Scepticism is the New Rock’n’Roll

Last night we held the first evening of the Oxford branch of Skeptics in the Pub. Come 6.15 and the bar we had booked was already filling up. By Seven o’clock it was packed and unfortunately not everyone could see or hear. And what had people come to hear? A talk by Ben Goldacre about medical statistics.

 Yes. Let’s be clear. Over a hundred people, sat through several hours of discussion about funnel plots and publication bias, baseline manipulation, subgroup analyses and inappropriate controls – and it was huge fun. Ben was describing how pharmaceutical companies manipulate trial data in order to make their products look better than they are. It was a lecture he normally gives to medical students in London and we had the pleasure of it whilst drinking Speckled Hen.

I was one of the organisers, along with up-and-coming comedian Iszi Lawrence, keen sceptic Justin and comedy promoter, Andi Currie, and the size of crowd and response surprised us – so apologies to those who could not get in. We are working on it. When I was a student, we went to evenings in a small room above a pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham, to sit through a crappy little comedy club run by an unknown Frank Skinner and hear jokes about rubbing the breasts of the Madame Tusauds waxwork of Prince Anne. Now people are coming out to pubs to hear talks about rational thought, sceptical enquiry, quackery, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Scepticism is the new comedy is the new rock and roll.

Oxford is not the first group like this. London has been going for a number of years now and is used to huge crowds. In the UK, there are now groups in Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham and Leicester, with new groups being set up in other cities as we speak. Across the world, similar groups are cropping up in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the USA.

Why should this be so? There are perhaps many reasons. One simple explanation may be that comedy and scepticism appear to be good bedfellows. There are now many entertainers and comedians who take a distinct sceptical line, including Tim Minchin, Derren Brown, Mark Thomas, and Dara Ó Briain. Indeed, comedy king Robin Ince organised a phenomenally successful Christmas show, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration for Christmas which seamlessly combined the scathing sceptical wit of Ricky Gervais with the arch rationalism of Richard Dawkins. Yesterday, James Randi’s first London TAM meeting sold out its hundreds of tickets in just a few hours, taking the organisers by complete surprise. So, one simple explanation is that laughing at quacks and cranks might just be good honest fun.

But I think there might be more than that. Remember, Ben’s talk was about the abuse of statistics by drug companies. It was serious stuff and shocking. The numbers trotted out of the deaths caused by vitamin pill pushing quacks and deceitful pharmaceutical company marketing departments were extraordinary. Ben made the point of highlighting how immune we are to feeling shocked by such figures – but torture a kitten and we are up in arms. And yet, there was a real sense of engagement and humour. The feedback was that people were thoroughly enjoying it. And I think this is because that organisations like Skeptics in the Pub create shared experiences of thoughtful dialogue in a way that is hard to find in today’s media-led environment. If you have been trained in science and enjoy reading popular science books and no longer work in a University environment, for example, there are few opportunities to discuss these ideas. (Interestingly, there were only three Oxford undergraduate students there after a head count). Television contains close to zero science content. Newspapers appear to deliberately misrepresent science in order to create sensational or politically loaded stories. And our celebrity obsessed culture has our friends down the pub talking about the split up of some bird with big tits with some bloke with big pecs. And we are used to biting our lips at dinner parties, weddings and at work, where friends and colleagues appear unashamed to tell us how much they believe in homeopathy, star signs and ‘spiritual’ things. These pub chats supply a huge and welcome antidote – there really are people in the world who are not completely batshit – lots of them.

Skeptics in the Pub Oxford began with a meeting between the four organisers in the Eagle and Child, an Oxford pub more famous for earlier drinkers, the Inklings, where Tolkien and C S Lewis would read to the group from their latest writings, drink heavily, and then argue about who was the hardest, Aslan or Gandalf. (I am personally waiting for the film franchise fusion to take place, in the style of Aliens vs. Predator, to see on onscreen resolution of this ultimate fantasy question.) So, maybe we are seeing a revival of talking about interesting things in pubs. If you want to to, go along to your nearest sceptics talking and drinking club and have a rational pint, I am sure they will be pleased to see you.

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Our next meeting in Oxford is with Simon Singh (Monday, June 8 at 6:30PM). This should be another crowd puller – get there early. Simon is also the subject of a special Skeptics In the Pub meeting in London on Monday (The Penderel’s Oak) where Nick Cohen, and other prominent sceptics, will be holding a Public Support meeting to help Simon in his recent troubles with the British Chiropractic Association.


Subject: Public Meeting, London, 18 May 2009

I understand that Simon Singh will announce whether he will appeal on Monday 18 May 2009 at a public support meeting to take place in London at 6.30pm.

The venue will be the Penderels Oak, the usual meeting place of London Skeptics in the Pub.

As well as Simon Singh, the leading UK journalist Nick Cohen will be speaking. Other speakers are currently being confirmed.

