What Is Skepticism For? The Case for Skeptic Activism against The War on Drugs.

I’ve never been much of a drinker. I didn’t do it at all until late into my 20s, and since then only very rarely have I bothered. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. Drug taking has been almost completely non-existent in my entire life and I spent the first 30 or so years outright denouncing them.

I tell you all of this because I am about to make an argument in defense of drugs and drug users, and it has become standard practice to minimise anyone who defends drugs as a ‘pot head’ or a ‘junkie’ or some other ad hominem attack to save the effort of actually engaging with the arguments. I am no pot head. And I am definitely no junkie.

With that out of the way, I think the War on Drugs, and with it, public perception of drugs + public policy on drugs + media representation of drugs (which is a whirlpool of feedback loops) is just about one of the most harmful things our society does to itself. And I believe that the Skeptic community should take a more active role in fighting against this harm.

Why The Skeptic Community?

It is true that many organisations already exist which are fighting for legalisation, deciminalisation and other reforms on the drug law front, but they are usually fighting on the political level and are also usually ignored by the mainstream (both the media and the public) because “…you know… potheads.” The skeptic community has the advantage of NOT being about drugs, but being about good science. That is what makes this proposition so powerful for undoing this harmful set of laws.

rock fishing is one of the most dangerous sports there isBut why should the skeptic community care? Because my understanding of what the skeptic movement is really about – at its roots – is correcting false beliefs to reduce harms. The objective is to make the world a better place by saving people from themselves. To save people from using useless medical treatments, or to save people from wasting money on useless rituals, treatments or activities.

Skepticism is about destroying false beliefs. And social perception of drugs, thanks to decades of propaganda and manipulation by governments and the media, is so out of line with reality that we are perpetuating incredibly harmful policies out of fear and ignorance when we should be basing our policies on science, knowledge and rationality.

This is what skeptics fight for, and I see no reason why this fight should be any different to any of the others skeptics pick.

Why Drugs? Why Should Skeptics Care About Drug Law?

Skeptics should care about drug laws exactly the same way that skeptics care about vaccination.

Imagine a world where 50 years ago some extreme political party got into power in the USA and decided that vaccination was a dangerous act, and needed to be made illegal. They start massive advertising and propaganda campaigns and convince the majority of the population that vaccination is a dangerous activity for which there is no possible benefit. They highlight every adverse reaction, twist evidence to suit their agenda, and gain a popular support of outlawing vaccination.

vaccination and drugsImagine a modern world where people have to get vaccinated in secret, with vaccines they can’t be sure are what they are meant to be, and with needles which might be reused. Imagine the media covered every single adverse reaction which ever occurred, and talked about people dying and contracting blood born diseases from shared needles, despite the fact that these problems only exist because vaccines are illegal (ie: not a product of the vaccines themselves). While the media is covering every negative aspect of vaccination it is of course only covering 1 in 200 of the complications experienced with alternative medicines. The public is justifiably convinced that alternative medicines like homeopathy and acupuncture are perfectly safe, while vaccination is a high risk treatment which doesn’t offer any benefit to the receiver.

And then someone suggests that maybe the skeptic community – so concerned with saving people from misinformation and scientific manipulations – might want to perhaps argue for the legalisation of vaccination again.

  • “But we don’t deal with that. Lets stick to what we know…”
  • “That is an issue for lawyers and politicians. We are just concerned with pseudoscience and the paranormal”
  • “I just don’t understand why vaccination is something we should care about?”
  • “Research has shown how harmful having backroom vaccinations can be. It is clearly dangerous, you shouldn’t do it, and there is very little science supporting the value of vaccinations! And your conspiratorial talk of government controlling research makes you sound like a nut job.”

This is what I see when I suggest skeptics care about drug laws. Willful avoidance of engagement with the issue, and dismissal of the fact that governments have very clearly controlled the substances (halting scientific research in many ways) while simultaneously funding many studies in order to prove their existing biases. This fact is most strongly highlighted by the fact that David Nutt (winner of the 2013 John Maddox award for defending science) was fired from his government position for reporting that many illegal drugs were far less harmful than the legal drugs, thus the laws should be changed to be more scientifically consistent. The government (usually through ‘drug abuse’ organisations) has been funding ‘drug research’ for decades with the clear intention of finding specific results. For example, the most recent study to get a lot of press because it found ‘abnormalities’ in the brain of ‘casual’ marijuana users, was in part funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The press derived from this paper was clearly designed to hype the somewhat biased language used in the paper.

What’s All the Fuss About Anyway? What is the Harm in Protecting People from Drug Abuse?

ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse ridingI’m so glad you asked! Because we all know that drugs are bad and dangerous and harmful right!? Well, yeah, there is some level of truth to that. Like driving cars. Or mountain biking. Or horse riding. Everything in life contains risks and we all have to choose what level of risk we are each willing to accept. When it comes to drugs though, for some reason personal autonomy is not an option.

So yeah, drugs can be harmful, but this is where the science really matters – How harmful are drugs exactly?

This is where David Nutt’s research becomes incredibly important. He was actually trying to answer that question. And when his findings highlighted the inconsistency between the actual risks associated with particular drugs and their legal status, he was fired for actually reporting it as such. Nonetheless, we can still thankfully see the results of his research and see that many drugs are actually less harmful to individuals and society as a whole than the legal drugs and many other activities which no one would ever consider criminalising.

So that is the first point here; our laws do not represent the actual risks involved, and thus the notion that our laws are there to ‘protect people’ are immediately questionable.

But the second point is far more important – these laws are outright harmful.

If someone smokes a joint, it might have negative affects on their brain (an incredibly slight chance) – but if that same person is caught by a police officer with that one joint, it could get them a permanent criminal record which will affect them for the rest of their life. That is real and genuine harm that lowers individuals well being, chance of success and happiness in life.

