Posts Tagged ‘Skeptics’

Announcing the Skeptic’s Guide to Pregnancy

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017 | Books, News

I’m pleased to announce the launch of my new book, Skeptic’s Guide to Pregnancy. Here is the blurb:

“Are you tired of reading pseudoscientific nonsense in pregnancy and parenthood books? If so, this book is for you. In it, author Chris Worfolk offers his frank assessment of preparing for parenthood with research references to back it up.

In this short book, you will find a mixture of cold hard, evidence-based facts, mixed with Worfolk’s brand of sarcastic humour and a collection of anecdotes to help you remember it.

Invest a few hours in reading this and avoid nine months of tedious and unnecessary planning, worrying and spending on things you don’t need. And, if all else fails, you will have enjoyed the ride.”

It has been two years in the writing as I have been documenting since we started Project Venla. This month, I’ve put the final touches to it. In some ways, it’s a victory for sunk cost fallacy. But I prefer to think of it as using Darren Hardy’s time/reward matrix.

In any case, it is officially out today and will be appearing in in eBook and print, via Amazon and iBooks, in the next few days.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015 | Books

Jon Ronson’s 2012 book “Lost at Sea” looks at the many weird cases he has reported on. There are loads. Over the years Ronson has covered many memorable stories and scandals.

Other times he has just gone for a nosy around. Take Deal or No Deal for example. He takes us inside the strange world of the constantly hyped up contestants. Accommodated together in a hotel in Bristol the producers report back to Noel Edmonds on how everyone is feeling. As Ronson points out:

Endomol realised that isolation makes good cults, and good television

He visits Indigo Children. These are children that have psychic powers, the next evolution if you will. They communicate telepathically, but also on the internet.

He signs up to do Alpha at the Holy Trinity Brompton Church and meets Nicky Gumbel. He does not find god, but he does go on their weekend away to see if anyone starts speaking in tongues. Lots of people do.

In an experiment to see who is offered the most credit cards and loans he sets up a dozen personalities with different magazine subscriptions and hobbies to see what happens. Predictably it is the unemployed gambler who is offed them all.

When he borrows an Aston Martin to re-create one of Bond’s journeys, he cannot help but note that everyone is checking out the car – thus would actually make a rubbish vehicle for a spy.

In a surprise twist he signs himself up to a Paul McKenna week-long workshop headed by NLP co-founder Richard Bandler and finds that NLP actually helps his anxiety. Not sure what to think now.

Finally he ends on a story about actually being lost at sea. Apparently every two weeks someone disappears over the side of the cruise ship. International waters are essentially lawless, especially as cruise companies register their ships in “flag of convenience” countries.

I really enjoyed reading the book as they were all interesting stories. Do not pick it up expecting resolutions though – most of the mysteries are just left unsolved and without conclusion.


QED 2013

Friday, May 10th, 2013 | Events

Last month, I attended QED for the first time. I’ve not been in previous years due to the cost, but having more disposable income now, I’m making an effort to get round the various conferences.

They certainly had a good speaker line up. I don’t think it was as good as TAM, but is better than the BHA’s conference this year, and both TAM and BHA Con are twice the price that QED was. In value for money terms, it was OK. There was no food provided during the weekend, so the £99 ticket price is actually more when you factor that in.

I also attended the Gala Dinner, which was supposed to have Brooke Magnanti on our table. She missed the dinner, which I didn’t mind too much as I was hosting her at Leeds Skeptics a few days after, but I might have been rather disappointed if not.

The speakers themselves varied in quality. Natalie Haynes was a bit of a disappointment because her speaking style is incredibly erratic – she was constantly darting back and forward on the stage and her talk had very little structure. It was still interesting and funny, but could have been a lot better. Rose Shapiro also seemed a bit out of her depth when it came to public speaking.

Stevyn Colgan justified his place as opening keynote though, with a brilliant talk about applying skepticism to police work, Rachael Dunlop was as entertaining and charming as ever, and Carrie Poppy delivered a brilliant talk too. Brian Thompson was a delight as Master of Ceremonies as well – imagine an American version of Andrew Copson and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture.

The star of the show for me, and I imagine many other people too though, was Lawrence Krauss, who presented an outstanding talk on how you get a universe from nothing. Well worth watching the video for that once it is posted.

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Help homeless people, by going to the pub

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 | Foundation, Humanism

As you may be aware, the Humanist Action Group is currently staging its 2012 Holiday Food Drive for local homeless shelters in Leeds.

Next week, Leeds Skeptics hosts a talk entitled “Do we get the legal system we deserve?”, as part of their programme of monthly events.

