SkeptiCamp London 2013

My only frustration with running Reading SITP is that there are so many brilliant people out there with interesting things to say, but we can only fit so many in. Wouldn’t it be great, every so often, to have an event where sample of a wide range of skeptical topics? Maybe a day-long meeting with literally dozens of short talks from all kinds of people?

Berkshire Skeptics and Soho Skeptics are proud to announce SkeptiCamp London 2013, on Saturday 24th August at Conway Hall.

SkeptiCamps are informal, community-organized conferences, where everyone can share and learn in an open environment. Anyone can give a talk, whether you’re a seasoned speaker on the SITP circuit or just a casual skeptic with something interesting to share.

Of course, you can simply come along and hear what others have to say. But talks are only 15 minutes each, and are you sure you don’t have something to get off your chest?

Tickets for the whole day are just £5 via Eventbrite, and you can sign up to give a talk here.

This SkeptiCamp is a joint venture between Berkshire Skeptics and Soho Skeptics and is led by Chris Higgins, former organiser of SkeptiCamp Melbourne and Melbourne SITP. The exact schedule for the day will be published nearer the time. Til then, get your updates via the SkeptiCamp website, via Facebook or Twitter.

SkepiCamp London logo

The Skeptic Tank

Here’s a fun new thing from Radio 4:

Nick Doody - The Skeptic TankChris Addison and Shappi Khorsandi guest on a brand new panel show about pseudoscience, urban myths, alternative medicine, the unexplained, conspiracy theories and more… Or is it? Yes. It is.

Hosted by comedian Nick Doody – fresh from his appearances on Rory Bremner’s Tonight and The News Quiz and writer for Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive – who’ll be taking a hilarious look at every dodgy statistic, urban myth, piece of nonsensical parental advice and old wives tale in a fast moving freewheeling comedy show that’s the perfect antidote to every piece of Daily Mail nonsense you’ve ever had to listen to. This is where the geek bites back.

They are recording the pilot episode on July 28th and you can apply here for free tickets here.


Inside Science

BBC Radio 4 - Inside ScienceI’ve just listened to the first episode of Inside Science, Radio 4’s new science magazine programme. It’s really very good, but then the series has as presenters three of my very favourite people – Alice Roberts, Lucie Green and our recent guest at Reading SITP, Adam Rutherford.

Obviously one episode isn’t much to go on, but the format and the kind of issues covered remind me of Australia’s The Science Show, and that’s no bad thing. On that programme Robyn Williams (38 years in the job and, incidentally, uncle to Ben Goldacre) is great at covering the science but he is also hot on the politics that attach to so many science stories. And while he is a pom, I hear in his pieces a very Australian intolerance for bullshit. He and his ABC producers seem much more willing to criticise their government’s policies than does our national broadcaster.

Inside Science fills the Thursday afternoon slot left by the now cancelled Material World. As much as I liked that programme, I was an infrequent listener. It seemed to me a much cuddlier creature than The Science Show, and less interesting for that. In Adam, Alice and Lucie, Inside Science has three first rate science communicators and three passionate advocates for science. I think we can expect good things.

It looks like subscribers to the Material World podcast will automatically get the new show in their feed, at least for now. The new podcast isn’t showing up in my iTunes search yet but you can subscribe via these links here.

UoR BioBlitz – 7th-8th June

How synchronicitous. Last night I was watching Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and friends doing their back-garden BioBlitz survey and thinking “That looks like fun, I should get the kids doing that”, when this landed in my inbox:

BioBlitz - University of Reading

Are you interested in biodiversity? If so, come and join us as we identify as many species as possible over 24 hours…

BioBlitz at University of Reading Whiteknights Campus, 7th and 8th June 2013, where people come together to identify as many species as possible. We are bringing together scientists, naturalists, local community groups, students and the public to learn about the vast biodiversity on Whiteknights campus. How can you get involved? Everyone is welcome to this free event; take a look at our events page to see what activities are happening over the 24 hours. Join us on one of our guided walks, help us with ID in the lab, come along to a lecture about local wildlife or just visit the environmental fair.


The Rationalist Association and our good friend Alom Shaha have recently launched The Apostasy Project, a worthy initiative to provide guidance and support to those losing their religion.