  • Placing people in prisons for personal choices – that ruins lives.
  • Being able to use drugs as an excuse to disproportionately target one socio-economic or racial group above all others – that is a real harm.
  • Driving an elastic market underground and creating drug cartels who are already on the wrong side of the law, thus have no reason to obey any other laws – that is a real harm.
  • Not providing a safe way to buy chemicals which people continue to buy despite the laws, thus risking overdose or taking poisons instead of the intended substance – that is a real harm.
  • Spending billions of dollars to enforce these laws while making zero actual progress – that is a real harm.

motorcycle racing - more dangerous than most drugsThe costs of the war on drugs, to individuals and to society as a whole is incredible. This is why I believe it is one of the most harmful things our society does to itself.

I am not alone.

The drug reform movement is growing. Breaking the Taboo is a great example of this, with Richard Branson, US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and leaders from Colombia, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico all coming out against the war on drugs. Even the Wikipedia page on the War on Drugs paints a bleak picture of that policy. And then you have examples like Portugal, who took steps to decriminalise personal quantities of drugs in 2001 and have had many successes in their experiment.

The war on drugs is winding up, and there is growing support for reformation of drug laws around the world, but it is still taking an incredibly long time. And while this is happening, we have people spending their lives in prison for petty and harmless crimes. And we have people being sentenced to death for drug trafficking. As if that fact wasn’t bad enough, dare to publicly speak up to defend these people about to be murdered by governments on the basis of global propaganda, and people actually defend the governments rights to do it. People respond with “well they knew the chance they were taking when they did it!” Very caring and compassionate that is! I wonder if those same people would be so blase if an extreme Jewish sect started stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath? Or if they defend the rights of extremist Muslim groups who kill women trying to get an education. They all knew the risks they were taking too, surely?

The harms of this global persecution of drug use and drug supply are devastating and inhumane, and they need to end. If we could help speed this process up, and bring drug laws into alignment with the best scientific knowledge, than we can make the world a better place and save many lives.

What Skeptics Can Do

Like most things, it starts with self education. Watch this talk by David Nutt and you will have a much better understanding of the drug-law situation than 99% of the population. If you can, watch Breaking the Taboo too. Understand the manipulations present in past drug research – for example, read this comic to see how research has been used to produce desired conclusions and then the correcting studies have been largely ignored. And of course, if you want to know anything about any drug, then Erowid is generally recognised as the most comprehensive and reliable source of information about drugs (and I have been told that Bluelight is great too).

With knowledge on your side, then I think we need to start considering drugs (or drug law? or ‘the science of drug harm’?) to be one of the subjects skeptics care about. We should be inviting people like David Nutt to talk at our conferences. We should be publishing articles about the science of drug harms in our skeptic magazines to help inform more people about the situation. We should be blogging about it. We should be challenging people when they make untrue statements about drug harms.

We have to break through this fear of talking about drugs. We can’t let social pressure and policy pressure stop us from bringing objective scientific information to the public. We have to break out of the propaganda!

Lets make the world a better place and focus our laws on the real criminals – not on the people who want to enjoy life in their own way.


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These are not new, but I often forget them, so I wanted to post them somewhere so I can find them when I need them.

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
Yeah, christianity makes sense.
and then there is the following, which is a greatly summarised version of the version below:
god will sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself

The Plan of Salvation

(as written by Mageth on Infidels)

God himself created man and woman and placed them in a garden, in “his own image”, but got righteously angry at them when they ate, against his wish, and after being tempted by a talking serpent that god himself had somehow allowed to slither about in the garden, a tasty, beautiful fruit, though he himself had placed it there but neglected to instill in his creations the knowledge of good and evil so that they would know it was wrong to eat it. Being omniscient, of course, he knew all this before he started, but was apparently unable to do anything about it because he had planned it this way from the beginning, and apparently god cannot change anything he already knows, in spite of the fact that he’s omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

Later, God himself impregnated a virgin so that he himself could be born a human, a ManGod. This was necessary, apparently, because only his own ManGod blood could appease himself and deliver humans, who he created, and who he knew would muck things up by eating the fruit, from his own righteous anger.

Of course, he waited several thousand years to implement this divine plan, in the meantime taking the righteous action of drowning every creature on the planet except a few he could stuff on a boat. Not to mention handing down a Law that served to further condemn every one of us, and in which Law he himself had them frequently sacrifice animals to appease himself, though he knew the blood of animals didn’t really appease himself.

Much later, god, in a garden, prayed to himself to “take this cup” away from himself, though he himself knew that he himself had planned the coming events from the beginning and knew that not even he himself could save himself, even though he was god and omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Accepting this, he said, in effect, “Not my will, but my will.”

God then sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. (or had himself sacrificed; not much of a distinction between the two, really) Before dying, he himself asked he himself why he had forsaken himself.

He himself, being dead, then raised himself from the dead less than 40 hours later, though he himself had said he’d be dead for three days and three nights, which he could do because he was still alive, and later he himself pulled himself up into heaven where he himself apparently already was, and where he himself is described as now sitting at the right hand of himself.

He himself then sent himself (or a ghost of himself, if you please) back to earth to be a comfort to us, though he himself is still sitting at the right hand of himself.

And, glory hallelujah, he himself promised that he himself will return someday, though he himself is already here, and will still be there, to snatch up those who believe the god blood sacrifice story he himself told us, and kill the rest of us who don’t believe the god blood sacrifice story, no matter how nice we were otherwise. But, since killing us isn’t enough to appease his righteousness, he himself will then judge us, though according to ManGod he himself will also not judge us, and being a god of love will cast most of us into hell for an eternity of suffering. He has to, of course, because he is a righteous, just god, and can’t figure out a way to save anyone who hasn’t been redeemed by god-blood, even though he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and loves us all.


So yeah. Christianity seems pretty silly to me.

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Since When is Boston Gotham City?

What the fuck? I just read an interesting article on Mother Jones which lists 11 mystifying things the Tsarnaev brothers did, and one of them in particular made me double take; Number 7:

The quest to find a working ATM was how they ended up, coincidentally, at a 7/11 in Cambridge around the same time it was the scene of an armed robbery, and were spotted on the store security camera.

