Category Archives: Mind-Body-Spirit

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.

If gods existed and magic worked

I do sometimes wonder what the world would be like if gods existed and magic worked.

If magic worked as mechanically as, well, mechanics then I doubt it would make that much difference. We’d just rush about the place in our seven league boots or on our magic carpets.  As Arthur C Clark said: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistigishable from magic, but it’s less obvious that the reverse is true too.  If you could summon up spirits from the vasty deeps, you’d probably just get their voicemail.    I think a magical world would be shiny but mundane like a cross between Ikea and Comet.   You’d expect there to be less of a problem with pollution and global warming of course, but maybe there’d be a shortage of newts’ eyes in much the way that there is a shortage of tigers and rhinoceroses already and for exactly the same reason. (Rhinoceroi? Rhinocerodes?  Why is there never a greek scholar around when you need one?)

Ok, so magic would be dull, but what about the power of prayer?  

It seems to me that if prayer worked then it would be just another form of insurance.

Travel insurance? – Check.
Passport and tickets? – Check.
Prayer? – Oh, no, hang on a minute while I get down on my knees.

I’ve certainly sat down to meals where grace was as meaningless and mechanical as putting a napkin on your lap.

If prayers and special pleading worked,  it would suck great big hairy cheese-monsters.  It’s always shit when the middle-sized bully gets the big bastard on their side.  For example, you’d have to avoid competing against one of the deity’s top pray-ers if you wanted that promotion:

Let’s see now, Aphra has more experience, better qualifications and a personality that will really fit in, but we’ve just had a note from the Big Guy that we’ve got to hire the other one.

Functional prayer just sounds like belonging to the mob:  The power of prayer – putting the god into godfather.  

On top of which, I’m not at all sure about a world where there’s a god who’s nicer to those who are nice to it, and who really did throw thunderbolts at the bad guys.   That suggests a world where the supreme being has the emotional intelligence of a five year old, a point well made 40 years ago by Gene Roddenberry in The Squire of Gothos not to mention everyone who’s ever written about the classical or nordic gods since Homer had an eye test.  

And if we go for the nature-thang, we end up with a world where healing spirits heal you without any of that annoying waiting-lists-and-cold-hands-on-your-privates stuff, and where sister wind and brother rain come to your garden but are far too nice to fart about or piss around like drunks at a barbeque, which – lets face it – is how they behave right now.  It sounds nice, but would you really want to live in a world which was trapped inside a shop in Hebden Bridge and full of wind-chimes, incense, velvety lace and oestrogen?   

Mind you, the only way I can make sense of a world where Sarah Palin could be president of the US freaking A is to conclude that this whole universe is indeed the bad-acid trip of some great big hairy cheese-monster.  

I take it all back.  I’ll have the Hebden Bridge one, thank you.

Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

A FlakeI was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.

Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.

I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.

Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.

So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.

  • I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
  • My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
  • A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
  • I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
  • I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
  • I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
  • I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
  • A friend sends me a link to and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
  • A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
  • I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
  • I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
  • I have a relationship with a statistician.
  • I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
  • I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
  • I regularly flick through copies of the British Medical Journal and discover that the research studies are of varying quality but explicit about their limitations and scope.
  • Triptanes provide effective migraine relief.
  • I read Snake Oil by John Diamond.
  • I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.

Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.


But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.

Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.

Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.

This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germs.  Unfortunately boiling may damage the warmth and softness of your blankie.To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.

I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.

Managing Cancer


I have two dear friends both of whom had operations last summer for cancer.

U had breast cancer. She chose to have a lumpectomy and to manage her post-operative care using homoeopathy. She’s a homoeopath herself but she is at least getting someone else to prescribe. S had ovarian cancer, probably a result of her genetic inheritance. She had an operation to remove the cancerous ovary, a course of chemo, a full hysterectomy, and she is about to start a second course of chemo.

I admire U’s integrity, though her personality is such that the decision to reject chemotherapy was barely a decision at all. She believes chemotherapy to be poison, western treatments for cancer to be based on false premises, and western medicine to be based on a faulty model. She could no more have accepted chemo than I could drink sulphuric acid. At the moment the decision looks good – she’s fit, she’s healthy, she’s working, she’s in a good relationship, the future’s exciting, she has the health and the energy to live life to the full.

I admire S’s fortitude. The chemo has made her very sick, she’s been unable to work during it, family members are struggling with the pressures of her illness, she’s dealing with it all because she has no choice. She’s also aware that you tend to catch her brand of ovarian cancer very late, and that even the hysterectomy didn’t manage to cut it all out.

So here we have U – apparently healthy but I fear that the tall hooded chap will tap her on the shoulder with a bony finger sooner than she expects, and S, who knows that the rattling noise behind her is the sound of his feet on the path.

I don’t know which of them is wiser. Such important decisions – how to live your life, how to face up to death – I worry that U will regret her integrity, and I worry that S will regret choosing weapons which make her so ill to fight the disease which is killing her.