.

So, on to some examples.

I’ll give you something to complain about

First we see this leaflet as an example of something worth of complaining to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) about. Typical use of ‘quantum’ and other lay-baffling terms to sell rubbish to gullible/desperate people.

Some of the text, (?) where I can’t quite read it properly myself:

NES is a revolutionary approach to health. The culmination of 25 years of work into how physics explains biology – through the mapping of the quantum [?]dynamics body-field. Developed by Henry Massey(?) and Peter Fraser(?), the NES-Professional system integrates research from the fields of physics quantum biology, mathematics and Western and Chinese medicine. The results are the first accurate map of the human body-field, which acts as the master control system for the physics body like software on a computer and the development of a clinical system for restoring optimum health.

All Certified NES Practitioners are highly trained and are able to give screening results immediately which provide the basis for precise treatment recommendations via the NES infoceuticals.

Multi-Energetics has devised a unique method of imprinting a base of organic colloidal minerals with information representing different aspects of the optimal human body-field. When you take an infoceutical as drops in water, the OED(?) information acts as a magnetic signpost to the subatomic particles in your body-field, aligning these particles helps to restore optimal health.

The NES software is able to “read” your body-field and compare it to the optimum human body-field, which is encoded in the software. The NES infoceuticals then prepare information (or software) to restore your body’s proper functioning.

Hopefully, you think similarly to Simon:

How do you narrow down on one sentence in SO much bullshit?

Note that these little bottles of ‘infoceuticals’ (water) cost £12, the scan £60 - and it’s not just customers being ripped off. The ‘practitioners’ pay £5,000 for the software!

Sadly, while the company is still up and running, following ASA adjudication they are not making claims in advertising anymore.

On a more serious note, he points out that first generation Hindu immigrants are often fooled by such schemes – for example, in Leicester flyers were distributed by one Pandit Harinath Mukya saying that “people are conspiring against you” and have spent a certain amount of money doing so – now you should give him a load of money to find out who they are and what they’re doing.

Simon and friends had fun trying to get a photo of the guy as he was very secretive (but they did succeed!).

Trading Standards haven’t done anything so far; they need to receive several complaints, preferably from different people.

Sorry, I’m allergic to BS

Allergy tests crop up everywhere nowadays. Partly as a by-product of the kind of hysteria I was talking about in my previous post, people are obsessed with what they may or may not be allergic to. Life-threatening allergies seem to be more common (though whether they actually are, I don’t know) and people are being conned into spending lots of money on finding out what they should be avoiding eating/touching/seeing day-to-day.

Vega testing‘ is one such con, bringing in our favourite alt med, homeopathy. It is supposed to detect allergic reactions by passing a bit of electricity through glass-encased homeopathic ‘substances’ while you hold onto a probe. The current can’t actually pass through the non-existent substance anyway, seeing as glass is not well-known as an electrical conductor. D’oh.

Trading Standards didn’t do anything until 5 people were ripped off and went to the Small Claims Court separately, resulting in letters with cheques; the company claimed they weren’t using Vega machines (despite the advertising descriptions matching perfectly and people in consultations repeatedly using the term) and Trading Standards shut them down eventually!

400 (or 300??) items 'tested from a piece of your hair'

Similarly, Chinese Medicine Shops are quite common. This one (right) was charging £35 for an allergy test, the specifics of which they couldn’t even agree on in their advertising!

Simon and a friend went in for the same tests; the results didn’t correlate with their actual allergies at all and they got two different sets of results… despite his friend taking in a sample of Simon’s hair!!

The shop owners actually defended themselves in the court (with a lot of spelling mistakes) but gave up to the tune of £95 cheques in the end. However, they are still running tests and Trading Standards hasn’t made a move in one year.

Another jewel in the crown of money-making cons is applied kinesiology; Simon described his experience of visiting a practitioner, in which they basically made things up about his ‘balance of good and bad bacteria’ based on how many times they pushed his arm down a bit (and his apparent resistance to that) when he was holding bottles of stuff.

Simon also said a few words on local psychics:



Have things ever not gone so well?

Yes! Lots of these tests are still operating. But it’s still worth doing; you learn to be more effective. Alan [Zeno] goes into depth and makes their life hell forever!!