So these two brothers, who had just set off bombs in a crowded public area a few days earlier, while trying to escape the police by carjacking some random person and stealing money from their bank accounts, just happen across another armed robbery happening. Completely unrelated.

Either this is an astronomically unlikely event, or Boston is like Gotham City without batman, and crime is just around every corner.


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The Problems with Rupert Sheldrake’s TEDx Talk

Rupert Sheldrake has stood on stage at a TEDx conference and listed the 10 dogmas of science:

  • Dogma 1. Machinistic Universe
  • Dogma 2. Matter is unconscious (not even we are)
  • Dogma 3. The laws of nature are fixed
  • Dogma 4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
  • Dogma 5. Nature is purposeless
  • Dogma 6. Biological heredity is material
  • Dogma 7. Memories are stored inside your brain as material
  • Dogma 8. Your mind is inside your head
  • Dogma 9. Psychic and Telepathy is impossible
  • Dogma 10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works

He didn’t have time to go in to all of these dogmas, but he does expand upon two of them briefly – Dogma 3, and then Dogma 2 – with a story about his brief library-based-research and discussion with a professor to attain his understandings of these ‘dogmas’.

Perhaps he explains this in his book, but in this talk Dr Sheldrake completely fails to explain why it is that science has come up with these dogmas. I mean, religions have dogma because their truths come from a static holy book, or a leader of some kind. But why did ‘Science’ – whatever entity that is exactly – somehow pick and choose its dogmas?

Let’s look at his story about the speed of light. He explains that there were different speeds in the past, and then over time they settled on a speed, and just fixed it at that speed and said it couldn’t change. He doesn’t explain WHY they would arbitrarily decide that the speed of light was constant. There is no holy book to decree it. There is no leader of science who forces scientists to believe it. Why do scientists believe it to be the case? More importantly, why would they ignore the evidence to the contrary which they must surely all by uncovering in the millions of experiments which have been done on light over the last 10 or 20 decades of increasingly sophisticated technological sophistication?

Sheldrake does the same thing with the Gravitational constant. Another story, another accusation of tampering for the purposes of maintaining the dogma, but no explanation for what motivation there is behind the dogmatic belief. WHY would anyone subscribe to a belief like this without a reason? Why would such a claim be set up dogmatically in the first place?

Sheldrake states that “scientists are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the materialist world view” and I think as the talk progresses, he reveals the chasm between the Science, and his position. Because while he wants to paint scientists as brainwashed citizens controlled by a materialistic dogma, the idea that materialism requires Science to dogmatically claim that there are constants is completely absurd. Obviously our materialistic science also involves the theory of evolution, continental drift, and expanding universe to name just a few non-constants. Now if we juxtapose the way Sheldrake has framed Science against Sheldrake’s claims in this talk, you can see that Sheldrake is simply insisting that his ignorance, his personal feelings, and his pre-conceived conclusions are more informing, more important and more accurate than the conclusions reached via the process of scientific concensus over the course of decades.

He complains that scientists don’t even consider that the speed of light may vary. Sadly this claim comes from his ignorance, not from his understanding. He is a biochemist, not a physicist nor even a historian of science.  Just like the scientists who are creationists tend to never be biological scientists, and the scientists who are critical of Climate Science are never climatologists, here we have a Biochemist being critical of fundamental physics. The only evidence we really have that all of these scientists who have investigated the speed of light over the years have ‘assumed’ it is a constant is because Dr Sheldrake THINKS that that is what they have done.

This problem is rife in his talk. He regularly declares that scientists has made ‘assumptions’ though in reality it seems to mostly be based on the fact that Dr Sheldrake doesn’t know why it is that scientists reached their conclusions, and has therefore assumed that they assumed it. A little googling will provide you with numerous resources which explain why it is that science has settled on the claim that light and the gravitational constant are indeed constants. This article was particularly good: Have Physical Constants Changed with Time? I like it mostly because of this quote:

Over the past few decades, there have been extensive searches for evidence of variation of fundamental “constants.” Among the methods used have been astrophysical observations of the spectra of distant stars, searches for variations of planetary radii and moments of inertia, investigations of orbital evolution, searches for anomalous luminosities of faint stars, studies of abundance ratios of radioactive nuclides, and (for current variations) direct laboratory measurements.

Which of course completely contradicts Dr Sheldrake’s entire claim – that scientists don’t question the dogmas. Sorry Dr Sheldrake, but just because the questioning of the ‘dogma’ continues to yield the same results over and over, and just because you don’t WANT those results, does not mean that no one is questioning them.

“Why don’t Laws of nature evolve in an evolving universe? “

Because that is not what we have found. No one arbitrarily decided to make it that way. There was no meeting of the head conclave of the sciences, where they all sat down and decided “Lets tell everyone the laws of our evolving universe are constant! That will be hilarious!” Evidence is why scientists are quietly confident that the laws are constant. They haven’t changed! Simple as that.

Morphic Resonance

I’m not going to spend much time on this. I don’t even need to take a position on it – he wants it to be scientific, so all it needs is to be falsifiable, and then do research which could falsify it. Find a way to block the morphic field, and then bring an animal to gestation without it. Or much simpler, actually demonstrate the example he gave on stage of rats on the other side of the planet learning a trick faster, because a rat near you learned a trick. Simple. DO the research, prove it beyond statistical error and confirmation bias, allow other people to repeat the proof. Done. Nobel prize secured.

Science is simple, and it works. Frustratingly, when people like Dr Sheldrake decide that their hypothesis MUST BE TRUE, then the scientific method continues to contradict their pre-chosen conclusion, instead of giving up on the hypothesis, they start attacking science. Very sad. Very destructive.

Sensing things looking at you

Shortly after saying that consciousness doesn’t “Seem” to be in your head – a great method of discerning reality from what is just, you know, in your head – Dr Sheldrake then explains how he ‘thinks’ that our perceptions are projected out and touch the things which are being perceived. He thinks it probably evolved in a predator-prey relationship, where those that could sense better will survive better. What a great falsifiable hypothesis! Shame it lacks any supporting evidence once again!

