Sunday, 13 June 2010

A brief guide to skeptical vandalism

Those of you following my twitter account or Facebook stuff will know that I recently made my first tentative foray into the world of Skeptical Vandalism. I'm not sure if such a thing actually exists already or if I've accidentally invented it, but either way, I did it.

It was only a small gesture, but every little helps, right? Anyway, here's what I did.

This started when, while volunteering for a brain-scanning experiment at the Cardiff University Brain Scanning and Imaging Centre (CUBRIC), I arrived and had to wait in the reception area for a few moments. There, I spotted the available reading material.

I was not pleased by this. I found it quite alarming that this cutting edge scientific centre, which relies quite heavily on volunteers from outside the department in order to perform the experiments (specifically, people who might not have a scientific background), would have something as mind-meltingly Quack-heavy as 'Natural Health' magazine. Right next to the big book all about brains. A member of the public could not be blamed for seeing this and assuming that the insane rambling the magazine offers are in fact scientifically valid. Giving this worthless rag credibility by association/proximity really raised my bile.

Rather than lodge a formal complaint which I knew would be utterly ignored (which is fair, as the people there have actual work to do and I sincerely doubt this issue will ever be seen as a priority), I decided to 'vandalise' the magazine, to prevent future volunteers from it's corrupting influences. Here's how to do what I did, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

So, look up the magazine cover on-line (don't buy it or subscribe to anything, that'll only encourage them)
Then, make a few minor modifications, correcting a few fundamental errors in order to make it more scientifically accurate.

Then, when you next go to the building, take a printout of the now accurate magazine cover, and a prit-stick (or a glue/adhesive of your choice, it doesn't really matter) and fasten it to the original offending article.

Admittedly, the inside of the magazine still contains the same dreadful bilge, but first impressions count and now the first thing people will see will be something less awful (in my opinion).

If anyone wants the image file in order to 'fix' other copies of the offending article scattered around the country, just let me know.

On a more encouraging point, the people at CUBRIC didn't care about what I was doing either way, so it suggests they aren't privy to this promoting of anti-scientific lunacy.

email: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy


Anonymous said...

Fantastic work Dean!

- Benjamin Connell

Brad Walters said...

I like to surf the science section at the mega-bookstores, take out any copies of books about "intelligent design" or other rubbish, and then, appropriately, re-shelve the books in the "Religion/Spirituality" or "Philosophy" sections

Nell said...

This is great! I have been tempted to do some grammar-correcting vandalism in the past but this is much better.

Concerned Citizen said...

Wow, that's great! Even better would be if we went around and collected all the books and magazines containing assertions we didn't like and then burned them. I mean, it's not like dissent, freedom of speech and open debate ever did anything for human knowledge, right? So let's bonfire it up!

Alice said...

Welcome aboard Concerned Citizen and delighted to meet your straw man! There's a slight difference between actively removing something, and simply adding an alteration. No, let's leave woo sacred - let's even iron the magazines and not throw any away, and under no circumstances offer any corrections. Obviously, that's entirely fair debate. Debate and opinion, of course, being much more important than science . . . By the way, can you offer any evidence-based refutations of Dean's excellent corrections?

christheneck said...

Concerned Citizen;

As Alice stated these are corrections.Nothing has been burned.

Using dissension and his freedom of speech, Dean has taken laughably deluded nonsense and misinformation and transformed it into a representation of the culmination of human knowledge reached by open debate.

I can only conclude that:

a) you agree with his changes; and
b) that you like setting fires.

Zeno said...

Yeah, Concerned Citizen! Long live Fahrenheit 451!

Manic Expressive said...

As a fellow concerned citizen, Concerned Citizen, I agree that we should be going around, collecting up these vessels of lies that are leading folks down a trail towards death by telling them to completely ignore any and all health developments made through science, and building a nice big bonfire in which we can roast weenies and marshmallows on. I hear "health" magazines make excellent fire starters. BS burns well! We don't want these things to go do waste, do we? No, we don't, thank you for agreeing with me.

Oh, wait, NOW I get it. You were being sarcastic in your posting! Ohhhhh, I see. Well, the invitation to the bonfire still stands!

Anonymous said...

Concerned Citizen, in an adorable attempt to be witty, said "I mean, it's not like dissent, freedom of speech and open debate ever did anything for human knowledge, right?"

Well done! These things are good for human knowledge!

Although perhaps, dear, you should consider that informed dissent is also good for human knowledge. And, on the contrary, fuzzy thinking, woo, and false science have tended to actually be very bad for same.

Anyway, A+ for effort. You'll be ready for the real internet any day now!

Concerned Citizen said...

Fascinating - your adherence to your tribe's dogma exceeds that of the legendary Juggalo. I'll be back to regulate you guys tomorrow. Save my seat!

