Not always rational

By Ash Pryce

As a skeptic I should apply my reason and rationalism to my own beliefs and life. For the most part I do, I understand that my support of the Monarchy is irrational but subjectively speaking, and despite the batty ideas of the heir to the throne, I quite like the Royals and will be getting the bunting out for the Jubilee. Of course I know that we’d be better off without them and that I would vote in favour of their removal – but dammit, I still like them and in my less rational times emotional support them. I know that my position on that is flawed, I can live with that. For the most part it doesn’t affect my life.

I’m quite open about my life, I don’t hide the fact that I have depression, nor do I hide the fact that I’m polyamorous and quite a fan of the “kink” scene. These are all things that play a part in my life and I don’t shy away from them. But there is one part of my life where my reason, my rationalism, my critical thinking skills go out the window and in a way that does have a very negative effect on my life.


We in Britain, and especially in Scotland, have a somewhat perverse relationship with the bottle. It is seen as taboo when young and as an important and essential part of a “normal” adulthood. People who don’t drink are weird. If you don’t get rat arsed once a week society looks at you like you’re a leper. To some degree this could be why there is such an alcohol problem with many people – it feels like a social obligation that we MUST drink. And here is where my rational mind caves because as reasonable as I think I am, in this situation I’m am totally irrational in my actions. I have a drink problem, I again am not shy in admitting that. But whereas my depression, my polyamory and my other lifestyle choices are controlled and not dealt with, I just can’t do what I know to be the rational thing and stop drinking.

I think being open and talking about problems is a great way to start dealing with them. Pointing out to others that they are not alone, which is why I set up the Shattering the Stigma blog.

I know that I need to stop drinking, I go into detail here about it, and despite me saying every time “Never again” I still do. A few days go by and all the bad things associated with my drinking seem to fade away, and THIS time I’ll be fine. THIS time I won’t ring people at unsociable hours. THIS time I won’t abuse someone verbally. THIS time I won’t be a bit of a letch. THIS time I won’t act like I’m superior and better than others. THIS time I won’t spill my heart out on Facebook. THIS time will be different. It never is.

I will drink, the best part of a bottle of spirits quite easily. I will drink till I actually cannot drink anymore. I have lost jobs and damaged relationships because of my drinking. Every time I do something bad, I feel like this. I need to write. And as a skeptic I KNOW what I should be doing. But knowing the rational route isn’t the same as acting on it. This weekend I didn’t drink, so Monday night I had a drink to reward myself for not drinking. I justify my drinking – I recently said if a piece of news I was expecting was good I’d drink to celebrate. If it were bad I’d drink to commiserate.

As skeptics we should be applying that scepticism and rational thinking to our own lives, but in this one case I have applied it, but can’t act on it. I want so much to stop drinking, and it’s not as simple as just “not drinking”. I have to go to the shop and buy booze, surely I just could not do that? Well try telling a heroin addict not to buy heroin. I want to tell other skeptics out there that they aren’t alone and that just because in this area of your lives your aren’t applying the rational thought processes you apply to other things, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. We can get through these problems, and talking openly about them is a start.

They laughed at Bozo the clown…

By Keir Liddle are those in the alternative medicine and pseudoscience communities for whom a particular refrain is laughably popular.

"They laughed at Gallileo"

It is a move so familiar in debate and discussion on pseudoscience that it has become known as the Gallileo gambit and promopted Carl Sagan to remark:

“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

The point Sagan makes is simple and oft quoted whenever this wearisome fallacy rears it’s silly little head. It is clearly not enough to have the establishment reject or resist your theory or hypothesis to declare it the truth. Your theory or hypothesis must also be correct and subject to confirmation by the robust mechanisms and procedures of the scientific method.

In modern usage the Galileo gambit has been employed in relation to all manner of alternative and complementary therapies. However Galileo is not the chosen example as that dishonour belongs to the “saviour of mothers” one Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.

Semmelweis was a 19th century physician now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. His discovery was that the incidence of puerperal fever could be reduced by the act of hand washing. It may seem strange to us in modern times, where it seems every hospital wall is adorned with instructions to wash our hands to keep infection at bay, but this idea was not popular with the medical establishment of the time. Semmelweis theories were rejected as many doctors at the time were affronted by the suggestion they should wash their hands. His theories were not accepted until some time after his death (from a condition that his discovery could perhaps of prevented).

