Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Dangerous Homeopathy

This is of interest...and relevance re. the supposed "harmlessness" of homeopathy. Fron Zeno's blog.

It’s bad enough when homeopaths take good money from people, claiming they can cure their colds or clear up their eczema with sugar pills. It’s another thing entirely to claim to prevent or treat serious diseases with identical sugar pills.

But this is precisely what the BBC’s Newsnight programme discovered homeopaths were doing. Broadcast in January, Pallab Ghosh exposed the disgraceful behaviour of a north London homeopath and a homeopathic ‘pharmacy’ selling sugar pills as a malaria preventative.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

On a weird misreading of my book

I'll say one more thing about the whole Martin Cohen review thing and then shut up about it, as I realize I'm getting obsessive. In the comments under his THES review, Cohen yesterday explained his case for saying, in his review:

"Do you believe in God? Or even wonder if there might be a purpose to the universe?...Then you believe in bullshit. That is the uncompromising message of Stephen Law's new book."

I denied that I ever said this. In fact I don't even believe it. To support his case that I am, nevertheless, committed to it, Cohen now comments:


1. God

Do you believe in God or think that the universe might have a purpose? = Bullshit

A section on p49 entitled 'Scientific refutation of God claims?' starts:'Let's now turn to the claim the God exists'. To do this, Law quotes and discusses at length the book 'the God Delusion' by Dawkins. He explicitly supports Dawkin's view saying, for example, on p52

"…postulating a God doesn't solve the problem of the complexity of the universe. Rather with god [sic], we merely postpone the problem of accounting for such complexity."

A few lines later he adds:

"While there are theists who have responded to Dawkin's argument in a fairly intellectually rigorous and straightforward way, others have instead reached for the usual bag of immunizing tricks, in particular "Ah, but this is beyond the ability of reason and/or science to decide!"


Got that? - Cohen bases his case that I explicitly support Dawkins on just two quotes taken from page 52 of my book. Now look at the text of page 52 below, from which Cohen's quotes are both taken, and notice how Cohen's first quote is taken from five lines before I explicitly say I am not endorsing Dawkins, and his second quote is from immediately after where I say that. The bit where I explicitly distance myself from Dawkins's argument is marked in bold. The bits Cohen quotes in support of his claim that I explicitly endorse Dawkins are in italic. Here it is:


However, let’s set this problem to one side and get back to the issue at hand, which is Dawkins’s criticism of such arguments. Dawkins argues that, when theists appeal to god to explain such... [end p51]

[start p52]. ...otherwise supposedly improbable features of the universe, they overlook the fact that the god to which they appeal must be at least as complex, and thus at least as improbable, as that which he is invoked to explain:

{[DAWKINS QUOTE]A designer god cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any god capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape}9

If the existence of the universe having such organized complexity is highly improbable, then, says Dawkins, the existence of any god having the kind of complexity to account for it must be even more improbable. So postulating a God doesn’t solve the problem of the complexity of the universe. Rather, with god, we merely postpone the problem of accounting for such complexity. But then the complexity we observe in the universe provides no justification for introducing god. Worse still, if the theist is right and the probability of such complexity just happening to exist is very low, then surely the probability of god existing must be even lower.

Dawkin’s argument is intriguing and worthy of closer study. However, I won’t assess its cogency here. My focus is not on whether Dawkins’s argument is any good (I’m not sure it is) but on some of the dubious moves some theists have made in response to it. While there are theists who have responded to Dawkins’s argument in a fairly intellectually rigorous and straightforward way, others have instead reached for the usual bag of immunizing tricks, in particular “Ah, but this is beyond
the ability of reason and/or science to decide!”


How peculiar is that?

[P.S. In any case, even if I did endorse Dawkins' argument (which I obviously don't) it still wouldn't follow (obviously wouldn't follow, in fact) that my view is if you believe in God, or wonder if there's any purpose to the universe, "then you believe in bullshit".]

P.P.S. I am now away for a month, so posts will be infrequent, and possibly non-existent, during that time.

Conspiracy Theory Day, 25th Sept - tickets on sale TOMORROW

CFI UK and SPES present


Sunday 25th September 2011

9/11, alien visitation, Jewish cabals and global warming - why are people drawn to conspiracy theories, and what holds them captive? What are the warning signs of a dodgy conspiracy theory? What conspiracy theories are actually credible, and why? Spend an entertaining and informative day with some if the world's leading experts.