Of all the species studied, never once have any of them been identified which react because of being gazed upon. Think of Lions stalking a herd of Buffalo. That pride of Lions lay there looking at the buffalo for a long time and the Buffalo don’t react until they see the Lions. Think of the creatures like frogs, lizards and fish who carefully line up its prey, then shoot a tongue or spout of water at them – that prey certainly doesn’t seem to be put off by the predator looking at them.

Worse than that though, if you consider the notion that perhaps just some species evolved this sensing trait – then the predator species trying to hunt them will most likely have to evolve a counter-trait. Hunting with their eyes closed, for example. They could change to Sonar – now there is a sense which definitely does touch the prey…nothing the prey can do about it though, they are flying or swimming as fast as they can already! Maybe instead they could rely on hearing and smell – something dogs do a lot of. But I don’t know of any species which relies exclusively on smell and hearing, except for situations where there is no light. So there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to not using light to see with for predator species – as would be expected by Dr Sheldrake’s projection-sensing hypothesis.

But it FEELS like it should be there to him. So he feels justified arguing that it is right, and all of science is wrong until it agrees with his feelings and conclusions.

So when he finishes his talk by observing that the Dogmas are holding science back, what he really means is that the conclusions reached on the decades of research and consideration done by the many thousands of specialised scientists who have come before him are holding science back from simply agreeing with his feelings, and his chosen conclusions. And his own experimentation designed to prove his conclusions, haven’t been compelling enough for other scientists to join him, so clearly Science itself is at fault.

This is what is wrong with Rupert Shaldrake’s TEDx talk.


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Skeptics Aren’t The Big Bad Negative People You Think They Are

It was back around 2005 I think. I was reading a book called The Field, by Lynne McTaggart, which was explaining how science is starting to show that there is a ‘field’ in the universe which connects everything in a conscious and health-related way. It was dabbling in quantum mechanics and refering to studies related to the memory of water, the ability for people to perform remote healing (with thoughts and/or prayer), and even went in to the potential for tapping this field to draw free energy from it.

It was an intriguing book, and I found myself, quite proudly I will admit, thinking of how all of ‘those skeptics’ out there wouldn’t read a book like this.

“They would probably dismiss it out of hand. Arrogant jerks. Not me. I’m open minded, and willing to give anything a go. Afterall, who is to say that we can’t draw power from quantum fluctuations? Seems reasonable enough to me! You know, that is what is wrong with those skeptics – they dismiss ideas too quickly without really giving them a chance. How do you know you won’t miss an amazing breakthrough because you dismissed it before you gave it a chance??!? Better to be open minded and give everything a chance…” I found myself thinking…

It is funny what a few more years of open minded thinking and genuine investigation will do to you. I have no become one of those arrogant jerks. At least, that is how I am perceived by people who haven’t yet completed the journey I have.

You see, at the time I was reading the book, I was studying Molecular Biology at university. Since completing my one year full time research in a lab, I have also gone on to teach first second and third year university student lab techniques and basic science. So I was able to really engage with one part of the book directly – the section which discussed the amazing research done by Jacques Benveniste, which claimed that water had a memory, and that when serially diluted to infintesimal amounts, the activity of the ingredients would increase. The book claimed that his research had demonstrated it. I could actually go and access his published papers. I could actually test the claims. More importantly, I understood exactly what was being claimed, and was able to consider it in an informed, detailed manner.

And unfortunately, it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a load of shit.

Basically, the claim was that one of the most basic, constantly run of the mill aspects of scientific daily life – that if decreasing activity with dilutions, suddenly reversed itself at some mystical magical dilution point. To help visualise this, here is a line graph of the basic principle:

As you dilute an active reagent, it has less activity!
As you dilute an active reagent, it has less activity!

So basically, if you have some molecule which reacts in some measurable way, then when you dilute the original sample to half concentration, you get half as much activity out of the same volume. der right? If you use half as much detergent on your dishes, it has half as much cleaning activity! Try using 1/10 the amount of detergent next time you wash up. Then try doing taking 10ml out of the sink, and using that to provide the detergent for the follow load of dishes. Obviously, the activity of the detergent is going to become useless. There simply isn’t enough to do anything.

So anyway, the claim was that if you keep doing this, suddenly, water would remember its active agent, and would act as if it had it in it. It would ‘remember’ the active agent, and be active itself. Basically, the claim was that it would do this:

memory of water
dilute something far enough, and it gets more active again!

This was the claim. Dilute an active agent far enough, and the water itself suddenly starts being active again, despite the fact that there is actually zero particles of the active agent in it.

The book very clearly made it sound like this research had been done, had been demonstrated, and was an amazing break through. not only did water have a memory, but apparently it could be activated over the phone. Hooray. Praise science!

Unfortunately, no one else has ever been able to replicate the findings. And this principle is so easy to test, that really, anyone can do it. It just doesn’t work. It is false. it is wrong, and it is a lie to act like there is something here. There isn’t. This is the fact. But when I read the book, I had no idea that this was the supposed principle behind Homeopathy. I had no preconceived notions. I wasn’t dismissing anything out of hand. I had no idea how homeopathy was claimed to work, and I read the entire thing in good faith. It sounded fantastic, and I wanted to believe it. It just failed to live up to its claims in the end.

I had an open mind. I approached it genuinely. And in the end, with investigation, and a reasonable approach, it was 100% clear that the whole concept was made up. Someone lied. Simple. So now, whenever someone talks to me about the memory of water, I feel very confident in my appraisal: it is nonsense. Complete rubbish, based on wishful thinking with zero science to back it up. And by extension, homeopathy falls apart without this most surreal claim. So that, combined with numerous other events and readings and discussions I have had over the past 6 or so years leave me in a position where I feel justified at concluding: homeopathy is nonsense.