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

CC! You're back! Delightful. I wondered why my hypocrisy detector suffered a meltdown last night. Please make yourself at home.

Ah, ill-informed attempts at scorn from an anonymous internet troll. After homeopathy, is there anything in the world of less substance? It's like popcorn for the mind.

Concerned Citizen said...

Sorry guys, I got busy, but I'm back now. You can stop hitting the refresh button. A couple of things – firstly, I am adorable, and secondly, I am also delightful. I'm glad we've identified some common ground.

1) Guy with raised bile: “It's” is a contraction of “it is”. “Its” expresses possession. This has been verified in peer-reviewed articles.

2) Alice: Hi, nice to meet you and your logic-challenged post. There's a slight difference between disapproving of publication vandalism and wanting to “leave woo sacred.”

“Debate and opinion, of course, being much more important than science . . .” I'm not sure whether book-learnin' is your strong point, so you may not be aware of this, but back in the day challenging the prevailing belief system (religion) did not go down so well. A greater acceptance of debate eventually made it a lot less dangerous to do science. We're now moving into an age of scientism, in which its followers have gained a degree of cultural power and some use it to try to stifle freedom of expression.

By the way, can Dean offer any evidence-based backing to support his splendid foray into MS Paint?

3) christtheneck: If you think human knowledge has now reached its culmination and that therefore anything not permitted by your religion (science) in its current state is nonsense, then please for the love of Richard Dawkins DO NOT BREED. 'Cause that is some ignorant commentary, even for the internet. Your genes should probably call it a day. Remember phlogiston? The ether? Steady state theory? H. pylori not having anything to do with ulcers?

4) Zeno, my man! What up! I like how you linked to Wikipedia. It is always important to link to Wikipedia.

5) Manic the Retard: Yeah, uh, funny. No, really, it was. Of COURSE I'm not just saying that!

Do these despised publications really ignore “any and all health developments made through science”? So they say stuff like, if you get a kidney infection, don't take antibiotics? If you lose a leg to a chainsaw, go see your acupuncturist instead of going to the ER? Huh. Yeah, that's pretty plausible, I guess. It's not like litigation could result or anything.

6) Thornae: OK, lovey, let's talk about fuzzy thinking. In order to describe a certain type of thinking as fuzzy, you would first need to be able to objectively determine a methodology that can be designated as the absolute best way of knowing. You can't do that because you can't step outside your own head (CHECK OUT MY WIKI LINK:, and neither can anyone else. Sit down for a sec if I'm blowing your mind here. Have some water. Pet your cat.

So where do we go from being stuck inside our own perceptions? Assume that it's all meaningless and just sort of chill out? Yeah, we could do that, but maybe there's a better way. Maybe we could observe the world around us and come up with theories based on our observations. We could continually refine those theories, recognizing them as works in progress but also as the best way that we have at the moment of understanding the world.

I think you guys forgot the 'works in progress' part. You forgot that you don't know what you don't know. But you don't. It is not necessarily the case that reality is crazier than you could ever imagine, but it might be. When you say that we're pretty much done figuring stuff out and that if something doesn't (yet) have a stack of peer reviews from the right journals behind it or can't be accommodated within currently accepted ways of finding out, well....that's not science. Sorry. That's stagnating dogma. And it's also pretty sad.

Also, me? Anonymous? Not really, unless you don't know how to click a link. The clue is in the URL. Remember my name once you've got it figured out.

christheneck said...

Concerned Citizen:

Of course science hasn't reached the culmination of knowledge, nor did I say it did. That said, in the areas of complimentary and alternative medicines and therapies it has. That's what the post was about, remember? There are no “works in progress”, just the foolish and those with a financial interest in fleecing the gullible. Which of these are you?

You mention science “in its current state”. Too late. It's already changed, somewhere in some way, based on evidence. Bring some along. Anything. Science will change in acknowledgement of your evidence, that's what it does if your evidence has any worth. I presume that's why you mention phlogiston, the ether etc.. You really are most helpful.

Your first post seems to oppose Dean but your argument does the opposite, and your latest cites examples that agree with science whilst attempting to deride it. I just can't understand why they're presented in the style of a drunk shouting on a pub car park.

P.S. How's the arson going?

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Hi Sarah

(That's CC's apparent name everyone, now that she has changed the link in her name thingy)

Cheers for the feedback, I'll take it all on board and do absolutely nothing about it. And for the record, I used Ulead photo express. An antiquated package but I've not got the skills nor inclination to learn to use photoshop effectively. I tried using MS Paint but the resolution was even worse than it is at present.

How does Bill Gates sleep at night?!?! That's what I want to know.

Duck said...

It gets worse - the stupid magazine is part of a 'healthcare' pack going to GP surgeries all over the UK:

Email to complain.

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