10.30 Registration

10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton
“Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

12.00- 1.10 Karen Douglas
"A Social Psychological Perspective On Conspiracy Theories"

2.00-3.10 David Aaronovitch
"Do Conspiracy Theories Have Common Characteristics Over Time And Space?"

3.10-4.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller
“Truth And The Net”

4.10 End


Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL.

Cost £10. £8 BHA, etc. £5 students. Booking in advance available at the BHA website (tickets on sale TOMORROW!). Remaining tickets will be for sale on the door. Please publicize!

Organized by Stephen Law, Provost CFI UK. Media can contact Stephen on


10.45-11.55 Chris French and Robert Brotherton, “Conspiracy Minded: The Psychology of Belief in Conspiracy Theories”

This talk will introduce the topic of conspiracy theories and outline the difficulties that arise when trying to formulate a universally acceptable definition of this deceptively complex concept. Conspiracy theories have come to play a prominent role in contemporary culture. It is almost inevitable that any significant event will become the subject of conspiracy theorising, and considerable numbers of people endorse such theories. Although the psychology behind belief in unsubstantiated and implausible conspiracy theories is not yet well understood, social scientists are now beginning to address this important topic. A summary of theories and empirical findings to date will be presented.

12.00-1.10 Karen Douglas, "A social psychological perspective on conspiracy theories".

Karen will give some background on the psychological correlates of conspiracy theories (e.g., personality characteristics, motivations) before going on to discuss some of her own and her students' research. She will talk about research showing that conspiracy theories are persuasive and change people's opinions about what happened in major world events such as the death of Princess Diana. Karen will also explain research showing that people tend to believe in conspiracy theories when they lack information and fill in the gaps by 'projecting' their own moral tendencies onto the alleged conspirators, and will discuss some of the features that make conspiracy theories persuasive vs. those that are less effective. Finally, she will talk about the beginning of a research programme examining some of the consequences of beliefs in conspiracy theories. For example, she has some data showing that exposure to conspiracy theories makes people feel less powerful and therefore less likely to want to vote.

2.00-3.10 David Aaronovitch, "Do conspiracy theories have common characteristics over time and space?"

Details to follow.

3.10 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, “Truth and the Net”.

Jamie and Carl will talk about their forthcoming (August 2011) report 'Truth and the Net' which examines the extent that conspiracy theories and misinformation are entering the classroom; how far young people are equipped with the digital literacy required to confront them. This is based on a large national survey of teachers on the subject. They'll sketch out the critical thinking skills, habits and knowledge young people need.


David Aaronavitch (details to follow)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at the think tank Demos. He researches and writes about a wide variety of extremist groups. He recently authored a major paper on al-Qaeda terrorism, which included living alongside radical Islamists. He is currently leading a research team conducting the largest ever survey of the far-right in Europe.

Robert Brotherton is a member of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unitat Goldsmiths, University of London. He is conducting a PhD, funded by the ESRC, on the psychology of belief in conspiracy theories. He also teaches as part of the anomalistic psychology undergraduate module at Goldsmiths. Robert is currently acting as assistant editor of The Skeptic and convenes the Anomalistic Psychology Interest Group, a seminar group for academic discussion of topics within anomalistic psychology.

Dr Karen Douglas is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Kent. She is Associate Editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology and Social Psychology. Karen is also a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and a member of learned societies in social psychology and communication studies. She has published widely on topics such as language and communication, the psychology of the Internet, feedback, and the social psychology of conspiracy theories, and her research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Australian Research Council and the British Academy. She is the co-author of a forthcoming social psychology text to be published by Palgrave MacMillan and the first volume on feedback to be published by Peter Lang Publishers. Karen's research on conspiracy theories focuses on the social psychological processes and consequences of beliefs in such theories, and the factors that make conspiracy theories so appealing.

Professor Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as being a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a member of the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society. He has published over 100 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics within psychology. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims, as well as writing for the Guardian's online science pages. For more than a decade, he edited of The Skeptic and his latest book, co-edited with Wendy Grossman, is Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic (London: The Philosophy Press).

Carl Miller is an Associate at Demos and a researcher at King's College London. He is interested in extremism, dissent, the Internet and social media. In 2010 Jamie and Carl authored The Power of Unreason, about the relationship between conspiracy theories and terrorist ideology. Following this paper, both spent months debating with 9/11 Truthers.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Crystal experiment

Here's a brief extract from my book Believing Bullshit.