Unlike a usual Leeds Skeptics event, though, we won’t be taking donations to help cover the cost of running the meeting – that is going to be covered by the organisers. Instead, all money donated will be given to the Holiday Food Drive.

So, if you fancy helping those a little less lucky than ourselves, in a way which simply involves you hearing an interesting talk in a great pub, then come along to the next meeting of Leeds Skeptics! Full details can be found on their website.

Wrestling the Troll

Friday, August 24th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

A few months ago, Paula Kirby, executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, publicly wrote about some of the problems see saw in the freethought movement, in her essay Sisterhood of the Oppressed .

Since then I’ve found an increasing number of blog post and other links arriving in my inbox regarding the current splits in opinion. I hadn’t actually seen The Amazing Atheist’s Don’t Take This The Wrong Way video, nor indeed had I see Rebecca Watson’s original video until I saw it embedded in that one. I hadn’t heard about Thunderf00t getting kicked off FTB for daring not to toe the party line either.

PZ Myers video response is worth a watch too, as it lays out a good dogma for atheist. Perhaps dogma isn’t the right word, but I’m not being sarcastic there, if you wanted to lay out what movement was about, it was a great way to do it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the video ended as strongly as it began. PZ then to try and what I can only describe as deliberately trying to divide people into an “us and them” mentality when he suggests that FTB is going to continue to promote “equal respect for everyone at conferences and in everyday life”, suggesting (or in Thunderf00t’s case, openly stating) that anyone who doesn’t conform to the FTB dogma is against equality. This is obviously nonsense.

It’s concerning how often PZ and FTB’s name keeps coming up in a wide range of criticism from lots of other atheist writers. As I mentioned at the start, Paul Kirby was already aired her concerns, and now Sam Harris has become the next big name to speak out against how he feels mistreated in his blog post Wrestling the Troll.

Kicking straw men in the balls

Monday, August 13th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

As many of you will know, we’ve recently spent a great time of time bickering with each other over whose attitude towards equal rights for women is the most equal. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to cut out the genitals of their women before forcing them to walk behind the men.

At Leeds Skeptics we wanted everyone to have their say, so we held a debate “How should Skeptics deal with controversy?” Tom Williamson summed up his thoughts on his blog. Ophelia then wrote a piece about the blog post.

The original talk was entitled “Why aren’t their more women in the boardroom?” Seems like a sensible topic title, and one that fits very well into Ophelia’s suggestion that topics should be specific and useful. However, some of her commentors decided to suggest alternative titles.

“Precisely how stupid and misogynistic are male skeptics?” would make a good discussion. I look forward to Leeds Skeptics discussing this.


The answer is a million. So, that’s settled.

Well, I have a question:

Are Tom Williamson and Steven Moxon REALLY equal to a pile of hog shit?

What? I’m just being skeptical!

I’m not sure they’re quite the same…

A given?

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

In the final of three blog posts I’ve written about the fall out from the recent Steve Moxon event, I wanted to comment on an interesting debate point raised on the Leeds Skeptics Facebook group, where someone claimed that some things we should just accept as true.

There are some things that should be a given in any skeptical society

I’m not making this up. Someone in a Skeptics group genuinely just said that there are some things we should just not question.

Of course, the equality of our fellow human beings is something incredibly important and something that when challenged, we would defend rigorously. But to suggest we should just same some things on faith is a violation of the very definition of skepticism. But more to the point, such an attitude undermines our own argument. Our position is that all our members are equal and we take this position because we’ve reviewed the evidence, and that is the case. To rule out a debate on it entirely is simply unskeptical.

Let us not forget that we have equality today because someone WAS skeptical about the prevailing idea that black people were inferior to white people, or that women didn’t deserve the rights as men did. Thank the god that I do not believe in, that someone had the courage to challenge these ideas that were just held as true at the time, so that today we can have equality.

After all, if we’re in the right, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge our own ideas. As I’ve written before, I entertain the idea of cheating on my girlfriend. Why? Because I know I will never do it. I’m secure enough in my relationship, and I know I love her so much, that I can safely consider the possibility without worrying. I know this, because I’ve challenged my own beliefs, and because they still hold true, that only makes them stronger. As Norman summarises…

Not sure how anything can be a ‘given’ in a skeptical society? Surely the point of a skeptical society is that all view points are subjected to a rigorous process of critical analysis, regardless of whether it agrees with our world view or not.

One could argue that it is the very ‘givens’ of our own world views that require even more in depth challenging.

Challenging your beliefs only makes them stronger (or they turn out to be wrong – but I’m as certain as you can be that this won’t turn out to be the case for equality). But perhaps I underestimate how secure people actually are in their beliefs. I mean, are attendees worried that others are going to be won over by bigoted arguments?