We need another legal campaign! There’s a mess; for example Trading Standards and the MHRA [‘homeopathic’ neuropeptide for MS; do read this, it’s shocking] - can we sort out responsibility? - David Colquhoun

Yes, it needs to be done; Trading Standards don’t really know what their job is.

Are skeptics trying to have it both ways? [By going to legal regulators, whilst complaining about litigous indiduals/corporations etc.] – Jack of Kent

A line is crossed when dishonest claims are made in order to sell a product. When [perceived] Authority in a subject is used to make a profit.

The UK has fairly well-functioning authorities compared to, for example, South Africa. How do we go about these kinds of activities elsewhere? Do you have any recommendations?

No… If there are no regulatory bodies, blog? But this has a limited audience. Try to educate locals, hold protests, use the press.

Which is preferable? More stringent regulation or power to the people?

Why is enforcing honesty in business against ‘power to the people’? I have issues with other regulation but not honest claims; if anything well-informed people have more power [with which I wholeheartedly agree, by the way!].

Is part of the problem with alternative medicine that if fosters bad feeling towards ‘scary science’?

Yes, certainly in some cases. The Mail etc. undermine science and spread the naturalistic fallacy [‘natural’ == good].

Can skeptics come across as intellectually elitist and should campaigns be more focussed; demonstrating why you choose these things? If there’s a different in the scale and/or seriousness of the problem, should we present reasons?

[See next post for a thorough examination of this question!]

Have you experienced bullying?

Yes! I love hate-mail. The decisions are down to the regulators in the end.

Are there absolute right/wrong issues?

Should we avoid things because it could be seen as elitist?


Are we dissipating our energy by being unfocussed?

Yes. The Quacklash focussed on something and was effective and 10:23 was genius!

Is the danger in putting emphasis more on easily-deconstructed things, rather than things of great danger to public health?

We can use certain serious cases to demonstrate points. Pick the lower fruit first [to address JoK’s Why not Big Pharma?]. Also these ‘little’ things can actually be a lot more focussed and serious under the surface.

Do you despair at made-up claims that are ‘scientific’ and marketing picking up on this?

It’s not that harmful with a disclaimer. It’s a bit stupid and contributes to scientific illiteracy.

Is there a danger of racism/cultural stereotyping [re: the Hindu community]?

I don’t see a problem, but regarding anecdotes on superstition in first generation immigrants, it’s racist to not attack claims because someone is of a particular ethnicity or religion.

Don’t you think cosmetics industries etc. contribute to fatalities and illness due to stereotypes that shouldn’t exist? [Re: an earlier point that adverts for make-up etc. aren’t significantly damaging]

I’ve never personally seen the influence, are these not different from medical claims?

The ASA issued guidelines regarding survey size and conclusions etc. – originating with “8/10 Cats” … Statistics can be correct but still misleading. - Zeno

Is there any benefit to taking out fliers when people get free publicity from newspaper reviews?

The ASA deals with advertising, yes, and also press releases? [I don’t know if we got a definite conclusion on this]

Closing Comments

My only prior experience was complaining about sausages.

- Simon P.

Complain to the ASA if the advertiser says <this> and you don’t think they can provide the evidence. Use a bit of common sense, intelligence and skepticism! They are causing people to part with their hard-earned cash.

- Zeno

Cogito ergo sum

These are (finally) my recollections of Westminster Skeptics, 7/6/10.

Biometrics and Identification

Belle de Jour (Dr. Brooke Magnanti) came to speak to us and was welcomed warmly.

Brooke is a scientist and supported herself during her doctoral research by becoming a sex worker in London. She documented her experiences anonymously then revealed her true identity in 2009. Obviously people tend to be surprised to hear that a scientist worked as a prostitute, but challenging such attitudes was (I assume) one of her aims.

She came to WSitP to talk not about those adventures but about the science, psychology and challenges of personal identification.

Human Identification in Forensic Science

We have a desire for authenticity, yet want privacy for ourselves – we protest ID cards and CCTV, put up net curtains in our houses – but gossip magazines fly off the shelves (though I wish they didn’t) and rumour mills never fail to be on overdrive.

Why do we want to know about others? That information is often irrelevant; trivial, social things. Here we’re talking the government and personal info.

Identity is how we define ourselves.

‘Unique’ identifiers have been used for a long time. The Bertillon system used a number of them to keep track of who’d been in prison. However, one case destroyed its perceived reliability.