Professor Christopher French and colleagues Lyn Williams and Hayley O’Donnell at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, conducted a study into the claim that crystals have unusual powers that can be detected when they are held. The resulting paper was presented to the British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. The study compared the reactions of a group of volunteers who were told to meditate while clutching real crystals bought from “New Age” shops with a control group given fake crystals. Those given real crystals reported higher concentration powers, heightened energy levels, and better spiritual well-being. However, exactly the same feelings were reported by those holding fake crystals. This experiment repeated an earlier one in which the experimenter, Williams, knew which crystals were real and which were fake, and so it was not “double-blind.” This second study was double-blind. The result? Neither experiment found any difference in the effects reported between real and fake crystals. Richard Wiseman, a colleague of French’s, commented on the results: “The suggestion is that the power of crystals is in the mind rather than in the crystals themselves.”2 Let’s suppose you believe in the miraculous powers of crystals and, in particular, in the ability of people to sense the power of crystals that they physically handle. But you’re now presented with these experimental results that strongly suggest, as Wiseman notes, that the experiences people have as a result of handling crystals are a product of the power of suggestion, rather than anything in the crystals themselves. Oh, dear. What do you do? One commentator on a blog reporting the experiments responded like so:

There is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered. You would do better to discover it by looking outside your narrow frame of reference.

This is a curious collection of sentences.The first three are, of course, all true—indeed they are truisms. Yes, there’s much that exists Playing the Mystery Card beyond the visible spectrum of light and beyond the five senses. X-rays, for example. It is undeniable that not proving the existence of something does not disprove its existence. And of course, who would want to deny that “much is yet to be discovered”? However, while the first three sentences are truisms, they fail to engage with the experimental results. What the experiment produced is some rather compelling evidence that some of the effects people typically report on handling crystals—increased concentration, spiritual well-being, heightened energy levels—are not a result of some special feature of the crystals themselves but rather of the power of suggestion. It is important to stress that what we are looking at here is not a mere absence of evidence for the claim that crystals have such effects, but rather that it is some positive evidence of the absence of any such effects. Yet notice how, in response to this experimental evidence, our commentator says “not being able to prove the existence of something is not to disprove its existence,” thus misrepresenting the results of this investigation as a mere absence of evidence.

What of the suggestion that there’s much that is “beyond the senses” (whether it’s a supernatural realm or merely more of the natural world is left open) that the methods of science are not well suited to discover (being too “narrow”). The thought seems to be that if we want to discover more about this undiscovered realm, we need to open ourselves up to other ways of knowing. But what other ways of knowing? A survey of crystal healing literature and websites suggests a combination of gut feeling and
intuition (see “I Just Know!”) and heavy reliance on various anecdotes about the effects of crystals, such as people being supposedly cured, and so on (see Piling Up the Anecdotes).

This is a fairly typical example of how people Play the Mystery Card in order to deal with compelling scientific evidence against their beliefs in miraculous or supernatural phenomena. The scientific method has a fantastic track record when it comes to revealing what lies beyond the visible spectrum of light and is hidden fromour ordinary five senses. As I say, scientists have discovered not only X-rays, but also subatomic particles, distant galaxies, and so on. We are given no reason to think the scientific method is not suitable when it comes to investigating the alleged powers of crystals.

Indeed, many of the claims made about crystals clearly are scientifically investigable because they have observable, empirically testable consequences. Moreover, science has produced good evidence that at least some of these claims are false. Still, our commentator sweepingly dismisses such scientific findings, misrepresenting them as a mere “absence of evidence.”

On no grounds whatsoever, and in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, our commentator insists that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute the various claims made about crystals. And of course, his dismissal of such scientific evidence is delivered with an air of humility and superior wisdom in contrast to
the implied know-it-all attitude of the scientific critics.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Martin Cohen's bizarre review - further thought

A further thought on Martin Cohen's review of my book Believing Bullshit (scroll down for my first comment).

I tell you what has surprised me somewhat. Although the book is provocatively titled, it is written in a fairly measured and qualified way, and certainly doesn't go round saying all religion is bullshit, etc. It's actually fairly polite about religion, I thought - I certainly intended it to be (I have no interest whatsoever in insulting religious people per se). But the book has provoked some very strong emotional reactions, and insults, from some religious (and non-religious) people (in fact other religious people have rather liked it, and said so).

So what explains Martin Cohen's astonishing review, packed full, as it is, with obvious falsehoods, blatant misrepresentations, etc?