For more, see: http://www.facebook.com/l/;http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2009/05/bca-v-singh-update-and-roundup.html

19 comments for “Scepticism is the New Rock’n’Roll

  1. Warhelmet
    May 13, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Scepticism the new “Rock’n'Roll”? I sincerely hope not.

  2. Stewart McOwan
    May 13, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Think I’d rather relive the Banshees and Ants 1976-8. It would also have been more interesting hearing the Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy, Richmond. Shame I was only 5 at the time. Couldn’t afford the cab.
    Seriously though all you seem to have been quaffing was Speckled Hen. Not very Keith Richards! Old man’s beer isn’t rock n roll!

  3. SMacX
    May 14, 2009 at 7:20 am

    OMG

    Any chance any of youse would likes to comes over and edumacate us here in the emerald isle about dis stuff.

    But seriously, I would give my back teeth and a kidney to be able to have a session like this in Dublin! I am seriously fed up with people spouting on about stuff they don’t bother to inform themselves on and it always seems to happen in the bloody pub. What a turnaround it would be!

    Would have loved to have been there. Speckled Hen does sound a bit to underwhelming mind you. Should have gone for the auld Krystal if you wanted to be real rock and/or roll :)

  4. teekblog
    May 14, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Cracking stuff Andy.

    It’s interesting isn’t it how comedy, sceptical thought and in my opinion politics seem to be converging into what may the beginnings of a new movement – seriously.

    Take Rory Bremner. He started as an out and out impersonator, your run of the mill character assassinations and comedy turn being his fodder. but then as he researched material on politicians, celebrities etc, he realised that what he found wasn’t just funny anymore, it was serious and worthy of in-depth scrutiny, albeit with an hilarious front. Ben, Robin Ince, and the comedians/activists you mentioned appear to be doing somewhing similar – tackling really important and serious issues with humour and scepticism gets the message across so much more effectively that authoritarian Statism or dumbed-down meeja rubbish. Same with the like of Jon Stewart and Michael Moore. It seems to me that in an age of virtually complete disengagement with the political establishment, humour and scepticism can combine to inform people of important issues and even organise them into taking action – viz. writing to MPs, raising awareness themselves, blogging etc.

    Keep up the good work mate, you’re at the beginning of something big I hope…!

  5. Dr*T
    May 14, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Well done Andy – glad to hear it all went well. Don’t listen to the Philistines, SPeckled Hen is perfectly respectable, leave the others with their WKD blue (obviously in the pay of Big Pharma).

  6. Clarinda
    May 14, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I’m ancient enough to remember the protest song writers and singers of the 60s etc. and their followers who found remarkable public support – where are they all now? I was in Paris during the student uprisings at the Sorbonne – exciting times. I accept that the knitted jumper of the earnest folk-singer was a bit of a turnoff – but generally their message was potent.
    Silenced by PCism, police ‘homeland security’ crowd control or banning measures, so-called anti-terrorism laws etc., where are the platforms for open debate and thoughtful, intelligent challenge – without some bad and petty law used to silence the idea and/or action. “Blowin’ in the wind” is currently the background theme music for a questionably eco-friendly (?) advert on TV!
    The wonderful satirical programmes of the 60s eg TWTWTW and even Spitting Image gave political figures and difficult issues a good run for their money. Most of the above would now be banned under the oppressive boot of political and big business control-freakery with heavy financial and/or imprisonment for those who dare to question……and I thought my visit to the Stasi Museum in old East Berlin was a museum visit! I’m amazed the Private Eye still manages to promote a perceptive thought despite their bank account being regularly cleared out by PC inspired court cases.
    I am hoping that a recent paper being presented to The New York Skeptics on the on-line fiascos of quackophile medical bilge-water (fraud) will be published for us all to read.
    I also belong to The Brights, I admit a bit of a strange title – but it is an increasing international group of people determined to promote a non-supernatural challenge to those who would push many religious and other unsubstantiated life perspectives, processes and products – Richard Dawkins is a senior member. My apologies if this is old news to you all.
    Great blog – and with the current rumbling of our current political leadership etc. just perhaps the public will recognise the value of facts and honesty in place of smoke and mirrors.

  7. Le Canard Noir
    May 14, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Yes, I will stick to real beer. I consider lager to be homeopathic beer, just watered down piss.

  8. John H
    May 14, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Andy. Liked the point about “”"biting our lips at dinner parties, weddings and at work, where friends and colleagues appear unashamed to tell us how much they believe in homeopathy, star signs and ‘spiritual’ things”"”. Would we bite our lips at blatant racism, sexism, jokes about the disabled etc.

    I rarely bite my lip when people spout this nonsense. I earned my spurs arguing with Jehovahs Witlesses (having had the misfortune to marry into a family of them – excluding the wife).

    Obviously I have no friends.

    My work acquaintances and my wifes family despise me for repeatedly telling them that their religion, belief in chiro, sugar pills etc is ridiculous. I usually end up just emailing them the appropriate URL from whatstheharm.com

    Well worth the social pariah status (although I don’t bother much with religionists nowadays. I am sure the proof will come to them in due course).