Kansas jailed Will West (a murderer) but in 1903 one William West was sentenced; they looked almost exactly the same and indeed their Bertillon measurements differed only minutely. This discredited the system as it was and led to the use of fingerprinting.

How unique?

So how many people were compared to establish that fingerprints are unique to every individual?


There have been attempts to write image analysis software but computer error makes it unacceptable in court. So it’s down to people, but human fallibility is ever-present.

“Why worry if you have nothing to hide?”

Sometimes innocent people get caught out by imperfect systems (Brooke gives Shirley McKie as an example). Innocent until proven guilty is (or is meant to be) the foundation of the legal system – we ought to be aware of ID measures in place, the possibilities of wrongful accusation and what to do about it.

British citizens don’t need to carry ID cards but everyone else does. Yet no card-readers actually operate in this country. The card contains data from passport, visa, fingerprints. The Government has vowed to scrap ID cards but what about all the information already on file?

Brooke managed to lose everything in her card application (at a bus stop!) – all she had to do to prove her identity was to go to the US embassy with another US citizen vouching for her. So the cards seem fairly pointless, all in all.

What about DNA?

The National DNA Database does not store all 3 billion base pairs (‘letters’) of individual genomes. You can’t store the full sequence; it’s too expensive, time-consuming and generally unacceptable. It’s an issue of privacy.

We don’t want the government knowing more about ourselves than we do.

Instead it uses 20 ‘short tandem repeats’ – relatively small lengths of DNA that are made up of repeat sequences that vary from person to person.

How acceptable is biometrics?

There is no perfect system. Considerations include:

Universality (can it be applied to everyone?)


Permanence (can it change with time? E.g. retinal scans)

Collectability (how easy is it to access and record?)

Performance (how reproducible?)

Acceptability (likelihood of consent)

Circumvention (ease of avoidance e.g. US embassy incident)

We identify ourselves in broad terms. Race is not an official biological category but we still use it! Still people are assuming that populations don’t and can’t mix. We know there’s more intra -than inter-race variation. It’s scientific fact.

People have moved on to the more ‘PC’ term “ethnicity” but this also suffers from social stereotyping.

ID is currently dependent on what people believe

Me 'n' Jorge Cham, creator of PhD comics!

Brooke showed one of her favourite PhD comics – comparing some common perceptions of science to the unfortunate reality! Time to drop in another me-and-someone-cool photo methinks…

Online, people actually tend to be truthful (despite the oft-excessive scaremongering regarding the interwebnet). People still seek trust and authenticity – just the same as irl (in real life, for those who may not know)!

Are our current problems and fears simply ‘growing pains’ like the printing press experienced – like every other technological development?

The web is the first multi-directional medium. We talk back.

I’ve made this point before, regarding Christina Odone’s indignation at people calling her out on her BS.

Personae for Sale

Where there are personal data, there’s business to be had. Tweets/facebook profiles and data for sale – advertising companies have a wealth of information available to them now.

Are we the summation of our entire history? Or do we take each moment as it comes? Is it possible to do that and still be sociable?

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog!


Did anyone realise you were American? Revealing where you learn English

A/ I asked an English friend how to say things. People move; is where you are more important than where you were?

Do we know the maths on DNA ID?  We’ve gone from 16 reference points to 20 now. What’s the chance of a false positive match?

A/ No one’s bothere to check?

Audience: There are estimates! 1:several thousand (that’s really quite high!). Lots of confusion, probably no better than fingerprints.

Martin Robbins: Why come back to science?

A/ Between submitting my thesis and the viva, I needed cash! If I’d wanted to be a writer I’d have wanted to be  like Simon Singh.

What’s the usefulness of DNA fingerprints in court? How are lawyers defending it?

A/ I’m not a criminal lawyer! Statistical assumptions –> invalid model; they’re certifying people to appear as experts on ID in court.

Do you think we should give up? What’s the message?

A/ Confusion! Science, epidemiology, availability of records (histories) – People should think about it more.

Science isn’t necessarily about the results, it’s more about the process

[My boss (and all supervisors, in fact) certainly wouldn’t agree with that!]

Evan Harris: Prosecutors often use fallacious stats

1/1,000,000,000 chance of a match does not equal 999,999:1 guilty odds

Fallibility impacts on the ethics of a database; even if the whole DNA sequence was there, epigenetics brings another level of complexity. [This is the modifications to the basic DNA code that also contain information and can affect our phenotypes – physical manifestations of genetic instructions.]

