Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Round-up - Week 12

Hello and welcome to the spring edition of the Round-up, mind you, for many of us looking out of the window today it seems more like winter. It might be good to have an educated discussion about global warming at this point, but maybe not if the government has their way. Ben Goldacre has more than a few words to say about the use of evidence  in education in this excellent post.

Dean Burnett puts
women in their rightful place over at the Guardian. More women in science here with a review of a book looking at the fascinating history of the women behind the Manhattan Project. And here is a young woman who has already got her name into the science books, quite literally.

Voyage 1 is leaving the solar system again, or maybe not.

Jedi blessing your wedding you could have. Although there are some marriages that they might feel are just a light jump too far. Sticking with the Jedi theme, do we really know the truth behind that Death Star deal, well do we?

From an out and out parody to a piece of film that has been doing the rounds of the conspiracy sites. Is Obama’s bodyguard a face changing alien?

Couple of gift ideas now, for that ghost hunter in your life you can pick up this fully functioning
EMF reader for a bargain price, and for the more artsy scientist how about a necklace of their own voice?

Not content to just sift through the Bible for evidence to support their views it seems creationists will turn their powers of textual analysis on other unsuspecting ancient writings.

Every cloud might not have a silver lining but earthquakes might have a gold one.

Everything you need to know about Pope Francis in forty-seven seconds.

Spiderlizard, Spiderlizard does whatever a Spiderlizard can.

The ethical considerations around circumcision from Brian Earp.

Ilkley are hosting an alternative medicine festival, grab your tent, load up your arnica and head out on there. If you prefer to take your unproven remedies in a more exotic setting how about a luxury hole somewhere in Australia? This next couple of pieces relate to Australia too as the call goes out for pharmacists, those qualified people that the public tends to trust, to not stock remedies that have no basis in evidence, and we ask the question of whether windfarm sickness actually exists.

Here’s a question relevant to a Skeptics in the Pub, can you survive just on beer and no water?

There are all kinds of ways of protesting or showing support for a cause. Here’s a guy that found a way to make a colourful stand for the LGBT community right on the doorstep of those loveable hatemongers the Westboro Baptists.

Our next speaker at the SitP is Rupert Sheldrake and if you’re familiar with his work you’ll understand that we’re expecting a lively evening. If you want a bit of background here’s an article that’ll bring you up to speed on some of his ideas ready for the evening. He’s no stranger to contentious debate as this recent episode with Tedx shows.

They say there are lies, damned lies and statistics. So here are lie detectors, truth drugs and why not to believe the statistics.

Chad Orzel explains why you should think like a scientist. Here’s a great post on the Gambler’s Fallacy by somebody that has no problem doing so, Steve Novella.

Steve was a key speaker at the first QED conference and we’re only a few weeks away from the next and I’m already getting excited. One of the speakers this year is Richard Dawkins, who, love him, hate him or be indifferent to him, has certainly played a major part in the discussion and promotion of atheism. Here is one of his early works opposing the creationist view.

What’s the harm of alternative medicine? Quite a lot in some cases unfortunately.

I love a good squid me, and the bigger the better. Scientists have turned up some interesting facts about the ironically hard to find and mysterious giant squid.

A great free science resource here provided by the people over at Nature. Not one of their articles but of interest nonetheless is this brilliant study looking at the not so natural selection effects of road traffic.

Like something straight out of Jurassic Park comes this article on bringing extinct species back to life.

Here is the scariest looking beauty treatment that I have ever seen or heard of. See if you can find it on Crispian Jago’s venn diagram of irrational nonsense.

Lots of ethical and scientific considerations here as a controversial form of IVF moves a step closer.

Before the final closing video a reminder to keep checking our various internet pages for upcoming events. You can always find links to Twitter, Facebook and our DVD page around this site if you look hard enough. I’ve already plugged the Rupert Sheldrake talk but just to say that seats are limited so if you are coming and have difficulty standing for the duration then use one of those social networking outlets or our email and we’ll reserve one for you. Also don’t forget our social this week and the upcoming book group, great chances to meet excellent people and get down to the nitty gritty of things.

I'll leave you with this brilliant film  capturing images and much more relating to the ISS.

