Skepticism

Brittania Rules!

Brits are making me proud at the moment. No, not because the members of our government have been fiddling their expenses (while we have a Royal Family, I can’t bring myself to care about some politician claiming for moat-cleaning. Drop, ocean). It’s because of YOU LOT. Skeptics. Actually, that’s ‘us lot’ because I’m one of ’em. These past few weeks have been some of the best in the skeptisphere, and the current mood is one of action and excitment. I’ve put together a summary of the stuff that’s floating my (and skeptical Britain’s) boat at the moment.

simonThe first example is the ongoing Simon Singh versus British Chiropractic Association debacle. It started with bad news, that of Simon getting sued for libel, and got worse when so-called ‘Justice’ Eady made a ridiculous ruling about the meaning of the word ‘bogus’ in Simon’s article (which referred specifically to claims that chiro can treat colic), thereby doing the BCA a favour. But alas for the BCA, things are not going as swimmingly for them as they might have hoped. If you haven’t been following the excellent blog by Jack of Kent, who is a lawyer and expert in this case, I thoroughly recommend it. Jack has pointed out several amusing and embarassing (for the BCA) twists in the tale, including the recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority against a Chiropractor who claimed to be able to treat colic. As Jack points out

It would appear to me that, at least from the date of this new ASA adjudication, making such a claim for the treatment of colic could possibly be contrary to the General Chiropractic Council’s Code of Practice.

If so, it would render odd that the British Chiropractic Association still wishes to litigate in respect of its promotion of chiropractic for the treatment of colic when such a promotion by its members would now seemingly be a breach of their professional obligations…

It remains to be seen what impact the ASA ruling, if any, will have on the Singh case, but one effect it has certainly had is to make British skeptics aware of the ASA’s position, which could in turn lead to more action. 

Jack has also pointed out the very hilarious re-marketing of the BCA’s PR company, Publicasity, who are now referring to themselves as ‘Brand Alchemists‘. As a professional in the marketing and PR industry, I can’t let that pass without comment, and my comment is ‘ROFL’. Perhaps in order to prove their ability to work real magic, Publicasity have created a press release for the BCA which is causing me not only to ROFL, but to ROFLWPMP. My favourite line is at the start, and lets us know clearly what the BCA thinks of its critics:

Much criticism has been levelled at the BCA for not entering a debate, criticism which is in itself misguided.

Got that? Criticise the BCA for not answering its critics, you’re misguided. Not sure what that makes those who did the original criticising, but given the BCA’s response was to stay silent, presumably those folk were also misguided. Or perhaps merely ‘annoying’. Of course, we know what they think of any attempt to criticise chiro itself. If they’d called Simon ‘misguided’ and left it there, we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

538382_natural_remedy_cMy next example is plain hilarious. There’s a large chain of new age stores called Neal’s Yard which sell everything from dried fruits and bath oils to alternative medicines. They’re expensive and quite middle-class, which of course in Britain is the target market for homeopathy. Neal’s Yard sell lots of the ole magic water, and The Guardian newspaper (also favoured by the middle classes) invited them to an online ‘You Ask, They Answer’ session as part of the paper’s Ethical Living Blog. It should be a good PR exercise for any company participating, as it gives them a chance to address ethical concerns directly. Sadly, the Neal’s Yard PR people appear to have been unaware that The Guardian is also the home of Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, and his army of very well-informed, very smart readers, and therefore that any article on alt med is likely to attract the awkward questions. I urge you to read the questions put to Neal’s Yard. I then urge you to giggle with me at the news the Neal’s Yard refused to answer any of the questions, and have now pulled out of the debate entirely. 

Of course, one could argue that it’s not healthy or productive to bombard sellers of woo with so many identical questions, but had they answered the first few, that would likely not have happened. Alternatively, The Guardian could have edited the questions to remove duplicates or sarcasm, or some other compromise that would have enabled Neal’s Yard to tell us exactly what the evidence and ethics behind their range of magic water is. But as Neal’s Yard have declined to participate, taking their toys and effing off home, I guess we’ll never know. 

taml_all_purple_cropped_thumbMy final example might reek of bias because it involves me, but I wanted to touch on it because it’s the cause of much excitement (and a little hate mail). I’m the organiser of TAM London on behalf of JREF, and although we hoped and anticipated the event, the first of its kind in the UK, would sell out fairly quickly (my estimate was one week), in fact it sold out in an hour. For a skeptic event to sell out that fast is unprecedented and on a par with rock concerts. Yep, skeptics rock, and it’s testament to the incredible line-up and the enthusiasm and hunger for skeptic events. Thousands tried to book, something we could never have predicted, but while that does mean a lot of disappointed people, it also paves the way for more events in the future, whether from JREF or others.