Alom came to Reading SitP last year and spoke about his experiences as an atheist within a Bangladeshi Muslim community. Another of our recent speakers, Jonny Scaramanga, tells of his difficulties leaving Christian Fundamentalism.

“For me the fundamentalist experience was desperately lonely, but the secular one was even worse, because it involved leaving behind the few friends I did have. I would have been grateful for a place that combined a chance to make friends with a place to discuss important questions.”

I’d like to think that Skeptics In The Pub is such a place to make friends. But I’m under no illusion. People struggling in deeply religious communities, where admitting one’s lack of faith means estrangement from family and friends, need more support than a monthly gathering of geeks in a pub can provide.

So while I hope that we at SitP will continue to help in our own small way, I’ll also be making a donation to the Apostasy Project. I hope you will too.

Book Review: Bumpology, by Linda Geddes

Bumpology is an attractive and accessible book with a very clear and logical layout, which compensates for the lack of an index. It is as easy to dip into as it is to read from cover to cover; I know because I did both.

This is a marvellously comprehensive collection of research evidence and occasional comment upon the lack of research evidence, for all the advice and received wisdom relating to pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. As Geddes says, the science is out there, but it often takes some digging to find it.

Geddes looks at the big issues such as place of birth, breastfeeding, and all those things you’re told you can’t eat during pregnancy; as well as bringing in some colourful sections on how the growing baby develops in the womb, what senses function from birth, and the role of newborn reflexes. This in itself is a useful part of learning to empathise with the baby, and might influence parenting choices.

I am used to reading far more dogmatic books (from all over the birth and parenting spectrum), so this measured tone is very refreshing. Research in this area on the whole appears to be very thin, often studies are very small or based on the behaviour of lab animals. The book does not offer many definitive answers, but its general message is not to take advice for granted, since much of what we are told from the moment we even start to think about having a baby has no basis in fact. This very important point was made by Octavia Wiseman in a recent Midirs article (July/August 2012:p22), pointing out that much health advice is risk-averse, undermining parental choice, and that “explaining to women the limitation of our evidence base is the first step to take when asking them to make ‘informed’ choices.”

It is lovely that the text is scattered with anecdotes about the author’s personal experience, but for the most part this book is about facts not feelings. It largely ignores ‘soft’ aspects such as how parents feel about risk, and how mothers experience birth and early motherhood. Statistical comparisons of different aspects of birth look at outcomes and define those in terms of health of the baby and mother, taking little account of how women feel during and after the experience. For example lying down or being mobile during labour may make no difference to the outcome in statistical terms, but different women may experience these scenarios as more or less positive. Lying down in a room full of medical staff may feel disempowering; a woman being made to walk around may feel bullied. Working with parents both antenatally and postnatally, I know that scientific evidence may not always be the most important factor when making decisions. A good example of this would be the decision to share a bed with your baby: whether, according to various studies, this increases the risk of cot death; or whether it increases your child’s self-esteem, are less likely to influence the decision to bedshare than the fact that it might just be easier not to have to get up in the night. This does not, of course, detract from the fact that parents can and should be made aware of the evidence in order to make an informed decision; and to be fair, Geddes does not set out to explore the qualitative aspects of parenthood, but to present the facts and figures, and bust the myths: a very worthwhile mission.

Geddes’ personal bias against antenatal teachers comes across in the book, but as this is what motivated her to write it, I’m choosing to view this as a positive thing!

I would recommend Bumpology to anyone expecting a baby, but I think it is also essential reading for anyone working with parents, antenatally or postnatally. It is so important for us to get our facts right, to counter the myths and enable parents to be confident in their decision making. Very few of the books I’ve seen are so robustly evidence-based, and an awful lot of people working with parents will repeat advice without giving any critical thought either to the evidence behind it, or the effect it might have in an individual situation.

Bumpology Blog
Sense About Science
Linda Geddes on Radio 4’s Today Programme with Belinda Phipps, CEO of NCT

Originally posted here on 15th January 2013.

“A healthy bout of chickenpox”

There has been, and I hope there will continue to be, much written across new and old media about the risks of not vaccinating children and about the tide of misinformation about those risks.