It is the rejection of his theories by the medical establishment of the time that has made Semmelweis the hero of proponents and apologists for any alternative medicine treatment that has been shown not to work by the scientific method. Cancer quacks, homeopaths and supporters of nearly every kind of unproven or disprove treatment invoke his name and the medical establishments rejection of his findings as a way of dismissing a medical establishment that says their favourite alternative or complementary therapy doesn’t actually work.

There is one glaring problem with this strategy.

The medical establishment that rejected Semmelweis is somewhat different from the largely evidence based medical establishment of today. To conflate the two is astoundingly nonsensical. Semmelweis is a hero of the very evidence based practices that the quacks and their supporters seek to dismiss and denigrate as close minded and ignorant of progress.

It is true to say that medicine has it’s share of mavericks who have rallied against the conventional wisdom and received knowledge of the establishment of the time: James Lind, Florence Nightingale, Alexander’s MacLean and Hamilton. But what these mavericks share in common with Galileo and Semmelweis is not simply that they challenged the establishment of the time but that they did this with evidence.

Evidence based medicine is something of a recent development pioneered in the last century by figures such as Archie Cochrane, who founded the Cochrane collaboration. However it has since taken hold of the medical establishment and now modern medicine proceeds guided by research and the scientific method in a manner far more rigorous and steadfast than ever before. I don’t want to paint an image of medicine now as a ‘perfect evidence based practice’ though I simply want to make the point that is light years ahead of the medical establishment in centuries past as regards it’s view on evidence and science.

It is the evidence based medicine revolution and the resulting change in the views and norms of the medical establishment that renders any allusion to the medical establishment habitually rejecting maverick ideas and theories redundant. By and large evidence based medicine has tested all these maverick ideas and theories, particularly the sterling work of Edzard Ernst, and in general those theories backed by evidence have been accepted and those that aren’t have been rejected.

So the next time someone chooses to invoke Galileo to support whatever pet theory or nonsense they believe in I may quote Galileo back at them (well I might paraphrase it slightly…)

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has asked us to forgo their use."

Close Encounters of the Fourth and Three Quarters Kind.

By Ed Cara

It was a dark Sunday morning as my eyelids lazily lifted up. An early dawn; the moonlight still putting up a decent fight against the inevitable sun’s rise from over the horizon. I scanned the room and could see my roommate’s leg dangling over his bed while he slept off the almost certain fun time he had the night before. As I saw the clock by the window read 5am, I cursed the increasingly popular preference my body had to wake up early on days when I didn’t have to take 23 credits worth of college courses. Feeling the autumn breeze on my exposed feet from beneath the covers, I began to get a deepening sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong.

There was a tightness in my chest. No, that wasn’t quite it. It was more pressure on top of my chest; as if my roommate had decided to scoot on over and plop down on my solar plexus. My breathing shallow, I could see the shadows by the window start to twist and turn, almost coming alive in front of me. As scared as I felt, it was only when the breeze climbed over and across my body that I became absolutely mortified. It was a brisk wind that morning but somehow my body seemed incapable of responding back with a shudder or shiver. Quite simply put, I couldn’t move.

We’ve always had our bogeymen.

As far as recorded history goes back, there have been stories of otherworldly beings; some benevolent and nurturing, bringers of harvest and life; and others malignant and destructive, bringers of disease and misfortune.  That same history is littered with tales of our face to face encounters with those not-so-pleasant forces.

One of the more classic tales involves people waking up to find themselves frozen solid, unable to move, as demonic noises echo all around them, their chests and throats compressed, and in some cases even finding a completely alien presence on top of them; only to suddenly find themselves alone in the room, able to move as if nothing had happened. It’s hard to imagine someone not being entirely petrified to have to wake up to something like that, something so physical that they couldn’t wave it off as an especially vivid dream. The only real conclusion they could make would be that something unearthly has just visited them. What else could it be?