On that note I’d like to give a quick plug to the UK Skeptics conference at Muncaster Castle in the Lake District, another example of the current momentum for active skepticism.

Here’s hoping that all this momentum translates into some real changes. I’d like to see the BCA back down, for example, or Neal’s Yard to start labelling their homeopathic treatments as containing no active ingredient. These are big ambitions but if we keep working away then perhaps we will make a difference on a national scale.

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17 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The Neal’s Yard link has had me laughing all day, while the TAM London sell out (although annoying for those that missed out – i.e., me. Grr) is something for all of us skeptics here in the UK to be inordinately proud of. Looking forward to TAM London 2010 with all the more excitement.

  2. Of course, you rock. I can’t believe you are getting HATE MAIL?

    In some high-end grocers in the States, there is a line of cheeses sold under the name ‘Neil’s Yard’ (spelling difference) and marketed in the English cheese section. As best I can tell, this is unrelated.

  3. Also, am I the only one that gets a disturbing sexual picture everytime I hear “Neal’s Yard”. “Have you experienced Neal’s Yard?” definitely sounds sexual, and fairly complimentary towards Neal.

  4. OMG. That Neal’s Yard piece was hilarious. You Brits (Britts?:) did a fine job in the questions. I am not surprised that NY hasn’t replied.

    I really wish we could make it to Euro-TAM, but for this year, will have to settle for Vegas-TAM. We will miss Cox and The Dawk, but we will have way more Skepchicks!

  5. Yay, go us! Jack of Kent has been superb, and I’m really hoping for some good news tomorrow (I think the deadline’s tomorrow) regarding Simon’s next moves in this case.

    My fingers are crossed for TAM tickets in the forthcoming draw. Even if I am cruelly denied my one glorious dream this time, it’s good to know that such things are going on so close to home, that so much effort is being put into it and such a positive response is being received all round. Here’s to lashings more awesome from jolly old England.

  6. Its not all going well, the NHS has caved in and is now going to offer “alternative” therapies such as accupuncture and chiro.

    This gives mumbo-jumbo a huge legitimative boost and is quite a big set back for reality based medicine

  7. @Plittle: I don’t think that’s true. A lot of the comments were posted by two readers but not the majority at all, and that’s not the case for the questions. But even if that were the case, it only makes it more interesting. The point is that Neal’s Yard refused to answer ANY questions. If those questions come from one or two people, that makes their actions even sillier.

    russellsugden, I agree, that sucks a fat one. I smell the musty influence of Prince Charles. However, I do think the current pro-active attitude that things like the Singh case are inspiring will encourage people to try and do something about this, too. Rally, lobby, write letters, blog, protest, explain, educate, drink beer. These are the ways of the modern British skeptic!

  8. @tkingdoll: I too think that Charlie had a hand in this, as he seems to be the most influential backer of Woo in the UK. Although that could be self-interest as thinking someone is best qualified out of 60 million people, for a job based their parents having done that job is pretty much the zenith of Woo.

    I think there is a drive within the sceptical/rationalist movement to seperate from general politics, but here in the UK it’s impossible to deal with “sceptical” issues without rubbing up against political ones as Woo is so deeply, almost medievally, enshrined in our politics and ingrained in our culture.

    London’s homeopathic hospital exsists (at NHS expense) primarily because of the Windors, and even worse the MHRA, the body that licences pharmaceuticals this week was pretty much forced into licencing Homeopathy as a “real” treatment which in itself is a massive set back as it places it on a par with real pharmaceuticals.

    But on the other hand, I doubt there has been a time in our history when sceptics and rationalist have been so prominant, vocal and influential, so its not all bad news either.

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