So now I am a closed minded jerk skeptic.

And that was just the memory of water part of the book. Around the same time I spent an hour next to my uncle’s wife in a car talking to her about her psychic powers. She is a real psychic. She gets paid to do psychic readings, she has a slot on the radio – she even TEACHES people how to be psychic. She is the real deal. I wanted to believe. I wanted her to give me something, something real, something to show me that she really could …read minds? see the future? whatever it is that psychics are meant to be able to do. I really wanted it!

Instead I found out that she just lets her mind wander, and lets images come to them and tells people what she sees. It was all underwhelming at the time, and I left feeling pretty meh about the whole thing. Again, in the years since then I have come a long way in my education and understanding of the world. I have learned about psychology and the human mind, and all of its terrible terrible failings. The studies which have shown how susceptible people are to believing things, and assenting to perceived authority figures. About people filling in gaps, and detecting patterns where there are none. I have watched Derren Brown and other mentalists demonstrate the techniques which psychics use (whether they realise they use them or not), and do so far better than any psychics can. I have seen too many of the most famous psychics be shown up as frauds by investigators like James Randi. I have seen too much. I have learned too much. I didn’t start out closed minded. I didn’t decide psychics were bullshit. I started out hoping to be shown something real. I wanted to believe. The evidence, the facts, and the information just got in the way.

So now I am an arrogant jerk skeptic again. So closed minded….

And the person who lent this book to me way back then was actually reading it because of the implications about power generation. See he was an entrepreneur and home inventor. He had invented a power generation system in his garage and was attempting to make generators from it. You may have seen similar generators online – they use magnets and coils and generate more power than you put in them to get them started. I watched this thing working in his garage, and he showed me dials showing how the voltage coming out of it was higher than the input…. and I knew that you could change the voltage without there being more power, but fact is that I am not an electrical engineer, and I am quite ignorant about electricity in general, so I couldn’t really question it. He was sure they were generating power, so I trusted him. He wasn’t an electrical engineer either. Or a physicist. But those egg heads didn’t understand it. They were all too invested in their paradigm, and couldn’t see the truth when it was put in front of them.

I believed him. I wanted it to be true. I mean, seriously – a free energy generator. And I know the usual complaint is that you can’t get energy for free! Well yeah, but solar panels can harvest energy from UV radiation, so who is to say that this generator isn’t harvesting energy from ‘the Field’ like the book implied? Seriously – it is a valid point. Maybe one day we will invent a power generation system which takes power from the micro fluctuations in quantum particles. Well at least so my completely ignorant mind still wants to believe. Anyway, how awesome would it be to know the person who invented cheap free energy for the world? You know, like Nikola Tesla did before he was sabotaged….

But for the seven years that I was involved in this persons life – the whole time of which he was working on this project – one thing continually bothered me. If it really generated power – why wasn’t he using it to power things? I believe there were reasons, related to the dirty outputs or something (fluctuating waves or something – again, more shit I didn’t understand!) but seriously, we’re looking at going on to almost 10 years now, and I have still heard nothing about any progress on this project. I don’t believe they have any power units being produced, nor have they expanded in to large scale power stations.

I am disappointed. I still want to believe in it. I still want it to be true. But there is a point at which you have to stop living in the fairytale world where wishing things would be true makes a difference, and accept that the likeliest thing here, is that they simply don’t understand the facts of the situation. That they keep finding excuses to justify failure, when the experts simply understood the entire situation from the beginning.

This is really one of the biggest things I have learned over the years as I worked my way towards miserable old arrogant jerk skeptic, is that at the end of the day, someone who is genuinely knowledgable about a subject, can dismiss ideas out of hand sometimes. Or if not dismiss ideas, can at least call Bullshit on someone attempting to spin jargon, and getting it all outright wrong.

Being somewhat well trained in biology and philosophy and the history of science, I have studied evolution more than most people out there. I understand the biology of it, I understand the philosophy behind it, and its history. I have literally studied all of those elements, as well as engaged with every other aspect of it in a more casual discussion format. So I get evolution. Really well.

So when someone comes up and says that Humans were placed here by Aliens, I can VERY confidently dismiss that idea completely out of hand. Because I know how much evidence we have for the fact that humans evolved from apes. The idea that we were placed on this planet with so many nearly identically related species, with intermediate fossils scattering the area clearly found to be our local origin point, our historic migratory pattern our of africa, always found with epoch appropriate technology, all discovered with numerous lines of completely independant verification – when you actually understand this stuff, and know that there is well founded evidence behind it all, then dismissing some guys idea is the only reasonable thing to do. It is not reasonable to pay their ignorance of the evidence the same credibility as the weight of knowledge of evidence on the side of the expert. This is not arrogance, this is reality.

It is like taking your car to a mechanic because it broke down after you put sugar in the fuel tank and arguing that sugar is a carbon based material, like petrol, therefore it works, so therefore it must be something else which caused it to break down – and then getting indignant when the mechanic out of hand dismisses your claims. How dare that mechanic be so arrogant as to ignore your arguments? He should at least check to make sure other things aren’t broken! He clearly hasn’t seen the same information as you. Maybe you should take him to your sugar-as-fuel youtube videos, and he will see the light!

No. The professional understands more than you do. His knowledge isn’t brain washing. It is experience. It is accumulated knowledge of a reliable and trustworthy nature.

Yes it is true that sometimes people can be self-assured and be wrong – but as a whole, as we move forwards in scientific research, these areas are getting smaller and smaller and more and more detail orientated. Scientific paradigm shifts of the sort seen back in Galileo’s day and with Darwin happened in the past because the scientific bodies were establishing themselves then. Science, as a human endeavour, was being born. There were birthing pains as the old ways of dogma (typically religious) were being over thrown. Yes dogma still exists, and yes some people are still arrogant. but as a whole, NO, evolution is not just as realistic as creationism and not just as likely to be overthrown by some new theory. NO, atomic theory is not just as likely to be over thrown by a new theory as the theory of phlogiston was. Or as Isaac Assimov very clearly argued in this great paper, our understanding of the shape of the earth is not just as likely to be wrong as a belief in the earth being flat was.

