Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz


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.

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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.

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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: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4066

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 http://whewellsghost.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/what-are-science-museums-for/

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!)

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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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