The example of imprinting disorders was given, specifically Prader-Willi and its maternal equivalent Angelman syndrome (which Brooke could not remember and asked the audience, but when I finally remembered and shouted it out, did not shout loud enough! Oh well. I haven’t forgotten *everything* from uni… it’s in there somewhere).

Brooke asked: how many have at some point fabricated their ID online? Barely any hands went up.

You can’t really stray from what you are

[Here I think of Big Brother and how long people can really keep up some act in front of the cameras before they’re forced to forget it and start being themselves].

How big a problem is DNA contamination?

A/ It’s CSI fiction! I would like to think that people working on a case know what they’re doing (i.e. actually tying their hair up).

What do we have in common with our childhood selves??

A/ Good question; genetics vs. personality, nature/nurture etc. Can we quantify personality (religions, philosophy)?

Is Biometrics related to defense? Is it the fastest-growing industry?

A/ It’s well-funded. Pharma growing fast though. Popularity of crap TV contributes!


Also in attendence were some high-profile ‘bad law’ victims:

- Paul Chambers, who was prosecuted for jokingly tweeting that he’d blow up the airport if it didn’t re-open (thus preventing him from visiting his girlfriend). His experience is now infamously known as the Twitter Bomb Hoax Trial.

- Harvey Singh, who has endured a two year libel case brought by a ‘Saint’, who has never even been to the UK.

- Dave Osler, who was sued for writing a blogpost.

You can listen to the full talk here on the PodDelusion! Brooke has also made the slides available here.

Research Fraud for Dummies

Yesterday I attended Westminster Skeptics to hear Brian Deer, an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times, talk about the ordeal he has been through in exposing Andrew Wakefield – the man who sparked widespread parental hysteria over the MMR vaccine. It took 6 years of fighting to finally get the paper formally retracted.

I strongly urge everyone interested in this matter to read this. It’s Brian’s own summary of the case background, for anyone who isn’t already aware of it. I won’t repeat it all – get the words from Brian himself. Edit 2011: He’s also written about it in the BMJ.

I’ve got a few interspersed video clips – sorry for the dreariness (& strange noise of my camera), I didn’t increase the brightness much to keep the slides visible. My first foray into iMovie; ooh the fun I could have with that program!!

The Trouble with Andrew

Wakefield (I may refer to him as AW for convenience, that’s not an expression of sympathy for him though) qualified as a surgeon, not a clinician. He was never licensed to treat patients GP-style. On top of this, the Royal Free, where he examined the 12 children detailed in his 1998 Lancet study, does not have an autism unit of any kind so already this is suspect.

Astonishingly, he was funded to the tune of £435,643 (+ expenses) by the Legal Aid Fund – an access to justice service for cash-strapped individuals – the money for which comes from tax payers.


Fraud Cluedo

Deer runs through many (with hindsight, blindingly obvious) clues as to the true nature of Wakefield’s dodgy research.

There was zero evidence at the time for a vaccine-autism link; it was all an elaborate fishing exercise. As was later discovered, he’d been set on a path to find such a link for 2 years beforehand.

Predicting one’s conclusions with startling accuracy is always a bit of a giveaway in research. It just doesn’t usually work like that (believe me, I know!).

He took enteritis (small intestine inflammation) and disintegrative disorder (a serious condition on the autism spectrum disorder or ASD scale; actually moreso than autism itself) and concluded that they were

Undeniably indicative of a vaccine-induced disorder

At a press conference, when at the time AW was being paid £150/hr to be a principle expert with the purpose of raising lawsuits against big pharma companies, he HAD to say the product is unfit for marketing – if you say anything else, the lawsuit has to fail. His lawsuit cost £18m public money with another £45m on top paid by pharma.

He still denies any conflict of interest.

But what if it’s true?

Well, there’s always the chance that health scares are only media hoaxes, and there was certainly plenty of bad journalism around where this case is concerned.

If it were true (and as Ben Goldacre will always tell us, medicine makes mistakes – when we find out we’ve made one, especially one that’s killing people or seriously ruining their lives – we have to shout about it and fix it as quickly as possible) then it should be happening a lot.

This vaccine has been (and should continue to be) given to thousands upon thousands of children. It would be entirely responsible for the media to pick up on such a serious side-effect, should it exist.