We are not swapping one arbitrary belief for another – we are gradually ratcheting our understanding of the universe closer and closer to the truth with accumulating evidence.

Skepticism is, in my opinion, just a label for people who, like me, have been through a journey where we all end up realising this same simple fact. That evidence doesn’t change. And when you actually consider all of the evidence together, the scientific leaders of each niche field actually do know what they are talking about. Far better than anyone else. No one of them is right. But the peer-system of research, review and revision works really well over the long run. And things which have been around for a while, and independently verified and tested – they are pretty much here to stay, tried and tested, facts.

And when someone comes out of one field, and claims to know more about another field than the people in that field – if the people in that field dismiss their claims out of hand, it is usually because they are dismissable. They are nonsense. Being a doctor does not equip you with knowledge about quantum mechanics, no matter how smart you are. If you want to disrupt another science, then you still need to go through the process of studying it and genuinely understanding the history and research, and reptition which has got it to the situation it is in. Not just make wild statements and expect people to accept them because you have some authority in another field.

Sadly though, the general public have no idea of this, so when people like Deepak Chopra do exactly this, declare “I am a doctor! I must therefore be very smart” and then proceed to talk about things related to quantum mechanics despite having been told numerous times by professional physicists that what he says doesn’t make sense, and simply doesn’t work that way, the public have no way of understanding this conflict, and so trust him (he IS a doctor afterall!), and thus buy his books, attend his talks, and make him shit loads of money, while he flat out lies to them.

So here we are again, i am that arrogant jerk of a skeptic who outright dismisses someone who lots of people love and adore and surely isn’t doing any harm etc. But fuck Deepak. He is an arsehole who peddles bullshit for profit at the hands of ignorance and he knows it.

I have believe in, and slowly been educated out of so many false beliefs I feel like I should feel ashamed. I feel like a fraud skeptic whenever I go to conventions. It seems like everyone else has always been so smart and not fallen for this shit. But I kept trying things.  My current girlfriend has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This is a disease that is so poorly understood, that there is no concensus even where to do the research on it! What do you do when trying to treat a disease which has no known cause, and no known treatment? You try everything. To this day, while I am steeped in my skeptical position, I still encourage her to try things which I am 99% sure won’t do shit, but fuck it right – maybe the placebo affect will help at least? So we have been trying variations of vitamin and dietary supplements. We even tried buying an oxygen machine to try pumping a higher concentration of oxygen in to her lungs. We went to a clinic where she was taught the Emotional Freedom Technique – which basically comes down to tapping on parts of your body whenever you feel stressed, in order to reduce your stress.

It sounds like complete BS from the outset. But you know what – I still give it the benefit of the doubt. I still wonder whether the simple act of distraction can play a significant role and reducing stress and anxiety – two experiences which are very much of the mind, and as such could be distracted from. And maybe if we could distract anxious and stressed minds from their anxieties and stress, maybe that would calm them, and in doing so, stop any cascade affects which come from the stressed state and cause harmful states in the body? Maybe this treatment will help?

But here is the real problem isn’t it? This is one of those areas where BS peddlers get in: We are talking about a subject which exists in an area of genuine ignorance. Not only do I really really not understand how the brain works, and how physical activities and chosen behavioural patterns affects the brain, let alone how the brain and activities in it can cascade down in to real physical chemical changes in the body – but sadly, neither does anyone much else. Doctors know a lot more than I do, but this brain-body-psychology cross over is still just too damn complicated. This is why disease like CFS and depression and many others are such a large problem. If we don’t understand the system in its natural state, how the fuck do we fix it when it is broken?

So I will keep hoping these people who claim to have a cure are right – but the reality is that they are just making shit up, and selling it without any real evidence. And they get away with it because hope is a powerful thing, and because the placebo affect exists, and people can’t differentiate correlation from causation. Oh, and they attribute causation to whatever they want to, rather than attempting to identify the actual cause. So when someone does come out of a bad CFS period, they attribute it to whatever new treatment they had started, despite the fact that it may well have been a spontaneous remission, or a result of a lot of contributing factors.

This is why science matters. Rigorous, independent investigation which identifies the real causes of things make a difference. They progress understanding, and create repeatable technolgies. Cures. Fuels which work. Microwaves which cook. Data transmission around the world.

Bonus points if you can identify the science in question

While people who sell lies for profit undermine the evidence based system which works. By tricking the public in to thinking that their ignorance is just as good as the knowledge of experts, it makes a public question the value of science, resulting in political weakness. Science gets less funding. Education gets less focus. Society stagnates and we all suffer. I wish we had a machine which could do one of those ‘Ghost of Chistmases yet to come’ deals and show what the world would be like if we really did just throw our hands up in the air and say that the Deepak chopras of the world had the same claim to knowledge and information as all of the actual experts.

So yeah, now I have become one of those people which I once fancied myself better than. In my ignorance I was sure I was better than the people who had ‘made up their minds’ and were ‘arrogant’ and missing opportunities. Now, in my state of less ignorance, I am much more clearly aware of the flaws of so many more claims that I can cut through the crap much faster. With less ignorance, I see that most skeptics are not close minded – they are just more informed. Because sometimes information really can exclude possibilities!




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Re-Legalise Cannabis

A petition has been started to re-legalise cannabis in Australia. I have signed it, and I think every other person in Australia should sign it too. There are so many reasons to legalise it that it makes me angry that anyone even needs to argue the point any more. A quick summary of some of my favourite facts:

  • There are zero known deaths from Cannabis use
  • It is less addictive than Tobacco, Alcohol and even Caffeine!
  • It has numerous known medical uses and helps improve the lives of millions of people suffering with debilitating diseases
  • It is significantly less harmful than alcohol and tobacco (and many many other legal substances too), with only two negative things associated with it, a lowering of IQ when used by teenagers (only in teenagers), and it may amplify the experience of schizophrenia (only the mental experience of it – while softening all of the other problems associated with the disease).