Whilst reading the arguments and counter arguments, I often hear the suggestion that some of these childhood disease are “harmless”, such as in the recent book Melanie’s Marvellous Measles and in this passage from Jayne Donegan, the controversial GP and friend of Andrew Wakefield:

If you look carefully at children after they have been supportively nursed through an infectious disease, you will always see them do something new, depending upon their age and circumstances. An infant may produce a tooth; a toddler who kept banging into things will walk confidently; a six-year old who is not reading will suddenly start to read. It is rather like a snake that has to crack off the old skin before it can grow, children go through these crises of self cleaning before they can move on to the next step. I have often seen children with endless snot or lots of warts have both of these cleared by a healthy bout of chicken pox. Such infectious diseases do not improve the population, in the harsh Darwinian view of things, by killing off the weak and leaving only the strong ones to reproduce; they actually give each individual child the opportunity to strengthen their own individual immune system and make the best of what they have.

Whilst 16 weeks pregnant with my younger sister Jenny, my Mum caught chickenpox (I’d picked it up from a party and passed it on). Following Jenny’s birth it quickly became apparent to my parents that something wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years my parents spent countless hours in hospital waiting rooms and Jenny was subjected to test after test.

We now know that between 12 and 28 weeks of pregnancy there is a 1.4% chance that chickenpox in the mother would cause Fetal Variella Syndrome (FVS). That Jenny’s GP at the time was unaware of this and that Jenny’s problems took so long to be diagnosed caused much frustration and distress and are, perhaps, a separate issue.

Jenny at Cropredy
Jenny at Cropredy

The FVS had disrupted Jenny’s brain and eye development. She has large calcium deposits particularly in the left side of her brain. This has caused a myriad of issues, most notably a hemiplegia (basically cerebral palsy on one side of the body), severe learning difficulties, and she is has cortical blindness in her left eye and limited vision in her right.

Despite her problems she is basically a happy soul and her pure joy whilst dancing at a folk concert is a sight to behold. However, Jenny will never be an independent person, never get a job, or achieve the milestones that most of look forward to in our lives. She will never be able to make a decision for herself about her future.

The issues around deciding when, and where, vaccines are appropriate are complicated and I don’t write this as a call for any change to policy. Decisions in public health shouldn’t be made on the basis of testimonials, but I would strongly argue against dismissing these diseases as ‘harmless’ when they can, and do, cause death and severe disability. Complications from chickenpox are rare, deaths are thankfully even rarer, but for Jenny and my family the complication rate is 100%.

Jenny & me
Jenny & me

Happy Skeptical New Year

I’ve been blogging even less than usual recently as I’ve been busy with work, family stuff and also a couple of fun projects that should interest Reading SITP regulars. I’m keeping them under wraps for now but I hope to reveal more soon.

In the meantime, here is a brief round-up of some other stuff.

  • Following their recent Festival Of The Spoken Nerd UK tour, see our friends Matt Parker, Helen Arney and Steve Mould in their new show Life, Oh Life at the Bloomsbury Theatre, 21-22 January. The Nerds are also appearing in Sex Appeal II: Come Again in aid of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people.
  • Robin Ince, presenter of R4’s Infinite Monkey Cage and curator of the 9 Lesson and Carols for Godless People, is coming soon to Reading, Newbury and Maidenhead with his new show, The Importance Of Being Interested.
  • Robin is also appearing at the Free Fringe Fundraiser event at the Bloomsbury on 9 January. Edinburgh Skeptics could not put on their wonderful Skeptics on the Fringe programme without the help they get from the Free Fringe guys. So go, have a great night out AND enjoy the warm glow of knowing you are helping the Free Fringe and Skeptics on the Fringe.
  • The BHA has added its support to the campaign to buy a copy of Alom Shaha’s Young Atheist’s Handbook for the library of every secondary school in England and Wales. You can donate to the cause at Alom was our guest at Re.ading SitP back in August.
  • Tickets are now sold out for QED (Manchester, 13-14 April). If you were quick enough to bag a ticket and you’re interested in carsharing from the Reading area, leave a comment below or email me your details and maybe we can sort something out.
  • Amazingly, tickets are still available for ThinkCon (Cambridge, 16 March 2013). They have a great line-up of speakers this year so do check it out.
  • The Department of Chemistry at Reading Uni is hosting As If By Magic, a family lecture by Andrew Szydlo at 18:00 on Wednesday 6 February. I’ll post more info about this when I have it.
  • Our next Reading Skeptics In The Pub will be on Thursday 17th January at the usual place and will feature former Christian fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga talking about what life is like in an Accelerated Christian Education school.

