European Skeptics Congress, day 2

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I’m still at the European Skeptics Congress in Sweden (23-25 August 2013), going into its second day. The report of the first day can be found here.

Focus of this morning was how skepticism or lack thereof appears in the media, and what we can do to help. The first talk, filling in for Susan Gerbic from Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, was Shane Greenup (Australia), presenting both her project and his own interesting creation, RbutR. It was a lecture early in the morning, but served as a wake-up call that we skeptics as a group can do stuff, and that there really isn’t an excuse as there are several easy ways to do it.

The focus of RbutR is to create a way to find and store rebuttals to specific pages on the web. Although currently only available as a Google Chrome browser plugin, the goal is to create a tool that can pop up on any system, saying that there are rebuttals to what is said on an Internet page (even if the article is true). As Shane expressed it himself, his goal is to provide critical information to people at the moment they are making up their mind. Although I think that the upfront steps (having Google Chrome, installing a plugin, registering) are a bit too steep, I laud the effort to bring people information outside of their “sphere of agreement”, thus providing a way out of the confirmation bias.

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Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (also featured on this blog here) is a project that aims to provide correct and critical information on Wikipedia. It was founded by Susan Gerbic and rightly identified Wikipedia as a go-to place for placing correct information. The site pops up almost every time in the top 3 of search results. Furthermore, not only is its aim to correct and maintain pages, but also to add more information. Philip, a member of the team, came and explained what he did and how he did it. It seems really simple (although I don’t think the Wikipedia tagging interface can be considered “simple”), and provides a great way to have high-quality articles. These high quality articles are often featured on the different Wikipedia homepages, thus increasing visibility of skeptics and skeptical topics.

The second speaker was Anna Bäsen from Sweden. She is a medical journalist, and does undercover reporting of health related quacks and abuses.  She showcased several examples how she managed to expose frauds, from people posing as medical doctors and inventing diagnoses to alternative treatments containing dangerous substances like arsenic (at least it’s natural!). Although she is only one of a few journalists who have this opportunity, I think it is important to show that this kind of high-quality work is useful in weeding out quackery, and she deserves all our respect. As she pointed out, this pseudoscience is not harmless and costs money (also to taxpayers). However, as she also said, the media are feeling a lot of pressure, so it is becoming more and more difficult to do this kind of in-depth work.

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Which brings us to our third speaker, Michael Marshall (“Marsh”) from the UK. In his fast-paced and witty talk, he spoke about how PR and marketing is influencing British journalism (and probably elsewhere too). His explanation that media has becoming business was a scary reminder that journalism has become a business, with several negative consequences. For instances, the cutting of costs and having no “specialized” journalists means that more has to be written by fewer persons who aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about the matter they write about (Anna Bäsen mentioned this too). As journalists feel more pressure (they write three times as much as twenty years ago and paper and online editions are becoming thicker), they easily resort to news agencies or PR releases from companies to “fill up” the media.

News agencies provide “accurate” news, but not necessarily “truthful” news. It is the difference between reporting (the former) and journalism (the latter), and it leads to papers containing 49% of almost literally copied articles. And this was a statistic of the best papers in the UK. But PR releases from companies are even more trickier. They hide themselves as sociological research, but are really based on surveys set up and sponsored by companies. A good rule of thumb that Michael provided: if in or around the fourth paragraph of the article the name of a company appears, then it is probably an example of this shoddy journalism. A lot of these articles, which are actually hidden advertised, are featured every day in the British press.

Michael Marshall provided several well researched examples, where he tracks down the original source and shows that it is just copied over and presented as science. Which it isn’t, because they are badly done surveys. Michael investigated this, and they are not scientific at all. These surveys are filled in by people doing it for the money (ten pence per survey), with misleading or dodgy questions (e.g. no “none of the above” option). Furthermore, one is incited to just fill in whatever, as only a completed survey will be paid out. Michael himself started filling in some of these surveys, and then showed what the original question was and how it was sensationally reported on in the press. The consequences are grave, as even the Education Secretary in the UK wanted to change the education system, based on these reports. Again, this is not science but the surveys are tailored to provide a publicity opportunity for the company ordering the survey.

Another interesting point came up during the question round. Journalists are not the evil gatekeepers, and Michael recommended to build relationships with them. Skeptics too can provide sensational stories (see the 10:23 campaign), and also have easier access to professors or doctors which is always a nice argument from authority in an article. As a recommendation, he said that we need to try to get good stuff in (so bad stuff gets pushed out), and work together with the journalists in providing the information they want in a way they can then easily publish. In all, a very good talk, a topper within an interesting morning line-up.