The ISS Image Frontier - "Making the invisible visible" from Christoph Malin on Vimeo.

This post was put together by Patrick Redmond with lots of help with links from Roy Beddowes. If you fancy having a go at a round-up yourself or  doing a blog post for us then please get in touch.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Risky Voice Analysis

A polygraphic display.
I was happy to be asked to write a feature for the latest Skeptic magazine picking out skeptical and science based stuff from the news. It was good fun but as usual I wrote too much and so I’m reproducing here part of that piece which they didn’t have room for. If you want to read the rest of what I wrote plus a load of other great articles then follow this link for details on how to subscribe/send off for one or pick up a magazine at our next Skeptics in the Pub event. The article follows:-

Leader of the Cornwall Council Tory group, Fiona Ferguson, has resigned her position. The prompt for this has been the rolling out of Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) in her area as a means of determining benefit cheats, specifically people that might be falsely claiming single person’s council tax relief. In these days of austerity you would expect a Conservative councillor to support any means possible to claw back money; so why the impassioned move?

VRA is a lie detector technology developed by Israeli company Nemesysco, that will allegedly help benefit officers determine from a telephone call whether the person is a potential high risk claimant deserving further investigation. Well actually the websites of Digilog - the company with the UK license for the technology - and Capita , that well known repository of public money who employ their tools on behalf of the government, fall over themselves to avoid that term. However if you dig around Capita’s website you will eventually find this sentence … “Lie detection is a difficult process, but Digilog's approach using voice risk analysis ensures a fast and accurate verification of the genuine nature of applicants.”  Oops, duck, walk quack etc.

You can understand their reluctance in calling it a lie detector though. Most people outside of the Jeremy Kyle core demographic understand the unreliability of polygraph devices in general. Despite the fact that some agencies such as the FBI and CIA employ them, scientific institutions all around the world have trialled polygraphs in all kinds of situations and found not enough evidence of accuracy or reliability to be able to advise their deployment.

Polygraphs as generally understood measure a range of physiological indicators such as blood pressure, skin conductivity, respiration and so forth to provide stress level comparators which hopefully indicate veracity. Capita claims to be able to do this just by having an operator monitor variations in the voice and speech patterns of the caller. There are immediate limitations apparent even discounting issues such as people with speech impediments or English as a second language.

In 2010 Francisco Lacerdo and Anders Eriksson, respectively professors of Linguistics and Phonetics co-authored a review of the previous fifty years’ worth of evidence of the reliability of this type of technology. Nemesysco’s response was to threaten them with libel claiming that the report was inaccurate. As we all know, the correct method for challenging and progressing science is not to review it in the open but to squash it in the libel courts. Francisco Lacerdo continued to speak out about this technology and I can heartily recommend researching him and finding his blogs and articles on the subject. The original paper, Charlatanry in forensic speech science: A problem to be taken seriously, is  still available online.

Cornwall are not the first or only council to deploy VRA, there are others around the country doing so and the Internet is littered with Freedom of Information requests to councils asking them if they use it and how they apply it. Some such as Harrow have tried it, found it ineffective and abandoned it. The Department of Works and Pensions actually commissioned an evaluation trial that ran from 2007 to 2010 in twenty-four different regions. The final sentence of the final report from this reasonably thorough two phase trial was “No further trialling of VRA is planned and on the basis of this evaluation we cannot make any recommendations for its use within benefit processing.”

Just a few months afterwards this more positive but qualitative, evaluation was released by the DWP. It focussed more on how people felt using VRA and how fast staff could work through cases rather than on accuracy. Perhaps this was deemed more important as the system continues to be used to this day in some regions, perhaps one near you.

Ben Goldacre and others have recently argued for a greater use of trials and evidence to guide public spending.  To those that agree with this approach the decision to outlay money in rolling out VRA must appear to be a very odd one indeed.

By Patrick Redmond

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Weekly Round-up – Round-up shorts WK 11.