Known as sleep paralysis, this frightening, but strangely not too uncommon, condition is essentially the result of our conscious brain waking up before the rest of the body has caught up. Normally our bodies synchronize the different hormonal changes that go on in our brains during the several phases of sleep; such as keeping our bodies paralyzed whenever we’re in the REM(which I’m sure most know as our dream state) stage of sleep. When we wake up, the hormonal changes that keep us paralyzed stop and we exit REM sleep completely aware and mobile, if not groggy. If the hormones that regulate our paralysis are lagging behind for whatever reason(not enough sleep, stress, certain medications), we wake up but still paralyzed. The paralysis often comes with visual and auditory hallucinations, which may be related to the fact that those waking up had just been in the dream stage of sleep and in essence bring their dreams to life.

Before any of this was known though, we could only think to label such episodes as demonic hauntings; our bodies being violated by monstrous beasts. Every culture has given these sightings a different name; Those in North America called them hags or witches; they’re known as Mares in Germany; in Laos, the Dab Tsog and during Medieval times, they were the Succubus and Incubus.

Even as we learned more about the body and the various and frightening ways it can break down on us, the folktales continued to endure in our public consciousness, taking on new names and shapes. To us here in America, as we reached the mid to late 20th century, hags and witches pressing down on us as we slept became alien invaders abducting us in the middle of the night. It’s telling that as stories of UFOs and aliens reached the mainstream through the Roswells and E.T.’s of our time, that the bogeymen in our collective imagination changed form. The sleep paralysis never changed, the nightmares we woke up from did.

It isn’t fair or correct to say that all abduction stories, all tales of people being haunted by demons and ghosts, can be brushed off by a simple if unintuitive scientific explanation though; there are reports of waking abductions, or certain stories that just might require a closer look at the evidence on both sides. Nothing should be entirely generalized, whether it is aliens or climate science, but it’s important to use the knowledge we do have to give us the best place to start from. You can look at any given abduction story and decide for yourselves the likely truth, but you’ve got to do it with as much objective information and evidence as you can muster.

To those in the middle ages, the concept of sleep paralysis didn’t exist, so what else could it be but what we actually saw with our own eyes and ears? To those now, who know that our eyes and ears are more than capable of deceiving us, we can look at it and figure out that we likely just had a minor hiccup in our brain and that we should try to get more sleep the next night.

Our scientific knowledge is constantly shifting, being tweaked and added to. But that base gets sturdier and sturdier both as we add to it and as we tease out the unsupported facts. What we once knew as a English maid’s nightmarish encounter with a witch, we can now know as a twenty year old’s scary but easily explained Sunday morning.

No words came out of my mouth as I struggled to move even the tiniest part of my body.

The shadows above and around my rigid body danced back and forth as I reminded myself what was likely going on. The foreboding sense of danger was still ticking even as I tried to calm myself down. I began to hear a creaking noise from behind the door opposite us, but I also began to feel the slightest movement from my toes. With an guttural but silent yell, I sat straight up, my head now drenched in sweat but otherwise intact. The room now and always utterly silent.

My heart racing, I headed over to the bathroom sink to wash up, a million thoughts swirling around my head. Drenching my head in water, I looked up at my reflection. So much for aliens and monsters.

Catch Ed and his funny and skeptical pseudo-intellectual sayings on Twitter at TheImprovateer.

On Skepticism

By Ned Reucmada

Through skepticism and humanism, I keep meeting the most amazing people and, well, in many ways, even with some major physical health issues, my life is better now than it’s ever been.

I mean, people talk about all the benefits of religion, but fundamentalist Christianity served to traumatise me pretty badly, and the main teaching was that I had to bottle me up deep inside, and never let people see the true me, who doubted, who had opinions, and who really didn’t think it was fair that, just by not having heard about him, people went to hell, and knew enough history to know that Christianity slowly spread out from Israel over thousands of years. Did God just not care about, say, Native Americans, or Chinese, or Sub-Saharan Africans until such time as he bothered to send missionaries? Should an entire group of worshippers of a supposedly loving god be so damn excited about the end of the world?

Of course, it gets far worse than that. Did you know that children in fundamentalist Christianity are taught that anything you do that isn’t for Christ should be? You feel guilty about reading books that aren’t Christian. IF you’re creative, it’s supposed to be directed at spreading the good word. Yes, I know now that 90% of the stuff they taught they didn’t actually expect anyone to do (and began to suspect that more and more as I got older), but as a young child, without counterexamples, I felt horribly guilty for having interests outside the church. And yet, I could not bring myself to become what they said they wanted me to be: a soulless automaton, who never thought of anything but Jesus, converting others, and the wonderful, soon-to-be-forthcoming End of the World.