Secondly go to the event, witness said MRA speech, and more than likely become angry at the shit he’s spouting. If you decide to argue with him you’d better have the support of the room otherwise you will get shouted down and feel even worse. At the very least you will be sat in your seat seething, possibly feeling upset or unsafe depending on how many other members are agreeing with the speaker.

I’m sure this wasn’t mean this to be in any way offensive, but she did just imply that that everyone else who attends Leeds Skeptics are at best are sexiest bigots who would shout her down if she tried to call someone on sexist nonsense he was spouting, and at worse a bunch of rapists would threaten her safety. Talk about promoting bad gender stereotypes. But it goes on…

What good would come out of it [the event], to balance against the aggressive sexism and racism that we’d almost certainly have to sit through and which would be at best uncomfortable for people who aren’t white males?

Is she seriously suggesting that white males don’t find racism, sexism or any bigotry offensive? It’s incredibly insulting, and sexist (and racist for that matter), but more than that, I think it shows that there is a real need for careful consideration of what we all hold to be true and bring open to the principle of challenging our own ideas.

As I’ve already said, challenging well founded beliefs only makes them stronger.

Controversial speakers

Saturday, July 14th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

In my previous blog post, I wrote about our decision to cancel Steve Moxon’s scheduled talk at Leeds Skeptics. In this blog post, I wanted to explore the wider issues of controversial speakers, and balancing freedom of speech and proper public debate with being an inclusive and welcoming organisation.

In the discussions, someone asked if I would want to attend an event where someone had views that I found offensive. The answer is without a doubt yes. I totally would – and I did – I spent my university years while running Leeds Atheist Society, going to talks run by religious societies where speakers said some very offensive and controversial things.

I wanted to learn about their points of view. To me, they seemed like obviously wrong and bigoted. But how could I say that for sure unless I had heard them out? And if it turned out their views were as shallow as it seemed, I wanted to challenge them on it. To be honest, it never really occurred to me that other skeptics wouldn’t feel the same way.

When I asked my girlfriend about it, she said the same thing. She would have liked Steve to speak, so she could hear him out and challenge the opinions she disagreed with. As Mike points out, how else are we supposed to challenge prejudice?

The only way SITP can come out on top is if the members take him to task; it’s recorded and publicised in order to counteracts any publicity claims he makes himself. It needs to be clear that this is an exercise in critical analysis and the application of skepticism and not a sounding-off platform. That includes the common decency of informing the speaker himself to give himself a chance to pull out should he so wish.

I often try to bring controversial speakers to the group as a springboard for debate, because I have always felt that Skeptics group suffer severely from preaching to the converted. We bring in someone who rubbishes UFOs for a living, and we sit there with our pints and go “ha, ha, ha, there’s no such as UFOs, what idiots for believing in them, isn’t that funny.” Of course, it’s a good laugh for us all, but it is neither thought provoking nor challenging. As Adrian summarises…

At present we have a network of groups like SitP that invite scientists and atheists to speak to other scientists and atheists, and a network of groups like Truth Juice that invite woo-woo merchants to speak to woo-woo sponges. Thus speakers of all types are largely preaching to the converted and very little of any value is actually taking place.

For someone like Moxon to speak to skeptics groups is good for Moxon, since he gets to see that not everyone shares his point of view, and has to listen to people debunking his irrationality, and good for the audience since they learn first-hand what kind of woo-woo there really is out there in British society (and how it is rationalised) and they can practise arguing against it.

Trystan feels the same way…

You mention that there is a difference between a controversial speaker and one who attempts to pass of poorly reasoned views as science, but SitP is a fantastic venue to highlight – specifically during Q and A – what is wrong with the argument being made on scientific grounds. It is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate skepticism at work.

If certain people at Leeds Skeptics are unhappy that the talk was booked then (a) it doesn’t mean anything and (b) I’m wondering why. I can guess. Most, if not all, SitPs I’ve encountered seem to have an element who feel each event is about having an on side preacher come and speak to the choir, doing all of the skepticism for them. I recall upsetting a gentleman in Oxford because my views on private ownership of land was at odds with his own. It rocked the boat, made him think. Why not seize the opportunity to perform some self-think rather than following group-think?

If anything, the academic-cum-philosophical-cum-skeptical platform should be opened up more for people with views that are groundless and have the potential for harm. Oxford Debating Society did a wonderful job by opening up their doors for Icke to bury himself under a deluge of his own nonsense.

Indeed, while the majority of organisers from local Skeptics groups haven’t commented either way, most of them who have seem to have similar feelings.