It’s all getting a bit hectic here at Skeptic Villas with all the housemates and Rounder-uppers tied up in their respective projects. Patrick’s in the study, Chris is authoring DVDs in the studio, and Paul’s rustling up a shrimp abomination gumbo in the kitchen. Which just leaves me to knock together this eleventh-hour Round –up type thing in record time before the week is over. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

This week’s headlines then, sans waffle, from the world of Science and Skepticism; amongst other things that we like that you may like also (we haven’t said that for a while):-

Thank God it's Pi day!

Are the geeks coming? Scientists find their voice.

They didn’t see him coming: Manhattan private eye and ex-cop builds career putting away psychics who bilk patrons.

Uncomfortable reading: It’s 2013, and they’re Burning ‘Witches’.

In an attempt to modernise Indonesia's 1918 Criminal Code (modernise!): Push to make 'black magic' a crime in Indonesia.

Scientology Front Group Executive Loses Counselling Certification.

MP triggers homeopathy dispute at science committee. Outgoing chief scientific advisor, Sir John Beddington, says no.

A DNA Lesson, From the Expert’s Pen plus a pleasingly retro three minute animation from BBC Knowledge & Learning.

Evidence-Based Medicine in Song - Some studies that I like to quote. That wicker furniture euphemism hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Seven things that are older than Ken Ham’s universe. Make that 8.

Video game 'exercise' for an hour a day may enhance certain cognitive skills.

WDDTY Magazine: Lies and misinformation not delivered on time.

Dean Burnett: Correcting classic childhood gender biases.

Most fascinating read of the week: Lip-reading, which makes one sense do the work of another, is a skill daunting to describe. Rachel Kolb shares its mysteries.

Zen pencils web comic takes a Phil Plait quote and turns it into a cracking piece of Science art. Available to buy as a print too.

Washing Machines on Mars! It can only be The Institute of Creation Research.

Undeserved respect: Having a bone to pick with natural medicine.

Reaching the parts that George Michael and The Darkness cannot reach: C. elegans Harlem Shake.

HE knows when you're on your way home, he understands when you've had a bad day and he might even be able to save your life. So does your four-legged friend have mystic powers? (No, not the Daily Mail)

Alcohol may give heavy drinkers more than just a buzz. It can also fuel their brains, a new study suggests.

Famed creationist debater and Bible defender Dr. Duane T. Gish gallops off into the sunset. For more on Mr Gish and his debating strategy see our guest blog courtesy of Sitp regular Mr Rich Wiltshir from May last year.

Google Glass Ushers in the Next Wave of Cybernetic Hate Crimes.

The author of the acupuncture meta-analysis lambasts the “sceptics’ movement” in a “peer-reviewed” paper. Orac laughs in his general direction. The BMJ has an acupuncture journal! Who knew!

Through the amplification of small motions and colour, Scientists Uncover Invisible Motion in Video.

Now there’s an idea; a book club meet where the kids get to do the reviewing – York’s Bakery Café lookout! How’s this for starters? You Are Stardust: Teaching Kids About the Universe in Stunning Illustrated Dioramas. And here’s one to avoid.

Giddyup there Stego! Cue Black Beauty music.

Engineering News Record’s 2012 images of the year.

Some interesting news on a curious global trend: Matt Ridley on How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet, and The Wall Street Journal reports on a new study: Past Decade Ranks Among Hottest.

The God Who Wasn’t There. Letter to a Christian.

From the UK Health Protection Agency: Superbug or drug-resistant strains of STI’s take hold worldwide. Don’t believe in Evolution. Nothing to worry about then.

T-shirts? Oh yes please!

One from the archive: In 1951 Bertrand Russell published an article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism,” Bertrand Russell’s new Decalogue for Living in a Healthy Democracy.

Our third musical offering this Round-up: “You either gonna stand up for reality or surrender to the fantasy” - Tombstone da Deadman - My Stand.

Got a bit of time to spare? Fancy writing the occasional Round-up or blog for us? Of course you do. Here’s your mission if you choose to accept it. If you’re a Sitp regular and can wrap the odd summary around 30 or so links then we’d like to hear from you. Simples eh! We’ll make it really easy and even supply all the links too. Interested? E-mail us at the usual address. Keys to the Skeptomobile not included.

Just space to point you to our events page where you can find details of our upcoming talks, book club meets and the March social.

That’s it, International Round-up Rescue complete.