The real me got bottled up, and the only people I ever felt I could trust to let see it were on the internet, where I knew the people I was talking to couldn’t find me. And that’s not to say that my internet friends aren’t some of my best friends, who have been with me through thick and thin. But even there, I only really started telling them some of the deeper secrets five years ago or so, only if I had really grown to trust them… And the ability to run away was the only way I could talk to them honestly and become friends in the first place, because I found it very, very hard to be honest with anyone I met in real life about my views.

It wasn’t until I joined the skeptical and humanist communities that I had ever, in my life, had a group of friends I trusted enough to tell, to their face, anything important about me. I crack jokes about being gay at skeptical and humanist meetings. That was something I had told maybe ten people before I joined them, and when I did, it was as a a deep, dark secret. I’ve given mini-talks about giving up Christianity. Before skepticism and humanism, maybe two people knew I was agnostic.[*] And, of course, I used to be terrified of talking to people whose work I really respected, feeling myself unworthy. Now, I call a lot of them friends

I think this is pretty near my first year anniversary of joining Edinburgh Skeptics, which I joined just after the first QED. I really don’t think there can be any doubt. Falling into this community was the best thing that ever happened to me.

[*] I love the term agnostic. First of all, as Huxley originally defined it, it was about coming to disbelief in God from rational principles, which he compared to atheism before Darwin, which could only be an emotional rejection, as there was then no good explanation for life. Secondly, if you’re so pedantic about a false definition of agnosticism that you get annoyed by people using it, I probably want to annoy you.

Headlines? Spit!

By John Richards

These are a couple of recent headlines and, ok, they are not quite in the ‘Freddie Starr ate my Hamster’ category but don’t we often see headlines that annoy because of their scientific inaccuracy?

Strange Fruit Kills Fat

Four Foods that Kill Fat and Seven Food Chemicals that Cause it.

Yes, a headline has to catch the eye and lure a reader into the article and, yes, they have to be short – four or five words is best, but do they have to be so unscientific?

It’s just so wrong to write about fat being ‘killed’. If you had excess blubber would you want it to become dead excess blubber? Imagine carrying around kilos of dead tissue! What would happen to the blood supply that used to nourish the fat? Of course, anything that really did kill fat would probably work by poisoning mitochondria. So it would certainly kill protein and therefore the person eating the foods himself!

As for ‘chemical’ well, of course, all matter is chemical, including food and you and me. Have they created a new, alien type of substance: ‘food chemicals’? Which universe are they to be found in?

It’s not as if it’s difficult to do better. What would be wrong with ‘Four Foods that may Reduce Fat and Seven Additives that may Increase it’?

Apart from the loose use of words, there is the unjustified level of certainty that a headline often conveys. Journalists seem to have no understanding of two things: firstly, how research tends to result in indications (and more questions) rather than answers and, secondly, the time it takes to get a potential new treatment to become a licensed medication.

There are several examples of reported “miracle cures” which treat everything from dyslexia to cerebal palsy and  cancer. Now while we’d all like to be the Scientist who deserves the headline ‘Cure for Cancer’ those few words imply inaccurate assumptions. Cancer is not one thing and so there is unlikely to be one cure for it. Just the addition of a question mark would solve the problem.

Headlines that trade caution for certainty headlines raise false hopes amongst the sick who may not realise that promising research results are unlikely to be turned into a treatment for ten years and they may not survive to benefit.

We have also seen similar before with the “Medias MMR Hoax" where the press whipped up a media frenzy about the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine which led to dangerous drops in vaccination rates. When it became apparent that the medias scare story was over-hyped what did the press do? They turned on Andrew Wakefield (to give him his full medical title) and blamed him solely. When taking stock of their own actions and complicity in spreading the story uncritically might have greatly improved health journalism. However scares like this are still whipped up by journalists with a lack of expertise in interpreting medical research.

We are now in an era when Bath Christians’ claims that ‘God can Heal’ got banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (and MPs have since lobbied to have this ruling overturned!) how much longer before higher standards of literality are going to be insisted upon from journalists?