Happy New Year to you all.

Calendar All The Things!

A few people have asked how to subscribe to our Skeptics In The Pub calendar, so I’ll post this here for future reference.

I’ll keep it generic, since these instructions work for all of the groups on, not just Reading.

Go to <your town>, right click on the Upcoming Events Events RSS Feed RSS icon in the top right and copy the URL. That’s the feed for Google Calendar updates.

You then have 2 options:

  • In Google Calendar, on the left-hand panel, click the drop-down by ‘Other calendars’ and select ‘Add by URL’. You then have full visibility of RSitP events on all your devices.

(I used to use this method a lot to keep track of what events neighbouring SitP groups were putting on. But as it doesn’t allow me to filter out events,my smartphone would tell me I had loads of simultaneous things to go to and I never knew where I was supposed to be.)

A better method, for me at least:

  • Paste the calendar updates feed URL into Google Reader (or your RSS Reader of choice). Then when notification of a new event arrives, click on it and you get the full event details, plus a drop-down box that you can use to copy it into your personal calendar. One downside here is that you may not get updates if the event changes.


A letter to WHSmith

Dear WHSmith

I must express in the strongest terms my objections to your decision to continue to sell the magazine “What Doctors Don’t Tell You” (WDDTY). It appears from their responses that your company representatives have not understood the nature of the complaints made against this magazine.

To put it plainly, the advice given in the magazine is dangerous and, if followed by the magazine’s readers, your customers, it could result in serious harm. WHSmith has the opportunity to show itself to be a responsible retailer by removing this magazine from sale. To fail to do so shows a callous disregard for public health.

I have noted your previous responses to other complainants, in which you dismiss this issue as merely one of consumer choice. To Andy Lewis, your Customer Services Coordinator David Trollope wrote:

Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

This is a grave mistake. I acknowledge that you must cater to customers’ various beliefs and political opinions. I am sure there are many animal rights supporters who would rather you did not stock The Field, or eco-warriors opposed to the sale of Fast Car. But this is not an matter of personal opinion. WDDTY contains factually incorrect articles that promote distrust of medical science.

One example: In covering the HPV vaccine that is to be provided by the NHS to teenage girls, with a view to saving 400 lives a year (NHS source), WDDTY says :

the UK has accepted a vaccine that has been rejected by India after an early trial, funded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, led to the deaths of seven young girls and another 120 suffered debilitating side effects.

This is simply untrue. As Andy Lewis points out,

That trial in India did indeed report deaths after the vaccine was given, but What Doctors Don’t Tell You Don’t Tell You was that these deaths included a drowning, a snake bite and the effects of malaria.” (source)

In its “Corporate Responsibility” policy for business conduct, part 3iv, WHSmith promises to “provide products that are safe, fit for purpose, meet legal standards and are never described in a misleading manner.” If there is any doubt about the misleading claims in WDDTY, Ron Lewis has written a through analysis. (link)

David Trollope also wrote,

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers

The results of this close collaboration with the publishers of WDDTY has fallen far below the expectations of this customer.

I would not expect, nor want, WHSmith to vet and censor every publication prior to sale. But when a threat to public health is brought to WHSmith’s attention then the company will be judged on its response.


Mike Agg

Update, 13/10:

I’ve been manically busy this past week but now I can finally post the woefully underwhelming response from Juliette Cavilla at WHSmith.

Thank you for contacting us regarding the magazine “What the doctors don’t tell you”.

As the UK’s leading retailer of stationery, books, magazines and newspapers, we aim to offer our customers a wide choice of products, whilst also respecting customer views. Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers. Where we receive customer complaints about a certain publication, WHSmith commits to raise these concerns directly with the publisher.

Customer feedback is extremely important to us and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your concerns.

Kind Regards

For fuck’s sake. They reply with the very same stock response that I wrote to them about!

So there you have it. WHSmith don’t even bother to read their customer’s complaints before responding.

This utter failure to listen to customer’s concerns, more than their decision to stock WDDTY, is indicative to me of a company with no sense of responsibility.