Christer Fuglesand, putting in some product placement for the Swedish Skeptics from space.

Christer Fuglesand, putting in some product placement for the Swedish Skeptics from space.

Changing gears, the next speaker is a Swedish astronaut and founding longstanding member of the Swedish Skeptics, Christer Fuglesang. His talk focussed on explaining the activities of ESA and his own visits to the International Space Station. It sometimes sounded like a promotional talk for the European Space Agency, but it also gave a large overview of scientific uses of space exploration (satellites, robotic or human spaceflight). There is for instance the proof of scientific warming that cannot be denied, the creation of new alloys based on experiments in microgravity, or the understanding how balance works in our brains based on research in the ISS.

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The afternoon kicked off with a talk by Barbro Walker from Germany on Brain Gym. This “technique” is spouted as an effective, holistic and natural treatment. It is used for a long list of symptoms (she stopped counting at thousand …), which is also an indication that there is something wrong. In her in-depth researched talk Walker showed that there was absolutely nothing in it. The main “theoretical” basis is anecdotical and marketing, and whatever theory could be found, relates either to pre-scientific Chinese medicine (Qi) or misunderstanding of neuroscience. For instance, Brain Gym claims that our brain shuts parts off (not true) but by using their techniques they can be activated again. These techniques seem ridiculous (thinking of an ‘X’, drinking water, certain movements, …) but Brain Gym is not innocent and harmless. Not only is it unscientific, but also immoral as it promotes healing without any scientific basis. Walker even found out that children are discouraged seeking help (from teachers or other adults), instead relying on these woo techniques. Dangerous indeed…

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Next up was Thomasz Witkowski, founding member of the Polish Skeptics, a small but very active group. He presented a serious but very well written talk that challenged Richard Feynman’s observation that social sciences resemble a cargo cult. Witkowski, himself a psychologist, investigated first if the charge has a basis in reality. It seems indeed, as a lot of published research is irrelevant and never quoted. Furthermore, research is mostly done on Westerners, mostly American psychology students, further invalidating any overall validity. But Witkowski also showed some positive examples of psychological research, like the third brakelight or the yellow colour of ambulances and fire trucks. This research has saved money and lives.

However, in order to prevent  social sciences resembling a cargo cult, several things need to be done. First scientific integrity (as mentioned) needs to be maintained and controlled, and science need to be popularised to provide a reliable image of itself. Finally, and there Witkowski saw our role as skeptics, there is a need of critical reception of scientific results (or so-called scientific surveys, as Michael Marsh pointed out). Even though the talk wasn’t as witty or fast-paced as other talks, I still liked it and found it very good.

As yesterday, there was a panel discussion, this time on journalism and critical thinking. Again, I’m not such a fan of such a format, however there were some interesting points made and presented, both by the panelists and the public on how to do and promote good journalism that helps spread critical thinking and skeptical thought.

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The skeptical talks were wrapped up by Catherine de Jong from the Netherlands. She presented several pseudo-scientific treatments available in her country. Now there is really no reason for these bogus therapies to exist, as several therapies exist. Combined with psychotherapy like CBT , they have a reasonable success rate (although never 100%). In her overview, it once more became very clear to me that people who are in real need are still being taken advantage of. And apart from them needing a treatment, there is also the issue of side effects, like the Ibogaine treatment (a “natural” plant remedy from West Africa so it should be good?). This hallucinogenic substance can actually cause heart rythm disorders, resulting in several deaths every year. Proponents of this therapy claim that they are suppressed and that the “medical establishment” doesn’t want to research this substance. However Catherine delved into this and found several pharmacological articles documenting it (and its side effects) in the 50’s and 60’s of last century. Modern search engines don’t go further back than 1980 so it takes some digging, and Catherine has done this very well. It is very important that these frauds and quack treatments get called out.

In all this was a very entertaining day, presenting some top-notch skeptical speakers from around Europe. There is a skeptical gala dinner tonight, and tomorrow it will be, sadly, the last day of this excellent conference organised by the Swedish Skeptics VOF.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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6 Responses to European Skeptics Congress, day 2

  1. Craig Good says:

    Journalism has always been a business; part of the entertainment business. It helps to keep that in mind.

  2. sgerbic says:

    Thank you. Following your updates!

  3. alternativmedicin says:

    Excellent summary! Thanx!

  4. Many thanks for your splendid coverage. I don’t always agree with you but that is almost a point when it comes to skepticism…

    Minor correction: Christer Fuglesang has certainly been in VoF for a very long time but he didn’t found it.

  5. molecule77 says:

    Thanks for an informative and succinct account of the proceedings.

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