I have always thought that the point of a Skeptics event should be to make you think. We’re supposed to be non-dogmatic; and a group of individuals who can think for themselves and challenge ideas. If you don’t agree, that’s fine, it just means you’re not a skeptic by the very definition of the word and are unlikely to find much benefit attending skeptics events.

After all, if we’ve not providing thought provoking and challenging events, what exactly are we doing? Preaching a monthly sermon to you about something you are supposed to accept without question? That isn’t the movement I signed up.

Rather, Skeptics meetings should be a bastion for critical thinking, a place where we aren’t afraid to let bad ideas be proposed every once in a while because we have enough trust in our own critical faculties to be able to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad one. Such events are an ideal time to confront prejudice and show good skepticism in action.

Cancelling Steve Moxon

Friday, July 13th, 2012 | Events, Religion & Politics

This is the first of three blog posts I have coming out regarding the debate points that have been raised recently around inviting controversial speakers to Skeptics events. In my first post, I want to discuss the situation at hand in a little more depth.

At the start of the year, we booked Steve Moxon to speak at Leeds Skeptics, on the topic of “why aren’t there more women in the boardroom?” On Monday, 9 June, we announced that we were cancelling the event.

The decision was reached after we had received a significant amount of concerned messages from people who attend our events, as well as new information being brought to our attention and after review, we eventually concluded that it would not create a positive debate as we had hoped. Here is what the Leeds Skeptics officially said:

After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel Steve Moxon’s upcoming talk. As a Skeptics group we strive to host events that are both interesting and challenging, however, based on feedback from those who attend our events, and new information being brought to our attention, we now believe that it is unlikely that the event would create a healthy and positive debate on the matter.

It was a very tough decision to reach though. On one side, we don’t want people who turn up to our events to be offended, at the same time, we do want to host events on thought provoking subjects and not be limited on topics by those that are on the approved skeptics list.

In the end, the question of censorship was a moot point – even if we did cancel the event, it wasn’t a case that we were censoring anyone – it’s our forum, we can invite who we like, and we ultimately called off the event because Steve would not have been well received, nor would it have created a proper debate on the subject. The subject itself remains as a topic worthy of debate.
After this had all taken place, someone asked if Leeds Skeptics was in the habit of giving radical speakers a platform – the implication being that we didn’t, so we shouldn’t give Steve one.

So, Leeds Skeptics, do you regularly hold events where creationists are given an uninterrupted platform? Do you regularly invite anti-vaxxers to speak at Skeptics in the Pub and blurb their work in the same tone? Isn’t the appropriate form to engage with someone whose views are controversial and that you want to see ripped to shreds a debate, not a lecture?

However, the answer to this question is yes. We have previously invited speakers from the Zeitgeist Movement and We Are Change. They’re both good examples of when we have invited controversial speakers, with views at odds with those of most Skeptics, backed up with some very questionable science. Naturally, they were both taken to task in the Q&A.

That said, they are tame compared to the kind of events that Leeds Atheist Society puts on. They regularly give an uninterrupted platform to members of the religious community, who often have strong and open views against women and homosexuals. I remember one of the Reason Week debates was opened by the Islamic speaker making the following joke.

50 years ago homosexuality was a crime, today it’s accepted, in 50 years time it will probably be compulsory.

He got booed for it. So he should, it’s rare that you hear something that offensive said in public. But there was no question as to whether we should be challenging this kind of bigotry – of course we should be. That was in the context of debate, but through the interfaith talks, it’s more normal for a religious speaker at LAS to get an uninterrupted platform where they can say what they like without rebuttal. I’ve never heard of anything avoiding such events because of the controversial things the religious speaker had to say – we’re there to learn, and to challenge prejudice.

At no point throughout any of these events could it ever have been implied that they were legitimising such speakers, associating themselves with such with such groups or providing a platform for such detestable views. As Skeptics, we’re here to challenge ideas – that is the definition of skepticism.

I have more to say on such speakers, and will discuss that in my next blog post, but I hope the above helps to elucidate the thought process we went through.

Moral outrage

Thursday, July 12th, 2012 | Humanism, Religion & Politics

When my friend Norman dared to suggest that a skeptical philosophy should include the ability to challenge our own beliefs, he was quickly buried under a landslide of “how dare you” reactionary opinion.

Moral outrage as a substitute for rational argument. Where have we seen that before? So, I’ve taken the liberty of reframing said post into a most fitting surrounding.

You have to wonder, at what point while Ophelia Benson was reading a story about a live kitten someone had encased in concrete up to the front legs, did she stop thinking about what a despicable act it was, and start thinking “I could use this for my own purposes.”