And many more which just get harder and harder to put in to dot point summary. Like incarceration issues, cost to police issues vs revenue from taxation. And the advantages of regulation vs prohibition – the end of drug cartels… sooo many damn things is just makes me angry writing them all.

Anyway, what I really wanted to do was just list 3 great documentaries I have seen over the past few years which make all of these points far better than I do. WATCH THEM. Then help us make the world a better place.

The Union

Probably the best, most comprehensive video on the state of Marijuana legalisation in Canada and the USA, the Union was released in 2007 and so is a little out of date now that Washington state  has actually legalised marijuana, but is otherwise still perfectly relevant. Particularly since the USA federal government still considers Marijuana use something which deserves prison sentences.

When We Grow

A shorter documentary made on a tiny budget for the UK audience. When We grow was made to raise awareness of the same marijuana issues faced in the UK (without the insane prison problem the USA face). A great documentary and absolutely worth watching as well:

Breaking the Taboo

Breaking the Taboo is the most recent video, and in looking to add the full video to this post I have found out unfortuantely, that they have taken the full version offline. It looks like that made it available for a short time just to promote political action. Now the documentary has moved to a new phase of hosting live screenings of it in a film festival type arrangement.

So instead, here is a link to their Youtube Page. In short though, Breaking the Taboo is less about Marijuana itself, and more about the international war on drugs and the harm it has done. It has numerous world leaders in it showing their support for ending the war on drugs including Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, and the presidents of Switzerland and Brazil from the late 90s. It is narrated by Morgan Freeman.

What About Australia?

I don’t know of any documentaries from Australia yet. The petition which started this post used the UK film to make its point, and of course, it is as good as we need really. The differences between their situation and ours are mostly minimal. But I would be interested in seeing a professionally made documentary like these ones being done for Australia and showing our own failures, and the harm it causes us.

If you do want to vote for a serious party which will actively fight to legalise cannabis use in Australia, have a look at the policies of the Sex Party.

All Opposed….?

I would love to hear from anyone who disagrees with the idea of legalising Cannabis. What reasons do you have for your stance?


edit: Also, forgot about this one, coming soon:

The House I Live In

Another one moreso on the War on Drugs than cannabis specifically, but all incredibly relevant.

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Follow up thoughts on differences between men and women…

So I had a few discussions because of the article I wrote yesterday which was a brain dump of some of my thoughts on the fact that men and women are almost certainly different (mentally and emotionally speaking). Over the course of some of these discussions, new thoughts emerged, and I wanted to get them down this morning. This was largely why I wrote the piece – just trying to get my own thoughts on a complicated and confusing subject together.

New Simple Argument

So, first of all, here is my new 1 sentence basic argument against anyone who believes that men and women are innately mentally, emotionally and/or behaviorally identical:

“So men and women are different genetically, developmentally, biochemically and physically – but mysteriously they are identical mentally?”

Transsexuals Might Disagree?

The fact that some men want to be women, and some women want to be men doesn’t contradict my position here – it in fact validates it. Because it shows that the identification of a sexuality is not merely socially constructed. We have here people who have been raised as one sex, given all of the same toys as everyone else, and shown the same sexual propaganda as the rest of us, etc and in spite of it all, something in their brains screams at them so loudly that they FEEL wrong behaving the way everyone expects them to, that they instead choose to deal with some of the most atrocious vilification our society hands out in order to feel comfortable in their own skins.

So your choices (as best I can figure) to deal with the sexual-identification issue, is that either every single transsexual person has had some anomalous environmental pressure in their early childhood which made them flip their sexual identity – OR – you accept that sexual identity is something which was programmed in to them genetically, developmentally and/or biochemically.

Surely No One Thinks that…

I got this response from a few people, a few times. Of course no one thinks that men and women are the same! Well…I wouldn’t have bothered writing the article yesterday if it wasn’t the case. It seems to be surprisingly common, with several people encountered the other night who seemed quite certain of it, as well a few comments in my discussion since which also reported their own experiences of people refusing to acknowledge that men and women might be different.

One interest tweet response I got made reference to the point I raised about how people used to argue that the different races were different – but no longer do, so maybe this line of argument I am making is just as erroneous as those old ones! Of course I disagree completely, and I think my 1 line argument above alone is sufficient reason why. Races have slight variations on superficial physical features as their only point of difference – but otherwise are genetically, biochemically and developmentally similar. Hence there is no reason to suspect that races are particularly mentally different from each other either. Men and Women, of all races, are persistently and constantly different across all of these things in significant ways.

Ought from Is – The Naturalistic Fallacy, And Judging the Sexes

And my final thought for now on this, is to make a very strong note that at no point in any of this have I set out to prescribe what should be. There is nothing about the fact that men and women are different which prescribes a way they ought to be, or how people ought to be treated. More importantly perhaps, there is also no value judgement being made about these facts. I absolutely reject the idea that any one sex is better than the other. Although I do generally find myself liking women a lot more than men, so maybe I think women are better?

But seriously, the idea that x and y are different means that x must be better than y is a complete non-sequitor. There is zero connection between difference and ranking! And the idea that one sex or another could be better, or more valuable, or more important is as absurd to our society as it is biologically. You can’t have one without the other!

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Feminism, Sexism and Biology

I attended a panel discussion last night at Soho Skeptics called “Challenging Geek Stereotypes” – specifically female-geek stereotypes.

I think I have mostly avoided feminism issues for most of my life, but over the last couple of years I have become more and more involved in it. Just incrementally. But now I think I am on the cusp of full blown involvement because I not only care about equality, but I worry that large portions of the feminist movement are very seriously shooting themselves in the foot.