Or, it’s simply a scam.

From July 1996 to February 1997, AW met a series of parents with very specific claims.

The neurosurgeon, in Ward B, with the defibrillator

Going back to the clues, some in particular got Brian’s alarm bells ringing after being assigned by the Sunday Times to investigate Wakefield’s claims.

  • The case of the DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine

When this vaccine was investigated, a time limit of 14 days was given for onset of symptoms; if it was after that, it didn’t count as a result of the vaccine. When Brian noticed this, he thought

I am absolutely not getting involved in this

He saw the DTP paper and thought there must be people involved who knew of the case, specifically lawyers.

Two advantages to going about medical fraud are in the nature of medical research itself; it is published with a great degree of anonymity, where patient data are concerned.

Medical confidentiality and legal privilege gave a fantastic screen for AW’s work.

  • The disparate locations of the children

Wakefield and his legal team solicited the patients he worked on. Brian has a collection of letters that ask for referrals from GPs to AW and that phone calls be made.

Deer points out that anyone who has dealt with hospitals (either working for or receiving treatment knows that consultants do not phone you.

  • 8/12 parents originally blamed MMR. Why not all of them?

In fact, all 12 did. The last to come around to this point of view actually did so after a visit from a lawyer who explained some of the things they might have expected to see, should the vaccine be responsible for some change in their child.

2 in 3 sounds vaguely epidemiological. AW manipulated the data to show the 14-day time link, causing a drastic alteration in the mean and range of the onset data by removing outliers.

One parent even categorically stated

That is not true

when shown the paper and realising it was in fact their child that was referred to.

The “symptoms” that AW used to describe his disorder do not really qualify as such (see film); 3 of the children didn’t even have autism, only one of the 12 actually had regressive autism (in which the child appears to be developing normally then regresses at some point).

Wakefield misrepresented the times of onset extremely; for children 4, 8 and 11 it was in fact before they received the vaccine. For 2 it was months after it (Deer has personally interviewed her and seen submissions for litigation to confirm this).

Dodgy Pathology

11 and 12 were reported to have ‘bowel enterocolitis'; however on re-examining the samples, an independent pathologist with no knowledge of the case reported that most were

Endoscopically and histologically normal

Colitis requires some sort of injury; there should be neutrophil infiltration (a type of white blood immune cell) and this was not found to be significant in any of the samples.

Essentially, not one of the 12 children fits his bill (the details of the pathology are expanded on very well in this autism blog), yet he still denies everything.

Some of the many gems Wakefield comes out with in defence/as an excuse:

I just listened to the parents…. they will always tell you the truth… I’m a victim of dark forces! … There is no conflict of interest.

When any doctor anywhere know parents are rarely (though not never) on the money and the aforementioned ‘dark forces’ actually include our very own (Westminster Skeptics president!) Dr. Evan Harris.

In the end… they’re all greedy

Deer made good use of quotations from the film Casino (as above) in his talk. He closed with:

To be a charlatan, you have to be friendly, persuasive… have social skills… what distinguishes them is they’re greedy. They can’t resist going too far.

Jack of Kent called the conflict of interest intolerable and marvelled at the outcome of Wakefield’s attempted libel case:

He even upset David Eady!

Evan Harris addressed the room (which greeted him with thunderous applause, as an attempt to reassure him that despite losing his Oxford & West Abingdon seat to the tory first-timer Nicola Blackwood), first noting that Brian had showed us less than 10% of the material he has on Wakefield.

He also reminded us that Brian is a journalist, not a scientist/medical doctor, and has done a fantastic job of wading through the terminology (indeed, where seasoned scientists – Lancet editors included – had failed to do so).

The Lancet were given the opportunity of advance warning so that they could give their view of the situation. They didn’t do this and instead leaked the story; since Brian’s income as a journalist relies on publishing stories this was yet another blow to him personally.

Evan points out the strict restrictions in medicine regarding testing on children, due to their inability to consent, and the refusal to give parents the power to make decisions for them (though here my mind turned to MGM and why this is still permitted).

In this case, the medical establishment failed.


Did Wakefield set out to be deceptive and fraudulent to the level we now know him to be, or did it perhaps snowball accidentally?