It’s final video time, and it’s about video - Moon Hoax Not

Have a great week.

This week’s Round-up was compiled by SitP regular Roy Beddowes.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Bereavement and Dying: One Atheist’s Perspective

This post was contributed by SitP regular Grant Carpenter

My mother in law, Joyce Smart, was a lovely woman. She was the first to accept me into the family when I moved to the UK in 2004, and this is a debt I could never repay even if I tried. She, my wife Janis, and I would all share our stories and life experiences together, and I’d play cribbage with her once a week. She shared in our triumphs and tragedies in addition to sharing her own. For all intents and purposes she, Janis, and I were a three-person family unit. Then tragedy struck on the early morning of 15 February. The nursing home rang and told Janis that Mum had died, and all Janis and I could do was cry and comfort one another before heading off to our respective destinations - Janis to her job, and me to my last day of my second maths teacher training placement (ironically, I passed the placement and was signed off the day before, and I was going to tell Mum the following Sunday). Accepting the reality of Mum’s death was quite hard on both of us that day.

Fast-forward to this week: between Mum’s receiving service at her church Tuesday night and her memorial on Wednesday, I came face to face with the difficulty and weight of responsibility stemming from the implications of being an Atheist vis-à-vis bereavement and death. All around me people were deriving comfort from the belief that Mum had a spirit that would live on past her frail, weakened body, and that her spirit had passed on to heaven to be with her God. As I maintained a respectful silence and listened to the songs and prayers of those around me, I became painfully aware that I could never share in this perceived comfort – as far as I’m concerned, what Mum was no longer exists, and no amount of wishing can give her an eternal life. It dawned on me that accepting her death on those terms was a great responsibility, and a painful one at that. Not only must I accept that I’ll never see Mum again, but I also must keep her in my memories as gratitude for her love and kindness to me over the years that I knew her.

Even despite the added responsibility and the lack of perceived comfort, there was a bright side: I was also reminded of my own mortality and the importance of living a good life whilst I’m alive. People came to Mum’s funeral because they remembered good things about her– how kind she was, how generous she was, her courage in the face of osteoporosis and the accompanying ills and pains. Given everyone’s love and admiration of Mum, I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter that I won’t ever see her again, because the impact of her presence in my life lives on in me. I can only hope to follow her example and live a good life, the only life I have

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Weekly Round-up Week 10

Picture of Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz
What a time we had on Wednesday as we welcomed the roaring tormentor of Scientology, Mr John Sweeney , to Birmingham Sitp. We had shouting , faux celebrities ranting, disco dancing , more shouting, then more dancing. And singing! (Was there singing? I just can’t remember); all ably assisted by a crowd more than happy to participate in John’s presentation of Scientology: The Church of Fear. It was exhausting, sometimes sinister, but mostly seriously crazy. No DVD for this one so, if YOU WERE NOT THERE you missed out on one of the most unusual and loud talks we’ve ever hosted.  Check out our Facebook page for a collection of book signing bollockings from John. Stress test after all that anyone?

Not letting the Scientology theme go just yet, as news just in is that archaeological evidence and a 75million year old documentary showing an intergalactic space battle between Xenu and The Thetans has emerged.

More moving and grooving here as, during a recording of Startalk, Neil De Grasse Tyson is captured showing Buzz Aldrin some of his own moon-walking moves, “Is this what it was like there?” What a dude!

A Physicist cum Social Scientist at North-eastern University in Boston has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Still feeling special?

Gone are the days of burning bush miracles and tip-toeing in ponds. The best we get nowadays is the occasional fly-by bird shit blessings as evidence that the lord is near. Some folks are easily pleased. Hmm, another Christ - or is it a Chris?

Transgenic lambs and greyhound respirators: In an extreme extrapolation of the idea of assistance animals, if the technology were available, would you be willing to use an animal as a respirator or dialysis machine? I’d opt for wombat assistance as they’re lethargic but also cheery looking little chaps, amongst other quirky attributes.

Just the mention of lambs reminds me that spring is on the way which also means weddings galore. So how’s this for a marriage proposal? If you liked it, then you shoulda put a physics paper on it! Or how about “If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son”. I got 99 problems but a baphomet ain’t one.