To cut straight to the chase, I noticed last night listening to this panel that it seemed like there was a pervasive implicit agreement that Men and Women are fundamentally the same. In the way where a debate about racism would have everyone agreeing that Black and White people are fundamentally the same, skin colour isn’t important – so too penis vs vagina isn’t important and we’re the same deep down. Unfortunately, I believe, biology just flat out contradicts this. Men and Women ARE fundamentally different, and if I am correct in this fact, then pretending they are not and trying to work from a ‘blank slate’ origin towards equality will create more confusion and difficulty than not.

Are Men and Women Different?

On one level, obviously they are. For a basic introduction to this, the wikipedia article on ‘Sex Differences in humans‘ seems as good a place to start as any. However when talking about being the ‘same’ in this context what we are really talking about is emotionally. Mentally. Instinctively. Are our personalities fundamentally different? Or is all of the difference we see in our society a function of our cultural conditioning?

It is the confusion of our cultural conditioning which makes it a hard question – because no one is brought up a blank slate. Everyone is influenced, and groomed, and manipulated – we can’t be sure what traits are ‘nature’ and what ones are manufactured through precise ‘nurture’. So it is a challenging question – however, i think an understanding of evolutionary theory and biology is enough for anyone to see that Men and Women are necessarily different. Different Emotionally. Mentally. and Instinctively.

It IS all about Sex

One of the first people I spoke to after the talk about this observation of mine kept pulling me up when I mentioned the sexual reproductive strategies used by either sex in an evolutionary context. She complained that I was focusing on the sex as if it was of core importance, when she didn’t think it was. So I am going to start there – Sex IS of core importance.

We are a result of evolution. This is certain. Evolution has crafted us to the ultimate reproductive tools. And reproductive success is EVERYTHING to evolution. Nothing else matters. And reproduction is about 1. Having offspring, and 2. Ensuring those offspring survive. This is a biological fact, and just as applicable to humans as it is to every other sexually reproductive species.

So everything evolution selects for is about successful reproduction. Sex is the method of reproduction in all vertebrates, and so sex is central to everything about us. Everything we have evolved, whether it be balance, strength, speed, endurance, a digestive tract – ALL OF IT is so that we can achieve reproduction via sexual intercourse – and in some species – continue to provide for those offspring to a degree.

Successful Sexual Strategies

So we have two sexes. In humans, and all vertebrates. The definition of the sexes really just comes down to which one provides the greater or lesser investment to sexual reproduction. Females provide the greater investment in terms of cellular material. When we specifically talk about species which also involve internal gestation, then the consequence of sex for the two sexes is immediately starkly different. Males spend mere seconds engaging in sex, and are not committed beyond that. Females on the other hand risk committing themselves to months worth of sharing their limited energy and nutritional supplies with a parasitic organism, inability to mate with ‘superior’ males during that time, and potential risk of complications which could result in death. The difference between these two realities is stark!

This disparity is very physically real. And contrary to popular desire to discount the affect of evolution on the mind – evolution made our brain! It is the thing which created the nature of our brain which is open to the affects of nurture! btw, in case you were wondering, the answer to the Nature vs Nurture debate, it is Nurture VIA nature. It always has been both, but if it wasn’t for evolution crafting the malleable brain, there would be nothing for nurture to act upon! And thus it is here. yes, we are malleable creatures. Yes you can manipulate people in to certain patterns. It seems incredibly unlikely that Pink is somehow inherently Female, from a biological perspective – but that does not mean that there aren’t innate differences! Particularly when it comes to innate desires towards sex, and reluctances to participate in sex!

When there is clearly a biological disparity between successful evolutionary strategies of the two sexes, it makes sense that each sex will approach the problem of ‘Who do I mate with?’ differently! Males have endless sperm and can mate freely without risk. Females suffer from months of inability to select new superior mates when pregnant, are forced to give up large percentages of their limited nutritional and energy supply to a parasite organism, and worse than that, they risk death in child birth – all from engaging in sex. The idea that women would think and feel about sex exactly the same as men is absurd!

But in our modern world, we can choose to be…

Yeah yeah yeah. We’re all enlightened clever intelligent persons now aren’t we? We are no longer victim to our animalistic past are we? Of course not. That is why we all choose to ignore our programming and rationally think through the fact that we have contraceptives, antibiotics and abundant food, and spend all of our spare time engaging sex with numerous partners, often people we don’t even know. right?

Oh, you don’t want to do that? Why not?

See, it is easy to justify what you want, but you still haven’t choosen what it is that you want. Our evolutionary past controls us more than any of us want to admit.

“Human beings aren’t rational, but rationalizing, animals.” -Robert Heinlein

I want to stop eating Chocolate, and carbohydrate rich foods. But damnit, my brain keeps telling me they TASTE SO GOOD! Why don’t I just choose to stop enjoying them? We are slaves to our evolutionary past until we can actually change our biology – or so comprehensively agree to ‘train’ each new generation to act and think the ‘right way’ that it looks like it is natural.

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rbutr in final 52 of the News Challenge

Just a quick post to happily announce that rbutr has made it through the first major culling of the Knight News Challenge, and is in the top 52. We are now awaiting the expert review process where and the final selection prcess by the foundation’s board, and then being announced as one of the final 5 (or so) winners!

Read more on the rbutr blog: http://blog.rbutr.com/2012/04/knight-foundations-news-challenge-places-rbutr-in-its-top-52/

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Public Beta and Annoying Hackers

So mid way through last week Ben Goldacre kindly tweeted about rbutr, and our traffic exploded. In response, we decided to quickly open up our beta testing and allow people to start registering and downloading the app freely. So now we’re basically live! People are registering often and new links are being added all the time.

In the meantime, some annoying wordpress exploit seems to have been hit by an automated system and our blog has been compromised. Nothing serious has happened to it, they have just altered our .htaccess file so that everything redirects to their website. Basically, they broke our blog and we haven’t figured out how to fix it yet. We’re looking in to moving to another server which will hopefully fix the exploit (my host hasn’t even replied to the four or so emails I have sent them. Very disappointed with that.)

Also, the first rbutr members email is about to be sent out. Just to let everyone know what is happening, and who has been doing good rbutr work 🙂


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