A defense of “denial” and “debate” on climate change

LeedsSkepticsTalkI gave a talk at the Leeds Skeptics last night – part of a mini-tour talking about “Denying the Evidence: Why People Reject Science and What We Can Do About It“. During the Q&A I was asked whether using the term “denier” was an attempt to shut down the debate over climate change. These are two interesting issues which I’ll take one at a time.Read More »

The Science of the Sunday Assembly

[From the outset, it’s worth stating that I’m an atheist (in the soft sense), an agnostic (in a firmer sense), but probably best-described as a Humanist]

Humanists, skeptics, and atheists like to pride themselves on being rational and evidence-based. However, the Sunday Assembly (which I have been helping to organise a bit in Leeds) seems to have brought out the worst kind of ignorant twaddle that I have heard from the community in some time. Most of this seems to centre on “you’re doing something that looks a bit like what people do in church, and that makes it bad”. No attempt at understanding why churches do those things, nor why churches have (until recently) been very successful. With that in mind, here is some science behind the Sunday Assembly:Read More »

The perils of predictability

Order is a standard part of nature, from the mathematical patterns found in natural structures to the predictable variation in sunrise times at different times of year. Indeed, animals and plants rely on regular, logical ordering of events.  For example, in my work on pollinator ecology bees rely on seasonal patterns in flower blooming as a food source. But this regularity is a double-edged sword: just as a bee can exploit regularity in flowering times, so can birds exploit the regularity in bee occurrence. A shared synchrony of life cycles brings costs and benefits. And this is where we bring in the Greek sea-god Proteus (pictured right). Proteus was a god who was able to change his form to avoid having to tell the future, and he has given his name to “protean” phenomena – those phenomena that are changeable or unpredictable. We can see a potential benefit in the plants altering their timing of flowering (of exhibiting protean flowering patterns) – if they remain predictable then the bees on which they rely for pollination are also predictable, which means that they are easy to exploit as food for birds. However, unpredictable flowering times might result in flowers occurring when there are no pollinators, which would be bad for both groups. Synchrony in the seasonality of flowers, insects, and birds is a complex association between populations (or even communities) of animals, and this makes evolutionary change slow.Read More »

Do Power Balance wrist bands work? Of course they don’t…

Silicone wrist bands and other “performance jewellery” have become commonplace among sports stars (see Paul Collingwood and Andrew Strauss, England cricketers, who are bedecked in several varieties).  Power Balance, Harmony, Ionic, Q-Ray, Balance, Bio-Ray, IRenew and Rayma are some of the many brands that you might see online or in sports stores.  I have been writing about negative ions and balance bands for a few years now, but most of that focused on the inherent lack of a plausible mechanism by which the things could work.  Since I wrote those posts, there have been a number of clinical trials published, and I thought it would be worth trying to pull some of those together to provide an overview of the science.  I have linked to all the studies so you can check them out yourself.

Summary: I found seven studies: four journal articles, one MSc thesis, one research poster, and one conference presentation which was an expansion of a journal article.  The studies included a total of 193 participants and looked mainly at balance, strength and agility, all using the Power Balance band (in which holograms are the supposedly active part).  None showed any improvement in performance with the band, but study quality varied.  Interestingly, some studies suggest that the placebo effect might not even be present. However, another study showed that the placebo effect with this product is strongly dependent upon prior beliefs, and that performance may even suffer while wearing a band if the participant does not believe that the band will help. I was not able to find any tests of bands in which “ions” were purported to be the mode of action.

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BREAKING NEWS: Correactology can no longer cure cancer!!

From http://www.someecards.com/workplace-cards/its-the-small-victoriesPresumably as the result of in-depth clinical trials (how else would they know that their treatments can cure so many severe and varied diseases and conditions?) the experts at the Correactology Centres (which I have discussed before) have removed “cancer” from the list of “ailments” that Correactology can treat.  A quick scan from an archived version of their “Ailments Treated” page from 4th November 2007 shows 127 ailments, but that list on the current version of the page is only 126.  In case you are wondering whether I am serious, I want to be absolutely clear that a PubMed search for “Correactology” produces zero results.  The removal of cancer from the list was an edit to the website, rather than a contribution to scientific research.  There have been no trials.  There are no datasets.  There are anecdotes and testimonials that score very low on the evidence pyramid.  Nevertheless, Correactologists take money from patients, claiming to be able to treat all kinds of diseases.  I will leave you to browse their (wish) list at your leisure, but I wanted to highlight a couple that are particularly unpleasant:Read More »

Our Skeptical Inquirer article has been published!

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The Skeptical Inquirer piece on climate change denial in universities that I wrote (along with my co-conspirators) has just been published in the May/June 2013 print edition!  It’s a bit strange to be listed alongside people like Ben Radford, Sharon Hill, Joe Nickell, Massimo Pigliucci and Massimo Polidoro, but we’re all delighted that Ken Frazier and the rest of the SI team saw enough value to accept our little piece.  Many thanks to them all for a smooth and efficient editorial process.  I’m afraid that there’s no online version yet (they don’t publish all the print articles online, and those that they do publish online come along a month or two after the print edition) but I’ll post a link if/when it does appear.  All the more reason to go and subscribe to the print version!

Sexism is a (horrible and depressing) fact

When I posted the proposed method to look at diversity in skeptical/atheist conferences, one comment was particularly illuminating.  I stated that part of the motivation for the exercise was that:

“…there is clear and unequivocal discrimination against women in a wide array of situations and so we should be conscious of that bias when we choose speakers for conferences.”

A commenter responded that:

“Ok, I’m not sure as to what you are referring, it appears you are just performing some vague political posturing. If there were clear, and unequivocal discrimination against women at these conferences, you wouldn’t need a study to demonstrate it. It would be clear and unequivocal, such as a sexist, limiting clause in an organization’s charter. No such thing exists, so your point seems moot.”

Unfortunately, the commenter is taking a very simplistic view of sexism.  Systemic sexism of the kind to which I was referring is an insidious and far-reaching problem.  This post is a quick review of some empirical demonstrations of the subtle and systemic bias that women face, because it is clear than some people need to be made aware of the extent of the problem.  This is not a post of vague anecdotes, though – these are scientific studies.Read More »