I am thinking, perhaps unfairly, that Dawkins is onto something with his "viruses of the mind" idea. In effect, I am installing anti-viral software. The virus gets very aggressive when it detects what's going on, immediately takes command of the subject and sends out a warning message to other infectees not to expose themselves to the contents of the book - even telling barefaced fibs about it in order to prevent the virus being attacked in others.

It's as if Cohen has been taken over by a mind-bot of some sort (not necessarily religious, I should add). His review is so weird, it's almost like it's not him that's writing it, but the virus itself.

If so, then I forgive him.

P.S. This is pure speculation, of course (it's for, as those psychic hotlines put it, "entertainment purposes only").
P.P.S. Hope this doesn't mark me out as a "follower of His Holiness, Richard Dawkins".

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Does anyone have good resource info on cell replacement?

Doing a kid's book and need to find out info on how quickly cells are replaced in the human body. I know that some turn over very quickly (liver or kidney) and others more slowly (bone) but that they are all replaced over a decade or two (well, I think so, anyway). Anyone know of a resource? I tried googling but could only find stuff on cancer, etc.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Martin Cohen's review of Believing Bullshit

Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole

21 July 2011 Times Higher Ed Supplement.

Strong whiff of a weak argument

Martin Cohen finds an attack on irrationality worryingly unscientific in its methods

Do you believe in God? Or even wonder if there might be a purpose to the universe? Do you suppose that human consciousness is more than merely chemical changes in "brain states"? Do you think natural selection is a zombie theory or that alternative health remedies can sometimes work?

Then you believe in bullshit. That is the uncompromising message of Stephen Law's new book.

Continues here....

Very weird review as I certainly don't claim, and nor do I believe, that if you believe in God, or wonder if there is a purpose to the universe, then you believe bullshit.

Here's a passage from the introduction:

However, it’s worth emphasizing at the outset that I’m certainly not suggesting that every religious belief system is an Intellectual Black Hole, or that every person of faith is a victim. True, I illustrate how even core mainstream religious beliefs are sometimes promoted and defended by means of strategies covered in this book. But that’s not meant to show that beliefs in question are false, or that they couldn’t be given a proper, robust defense. Just because some religious people choose to defend what they believe by dubious means doesn’t entail that no one can reasonably hold those same beliefs.

Moving on, I don't claim, and nor do I even believe, that consciousness is "chemical changes in brain states". I do not, anywhere in the book, discuss critics of natural selection. And I do not deny, anywhere in the book, that alternative remedies "sometimes work".

And that's just the opening lines of Cohen's review. There's barely a line of the review that's accurate. Extraordinary.

What's really going on here, I wonder?! Might the fact that I am, according to Cohen, a follower of "His Holiness, Richard Dawkins" have coloured Cohen's vision somewhat?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Homeopathy survey

This via Chris French:

Homeopaths are doing a survey of public opinion at

You might like to complete it? It's v quick. [it's also quite astonishingly worded S.L.]

He also points out there is another version of the same survey at

The latter has been put up by @skepticCanary (aka Tom Williamson) who claims that "homeopaths have a track record of abandoning ideas if they don't turn out the way they wanted". Surely not, Tom! But, just in case, you might like to complete that one too.

Also, information about the World Skeptics Congress in Berlin in May 2012 will be updated at the following site:

In Korea

I am currently in Korea as keynote speaker at the ICPIC conference here in Jinju. Golly it is a long way.

Got picked up at airport 5.30am today, Sunday, and taken to Seoul station and put on train to Ggeongju, where I joined a tour organized by ICPIC. Everyone's been v friendly. Have missed two nights sleep though as I played drums for the Heavy Dexters Friday night at the Chester Arms pub, East Oxford, went home and 2 hours later had to get bus for Heathrow for 7.30am flight.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Talk in Oxford next Wednesday

SitP Oxford - Stephen Law: Believing Bullshit

When: Wed Jul 13, 2011 6:30pm to 8:30pm UTC

Where: Copa of Oxford 9 - 13 George Street Oxford OX1 2AU We use the upstairs function room. To find it, go up the spiral staircase - then look for the door immediately opposite you. Go through, up another flight of stairs and you will find us. There is a bar up here and it should be open. So no need to spill your pint on the spiral stairs.
Event Status: confirmed
Event Description: Skeptics in the Pub Oxford. For more information, see SitP Ref [SitP647Event]