Are unproven treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathy or others not working for you? Healing with music could be your thang. I fully endorse this. I’m testing positive for the funk. Just lay it on your radio.

The Nightingale Collaboration continues to clear down the misleading claims from WDDTY . Progress so far - 22 down, four to go.

Oh, the Technicolor, fantasy storytelling, unusual characters and a normal old man with no real magical powers. There’s no place like Rome, there’s no etc… Now where are my ruby red slippers?

Here’s a compendium of Bible related links to keep Benny occupied during his retirement: 5 Miracles Deleted From the Bible for Being Too Awesome; Product recall issued for Bible amid health and safety concerns; Don’t Believe Christianity Until You Believe in Aliens and Cardinal O’Brien: Big homo.

Over at SSC they want the incoming Pope to be more hilarious and offer some useful biographical analysis of the most papabile front-runners.  That’s vatacanology for pope-able which sounds altogether ruder.

Dear Daily Mail, in response to your request - get stuffed.

One of our previous speakers, Hayley Stephens, reflects on her prior belief systems whilst reviewing Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. Another one for the book club methinks. Hayley’s site also contains an update on the Randi/Social Darwinism story currently doing the rounds – check it out here.

What’s happening on the Alt med scene this week?

When in doubt deceive: How to boost homeopathy sales? Don’t tell the customer it’s homeopathy.

Astrology and Homeopathy Benefits for Stammering Children: It was on Monday. Bet you’re sorry you missed it. It’s not even a good read and the video’s crap. Give this one a miss eh!

Rejuvenique (maybe that should be EEK!); the equivalent of sit ups for your fizzog (face-ups!) turns you into Dynasty’s Linda Evans in just a few fifteen minute facial workouts; with a video that just keeps on giving. Vanilla Sky or Twiki? You decide.

In September 2012 the Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration published the results of an individual patient data meta-analysis of almost 18 000 patients. The Skeptical position is that the study is flawed and has been oversold. The Twenty First Floor reports on the repercussions.

The Cancer Council of Australia has issued a hardline warning on alternative cancer therapies cautioning patients they may compromise conventional medicines and make their condition worse.

Tidying things up in the Alt med section, a good piece from Forbes: There's Nothing Special about Alternative Medicine.

Mars trip to use astronaut poo as radiation shield. The greatest health risk for the couple aboard the Inspiration Mars mission comes from exposure to the radiation from cosmic rays. The solution? Line the spacecraft’s walls with water, food and their own faeces.

One of the main criticisms levelled at scientists is that they won’t investigate cryptozoologists' claims. Plausibility and hard evidence are always good starting points: Cryptozoology? No need for an apology.

Recommended read: If you believe in both science and religion, you are not doing either properly.

Maybe this should be called the Meldrew hypothesis. Older people who have low expectations for a satisfying future may be more likely to live longer, healthier lives than those who see brighter days ahead, according to new research.

A fascinating study sure to elicit a response from both feminists and misogynists: Examining the impact of men’s oppressive beliefs in shaping their female breast size ideals, analyses showed that men’s preferences for larger female breasts were significantly associated with a greater tendency to be benevolently sexist, to objectify women, and to be hostile towards women.

Neuroskeptic has firmly settled in over at Discover Magazine and here addresses a number of controversial topics, some of which we’ve covered before at Sitp: Windfarms, Wi-Fi and Self-Fulfilling Myths.

In fact, it was Andy Lewis who covered the Wi-Fi/EMF subject at Sitp a while ago, and the resulting unforgettable Q & A fallout. Let’s hope he gets an easier ride on Wednesday with his What Every Parent Needs to Know about Steiner Schools talk. It could turn out to be another controversial one. Are you coming along?

Hitchens: diehard antievolutionist. No, not that one.

So what else is happening at Brum Sitp? There’s a book club meeting on the horizon and a recently announced interactive talk on the recreation of medical skin conditions (Holy crap-look at those pictures!) Check it out on our events page and share it with your friends.

To send you on your way here’s a new improved Big Dog.

It’ll soon be Wednesday. Have a great night with Andy Lewis.

This week’s Round-up was compiled by SitP regular Roy Beddowes