Monday 21 November 2011

Tasty Boxer Short Recipes for Prof. Jim Al-Khalili

Despite further experiments at CERN confirming that neutrinos have travelled faster than the speed of light; the scientific community remain a trifle sceptical and still unwilling to resign Einstein’s theory of special relativity to bin just yet.

Nonetheless Prof Jim Al-Khalili, who famously boasted that he would “eat his boxer shorts” if anything travels faster than the speed of light, must surely be eyeing his undercrackers with unpalatable suspicion.

To this end our crack team of particle physicists here at Science, Reason and Critical Thinking have teamed up with top comedy chef Heston Blumenthal, to help alleviate Jim’s woes. In the highly unlikely event that Einstein’s theory turns out to be as much use as Anne Frank’s drum kit, our team have prepared a selection of gourmet recipes for Jim to choose from…


Spiced undercrackers stuffed with braised plums

Deep fried garlic butter shreddies in a tempura batter with trimmed leeks and flat leaf parsley

Tacklebags and coriander fritters with halloumi and sweet lemon dressing

Tandorri kecks in mini pitas with a yoghurt mint dressing


Baked underchunders with red onions stuffed with toasted spiced couscous

Trolleys tart tatin with shaved manchego and rocket

Peppered underdaks with a whisky sauce 

Smoked dung collectors kedgeree

Roast grundies, caramelised apple wedges with a broccoli and mustard jus

Bon Appetit

Saturday 19 November 2011

Beware the Paramyth

What’s the fastest growing form of woo woo in Britain today?
  • Is it perhaps those brash rambunctious religionists at the more happy-clappy end of the spiritual spectrum?
  • Is it the quack army and their ever-growing canon of inefficacious alternative therapies?
  • Is it psychics and ghosts hunters who’ve plummeted lowbrow TV to new depths?
  • Is it the mind-body-spirit brigade of Newage nutters and neopagan fruitcakes who reject formal religion in order to fanny about with their own personalised spiritual delusions?
I suspect not. I would like to propose a new contender that as far as I’m aware, hasn’t even got a specific name yet, so let me try and explain it.

There is a new wave of modern myths sweeping the country that although diverse in nature have a common theme. At the heart of each of these myths is a tiny conspiracy theory that panders to our tabloid fuelled fears that those with different views, traditions and ideas to us, are influencing policies that will bring about the downfall of our traditional way of life.

These paranoid myths (paramyths?) may have a grain of truth at their centre, but have been exaggerated to become outright lies that spread like wild fire by uncritical paramythers more anxious to propagate their ideological agendas than check the facts.

Let me give you a few examples to explain what I’m talking about:

Yesterday my wife was talking to the man on the checkout tills at Asda about opening times over the Christmas period. She was told that Asda would be closed on Christmas Day, but would be open on Boxing Day. Not because of cooperate greed or because that in all probability the other supermarkets in our area will also open on Boxing day but:
“Because of the Muslims.”
No further explanation was necessary. We all know the secret Muslim agenda to turn our beloved Christian country into another Islamic State.

Here’s another example: earlier this week the Telegraph ran with this headline:
BBC drops Frozen Planet's climate change episode to sell show better abroad
We all know that those gas-guzzling Yanks put their head in the sand at the first mention of man-made climate change. Why else then would the BBC not package this episode up for sale with the rest of the series?

During the 2010 Football World Cup I remember my kids reporting on a rumour that was making its way around the school yard and virally spreading through facebook that:
Pubs ban England Shirts
And a tabloid newspaper championed our cause to fly St George’s Flag in the face of the forces who apparently sought to ban such things.

Again needling the fans to unproportionately act against an ever-popular paper-selling anti-English conspiracy lie. Steven Baxter has a much more reasoned investigation here:

Even a government minister (admittedly one of the more stupid ones) has been sucked in by these paramyths. At this years Conservative Party Conference the Home Secretary, Theresa May, came out with this howler:
The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat."
Theresa May may not have made it up, but some paramyth peddling pillock did, and she uncritically bought it.

But of course the perennial paramyth that always starts to kick off around this time each year is Melanie Philips’ favourite, The Winterval Myth.

I suspect these examples may just be the tip of the iceberg. It’s therefore high time we picked up our burning pitchforks and headed off on our crusade against the paramythers*.

When it comes to hanging monkeys, there are an awful lot of would be Hartlepudlians out there.

*A more suitable name may be substituted if someone comes up with a better one.

Friday 18 November 2011

It’s Skeptical Correctness Gone Mad

Go on, admit it, you all think that Psychic Sally is a big fat fraud.

However, the majority of skeptics and rational commentators on the recent tribulations of the ever so lovely  Sally Morgan have gone out of their way to make it perfectly clear that they are absolutely not accusing her of being a fraud. And I too would like to make it quite clear up front to everyone, including Sally’s legal team, that I’m not making that allegation either.

We all know perfectly well that we cannot scientifically disprove Sally’s psychic claims any more than we can disprove Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot or Carl Sagan’s garage dwelling dragon. The likelihood of Sally’s mystic abilities being supernatural powers currently unknown to science are roughly equivalent to the likelihood of spontaneous heavenly crockery. Indeed the possibility any self proclaimed psychic has genuine paranormal powers are as close to zero as makes no odds, but it is nonetheless important to concede that it’s not an absolute impossibility. It therefore doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to transfer the burden of proof onto Sally, and kindly invite her to prove her mystical abilities under scientifically controlled conditions.

Sally may well be many things, but one think she is clearly not, is a complete and utter fuckwit. She knows as well as we do that the seemingly inexplicable phenomena seen in her stage shows will not manifest themselves under tightly controlled test conditions. She also knows as well as we do that it is not possible to empirically disprove her claims through the scientific method, so it’s hardly surprising that her response is simply to bat the burden of proof back to the skeptical community.