He recalls that AW took a book out from the library, Field’s Virology, and applied what he learned from this in order to make the conclusion that measles causes Crohn’s disease. Anyone (and I have some friends) with this knows it’s not true; we don’t know what causes it and it can be incredibly serious. As has been said before, discovering the cause of something is no crime (far from it); as long as you actually have evidence to back up that claim.

This is why he wished to perform colonoscopies on the children (again anyone who has experienced this will probably not wish it on anyone, especially not kids), to see if he could find measles virus in the terminal ileum to support his hypothesis.

We are also reminded of Barry Marshall from Perth Hospital, who had the (then outrageous) idea that a pathogen caused stomach ulcers. We now know this to be true (Helicobacter pylori does indeed cause them) and Wakefield had extrapolated this result to measles in the bowel —> autistic enterocolitis.

I would say that Andrew Wakefield is a pathological liar… he was driven to this

Yet another colossal conflict of interest lies in his patent for a single measles vaccine. Brian references The Producers, in which a key point is the ability to make more money out of a ‘flop’ than a success; Biotech companies can make money from ‘mug punters’ who don’t know things will not work (and here, I think of homeopathy!). The vaccine was never going to work, but in discrediting MMR, Wakefield created a market for it anyway.

He planned a testing kit and a cure for the measles/autism/bowel disease collective syndrome he dreamt up. The medical school allowed this because they knew that AW was being paid by lawyers whilst carrying out his research and he was protected (here I think of the Pope!!).

David Colquhoun remarks that it was not the whole of the medical establishment covering his tracks; Mark Pepys got rid of him eventually.

He was offered one year’s paid absence to prove his results but he refused, including denying anyone access to the biopsies… He was not treated unfairly, as many claim.

His question settles on asking Brian if he could write up the story regarding the medical school as its conduct is still of major concern.

Brian agrees and tells us that Malcolm Grant approved a 48-hour denial clause and fought the investigation for 3 years. He also finds the recent BMJ editorial on the subject to be somewhat inadequate (though I won’t go into that as the principal of my university wrote it; perhaps another time… when I’ve finished my PhD perhaps?!).

They could not retract the paper straight away because

The medical school conducted an investigation and cleared it.

A cover-up certainly worthy of further exposure, after repeated dismissals of Deer’s hard work simply because he’s “not a doctor”.

With regard to the rest of the authors, who pulled their names from the paper when the scandal peaked, the 2nd author was also charged but not found guilty of dishonesty.


Someone received a Tweet, supposedly from “the best friend of the mother of the Californian child” (that’s number 11), saying that “the family was living in Fulham at the time”.

Brian is not impressed. He has clearly seen it all before; my best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s mate knows such-and-such… and what results is rarely, if ever, reliable.

He knows they were not living in Fulham at the time, having met the family twice in person (both here and in California). The father denies that any of the results are true.

Jack of Kent then reads another Tweet (from someone like @TrishDecien, perhaps) saying:

My view is that Wakefield was sincere, if misguided/sloppy. Believe me, the parents needed, & still do, explanations about autism

None of us disagree that we need explanations about autism. However, that is not the point. The man committed serious medical fraud, has played on the trust and fears of parents the world over. When someone mentions that now parents are doubting, however much we discredit AW and his ‘work’, the problem will not go away – Deer agrees

You can’t un-ring the bell

@Flayman makes another good point.

My wife was a research biologist. She read Wakefield’s paper and even though she felt it was “quite rubbish science”, there is the doubt – to ignore the conclusions might be negligent? How could you ever forgive yourself?

Sometimes no amount of intelligence can overcome the combination of parental paranoia, care and guilt.
Finally, Evan asks about Brian’s experience of hate mail.

Brian observes that he tends to see two forms of blame; for the vaccine, and for oneself. He considers guilt a kind of self-directed anger; some parents (dozens to scores, he says) blame him personally and have resorted to obsessive stalking.

I have myself had to delete many facebook acquaintances after arguments of varying lengths over their anti-vax stance. It is a faith position. Parents who want an explanation and are convinced there’s a pharmaceutical company conspiracy (my quote of the day to @facesake: Who is this big farmer and what’s his game anyway?) cannot be persuaded with facts, because their convictions aren’t based in evidence – it’s emotional.

Deer has saved many lives through discrediting Wakefield, though the likes of Jenny McCarthy (who has finally had to admit her son does not in fact have autism) and frightened parents continue to do their damage.

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