    My current partner rolls her eyes every time I start berating someone over their quackery, especially when the sub-text suggests one of her friends is clearly a moron (which they are incidentally). Good example of nonsense-speak was a friend who gives her cats HY sugar pills for rectal squits. When I suggested that this was pointless she told me that sugar pills cleared up the shits in 72 hours. Apparently they went away in all of three days if not otherwise treated with pixy dust. I claim moron status for her on the basis of not being able to do simple maths (so 3×24=errrr, pass).

  9. Anonymous
    May 14, 2009 at 10:38 am

    prestidigitators too – james randi.

  10. Ramel
    May 14, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Sounds fantastic, hopfully we’ll get one up north eventually. The only point I disagree with you on is that there sould never be another franchise fusion in the style of Aliens vs. Predator, that was a terrible film (althought the PC game was prettty good).

  11. SVETLANA PERTSOVICH
    May 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    John, probably you seek friends in wrong place ;) Moreover, I guess you have friends, certainly.
    And as for credulous maids, instead of your laughing at poor dame, better propose her some good medicine for her cats. If parasites come away from cats for 1 day instead of 3 days, even your hapless friend will be capable to count it (I hope she is capable to see a difference between 1 and 3 :) ). And main result of your experiment will be that henceforth she will rate you as a great wiseacre and expert! :) :D

  12. John H
    May 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Andy

    This might be off message here but I am not sure where else to post it.

    The quackery of the day was superb. I nearly choked on my tuna reading about the water energetic vortexisator.

    I have not seen that much condensed quackery since I looked at the Scary Mary shipwreck’n'woo site.

    It did get me thinking though. There is so much superdense bullshit on that site that I think they are con merchants rather than woosters.

    At first read it looks as if it should be on the uncyclopaedia site (which was another brilliant steer by the way – so thanks).

    Reading between the lines my guess is that these shysters had a load of old toot and dressed it up in quackery to flog it to the gullible.

    I am not sure that conmen rooking the gullible is worse than the gullible rooking themselves. Either way a fool and their money are soon parted.

  13. NRG
    May 14, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    All too accurate with the rock n roll comparison, Birmingham’s complete lack of musical heritage being reflected in the failure of our local skeptics in the pub group to even decide on a venue before fizzling out. Time to give them a bit of a prod, now I know they exist…

  14. Sean Ellis
    May 15, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Just wanted to say thanks to you guys for organising the event – it was nice to see Ben and to meet you in the flesh. Well worth battling the Oxford one-way system for.

  15. Anonymous
    May 15, 2009 at 11:51 am

    teekblog “tackling really important and serious issues with humour and scepticism gets the message across so much more effectively that authoritarian Statism or dumbed-down meeja rubbish.”

    The Australian Skeptics have been doing this for a couple of decades now through their magazine “The Skeptic”. Glad to see it’s finally catching on. However, if my experience with “Swift” at the JREF site is any guide, it’ll take a bit of doing to get most sceptics to lighten up a little. Nobody there seems to understand humour at all.

    regards,
    BillyJoe

    PS: Read John H’s first comment here and you have a bit of an idea what we’re up against.

  16. John H
    May 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    To NRG

    I am not sure that “Birmingham’s complete lack of musical heritage” is really valid.

    Whether you like the music or not it is almost certainly true that Birmingham is the epicentre of heavy rock.

    To Billy Joe

    Any chance of a URL for that reference ?

    I get the impression that most sceptics are pretty lightened up.

    There is far more humour on most sceptic sites than there is on most quackery sites (especially the jabbophobe and AIDS denialist sites). As far as I can see the quacks are a complete bunch of po-faced miserabilists ranting against the world, the government, science, regulation, pharma, doctors, the NHS etc.

    I picture all the quacks in the world having what my granny would describe as a “face like a cats arse”.

  17. John H
    May 15, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Billy Joe

    I just looked at the Swift/JREF site.

    I can see shedloads of lighthearted banter and humour on there.

    In fact there is probably as much pisstaking as there is serious comment.

    And you could hardly call Harriet Hall a po faced old scrote.

  18. Stewart McOwan
    May 15, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    John H sounds a right Happy Jack. Birmingham is the ‘epicentre’. What is that all about? UB40 have to be the crappiest band ever. They murdered so many decent songs without shame. Add to that the Move, Duran Duran and Ozzy Osbourne. What a pile of godforesaken trash. Brum is utter garbage apart from its Ethiopian restaurant I found with the greatest of difficulty.
    Glad that his better half despairs her eyes whenever he opens his stupid mouth in a social situtaion. He is obviously in severe need of a bullet or two.

  19. Anonymous
    May 16, 2009 at 8:09 am

    John H

    “I just looked at the Swift/JREF site.
    I can see shedloads of lighthearted banter and humour on there.”

    Well, perhaps I’m speaking past tense a little.
    A couple of us have been busily softening up the hardheads.
    And maybe my humour misses the mark at times – someone called it “unconventional”.

    regards,
    BillyJoe

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