This deadlocked situation seems to have spawned a set of almost creed-like clichés resonating around the sceptical community. How often have you heard phrases along the lines of?
“Sally may well have genuine psychic abilities; we just want to give her the opportunity to prove her powers beyond all reasonable doubt.”
The sceptical community are reduced to pussyfooting around the big name psychics being ultra careful not to explicitly claim they are frauds (apart from clear cut cases like Peter Popoff).

The preferred tactic seems to be hopelessly goading them into proving their claimed abilities under controlled conditions like the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge with more clichés like:
“We would love for Sally to prove that she has genuine psychic abilities as it would be one of the most monumental scientific discoveries in history”
But would we truly be thrilled and delighted if a psychic were to pass a controlled test? Would we set to work rewriting the science books straight away in the light of this truly astounding new observation? Or would we not still be a little sceptical? Would we be reluctant to immediately overturn a wealth of negative data in the light of a new freak positive? It would certainly be a fascinating discovery that would warrant in depth inquiry, but with extreme caution.

But of course these offers of a potential scientific paradigm shift and the possibility of bringing psychic investigation into the realms of credible science are meaningless carrots, dangled in the safe knowledge that we all know its just a load of old bunkum and cheap parlour tricks really.

Bunkum it almost certainly is, but it’s hard to hammer the point home when restricted by the unwritten rules of sceptical correctness.

Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps it’s just a matter of giving the psychics enough rope and waiting. In the last episode of Derren Brown’s recent series “The Experiments” he conducted an experiment in to luck by seeding a made up rumour of a lucky dog statue. The rumour quickly spread around the local townsfolk and eventually drew the interests of Psychic Sally herself who credulously proclaimed that the statute was standing at the centre of “a vortex of energy”.

This looks like a much better way of exposing bullshit, and helping the public avoid treading in it.

Well spotted commenters, I did mean to include something about self delusion. Just read fraud in its broadest terms covering both conscious and self deluded.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Skeptics in the Planetarium

The Hampshire Skeptics Society cordially invite you to join them on the 8th of December, 2011 at Winchester's premier nightspot*, Intech Science Centre and Planetarium!

We are immensely proud to announce that we will be joined by the following esteemed guests:

Sheila Kanani - Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Sheila is a PhD student at UCL (Mullard Space Science Laboratory) who, when not building spacecraft like the Cassini Probe, analysing the data from such probes before anyone else on the planet gets to see it, inspiring the next generation of UK physicists and teaching at Space School UK , likes to unwind by entertaining the masses at events such as Bright Club and Spacetacular!.

Helen Arney - Physicist, Festival of the Spoken Nerd, musical comedian, all round good egg

For anyone that attended this years sell-out Uncaged Monkeys tour, Helen needs no introduction. Unless of course you suffer from short term memory syndrome. In which case; brilliant! You are going to enjoy Helen's set even more as every song will break over you like the first flush of love and each, frankly, disgusting aside will make you blush like a sixteen year old debutante who has accidentally stumbled upon her fathers secret cake stash. If you would like a sneak preview, check out Helen's fantastic work here.

Helen Keen - Space Enthusiast! Robot Enthusiast! Tea Enthusiast! Survivalist!

Quite frankly how we managed to blag an appearance from Helen, now that she is the comedian in residence at Newcastle's Centre for Life and following her hit Radio 4 show It IS Rocket Science is beyond me although our threat to release the compromising video of her throwing a diva hissy fit and smacking long suffering writing partner Miriam Underhill across the upper arms until she cried, may have something to with it (Thanks Kash, I owe you one buddy!).

Robin Ince - Science Groupie, Scientist Herder, President of the Richard Feynman Appreciation Society

I don't need to even write anything here, do I? If you don't appreciate how amazing it is that Robin is joining us this evening then you are dead to me, dead...

We will have a fully licensed bar and some really cheap food and if we ask Dr. Jenny Shipway really nicely she may even put on a planetarium show for us all on a night that promises to be one you will never forget!**

*(If looking up at the stars is your thing)
**(Short term memory syndrome - see Helen Arney) 

Many thanks to James Thomas for arraigning the venue and special guests and providing the above text.

We also plan to be publishing a new exciting calendar of speakers for 2012 at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub here soon.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Religion

Religion: Some information to help you live with it.

Religion is farfetched. Really farfetched. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly farfetched it is. I mean, you may think it's fairly improbable that fairies exist, but that's just peanuts to religion. Listen ….

The Messiah

The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a Messiah as
“A humanoid deity designed to suffer the sins of man”
The marketing division of the Holy Roman Catholic Church describe a Messiah as:
 "Your Pretend Pal Who's Fun To Be With."
Curiously enough an edition of the Encyclopaedia Galactica that fell through a temporal python warp from 1979 defined the Messiah as:
 “A very naughty boy”

The Christian Fish

Pan Galactic Communion Wine

To make your own Pan Galactic Communion Wine:

Take the blood from one body of that Ol' Christ Spirit after muttering a few magic spells over some cheap red plonk.

Add a wafer.

Drink, but very unquestioningly.

The effect is like having your brain washed by a slice of theology wrapped round a large logical impossibility.

Islamic Sermons

Islamic sermons are of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Jews of Israel. During a recitation by their chief Rabbi Yona Metzger the Groper of his sermon "Ode To A Signature I Forged One Mid Summer Morning" four of his audience suffered severe groping and the women suffered sexual harassment. Yona was reported to have denied the allegations and claimed it was a violation of the basic human rights enjoyed by every individual. The very worst sermons of all are by Anne Atkins and are aired on The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 during Thought for the Day.

Apologies to the great DNA.