Thursday, 24 June 2010

A pair of Skeptics, in many pubs

Hello, folks

Guess what this is? Yup, another update on the ongoing saga of the efforts to establish a branch of Skeptics in the Pub, in Wales.

After much on-line discussion and debate, the first meeting of the planning committee for SITP-Wales has finally taken place. It should surprise no-one to hear that sceptics and lovers of science are scattered all across Wales, and the coordination and planning required to get all those interested in setting up SITP-Wales to meet up in the same place at the same time is immense. But, after a long, hard slog, we managed. On Monday 21st of June 2010, the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer, the Welsh SITP core group met up in Cardiff for the first time ever.

Those present were;


My Wife (not really bothered about the whole SITP thing, but we met up in my flat, and she lives there as well, so had to be there by default)

The purpose of this meeting? Investigating all the candidates for SITP venues in Cardiff. After months of careful research by me, I was joined by Alice, a proud female astronomer who is DEFINITELY NOT AN ASTROLOGER. We set forth into Cardiff to see if we agreed on what made a suitable venue.
It's worth pointing out, also, that we were dressed for the occasion. Alice, as a professional, respected promoter of science and reason, was wearing a t-shirt with the following design.

Whereas I, favouring a different approach to promoting science, wore a t-shirt bearing the following statement.

Between us, it was pretty clear what we were about. So there we were, in our science t-shirts, bespectacled and clutching note-pads, as we set off on The Nerdiest Pub Crawl of ALL TIME!

So here is a run down of the places we visited, and our findings.

1: Terra Nova
The Terra Nova is a rather pleasant pub right on the waterfront in Cardiff Bay. It's named after and shaped like Captain Scott's boat. The name is Latin for 'New Land' I think, and isn't that appropriate? SITP would like to create a new land of logic and reason here in Wales.
On the other hand, Terra Nova was the vehicle for an endeavour which failed in its objective and in which everyone involved died. Luckily, we don't believe in superstition, we're sceptical, don't you know.

The Pub itself is nice, has a perfectly big upstairs room with projector and screen set-up, but laid out in a rather baffling manner and with nothing but curtains separating it from the surrounding bar areas which can get quite busy. Or not, as I found out when I went back there that night. From personal experience, the staff there are nice but disorganised (e.g. leaving one person serving when the queue at the bat gets particularly long, the rest going off to collect plates or look at the till in a surprisingly confused manner). Also, enquiries about how to hire the venue resulted in me being given an email address, which I used to contact them. An emailed reply directed me to their website, which informed me I should enquire within.
I can't help but be uninspired by this level of misdirection, so decided to leave it. Alice (the Astrologer) agreed that the venue was nice but difficult to work with, so we moved on.

2. The Promised Land
The Promised Land Bar and Kitchen - Cardiff

A name with many unfortunate religious and political connotations, but the Promised Land is the most promising venue. Small enough to be intimate, big enough to be accommodating, it's a good all rounder. Apparently the upstairs room had just been repaired after a 21st Birthday party got a little out of hand. We assured the staff member talking to us that a gathering of skeptics is probably the least likely thing to get rowdy that you can think of. I didn't tell them of my plans to engage in wholesale destruction of woo-based literature.
Myself and Alice (the Astronaut) also disagree on how we should handle any psuedoscience supporters who show up. Alice would prefer to engage them in rational but possibly heated debate, whereas I'm more of the view that we should test their commitment to their alternative medicine views by hurling them from the nearest window and seeing if they demand an ambulance or homeopath. I guess it depends on the situation.
Before we left, Alice (the Acrobat) perused the menu, accurately pointing out that people maybe coming from afar for SITP and will want to eat beforehand. I would offer to bring sandwiches, but I think I'll have done enough when this thing does go ahead.

3. Owain Glyndwr
<span class=Owain Glyndwr Outside">

Quite a non-starter this one. Oddly shaped pub, the upstairs is massive but laid out as if they received plans from the architect but accidentally followed the doodles drawn on the back. Also, Alice (the Astroturf) pointed out that it stinks in there. It does too. And there were TVs everywhere showing football. I'd assume this isn't the case during non-world cup periods, but there's always sport happening somewhere. It strikes me as the sort of place that would show live coverage of the regional tiddlywinks heats on full blast on every screen if there was nothing else on. Although admittedly, that probably would drive more people to drink, which is somewhat the objective of a drinking establishment.
Also, the place is round. Very round, to the point that walking across it to get to the toilet induces sensations of centrifugal force, forcing you to sit down and have a drink to settle your nerves. This probably explains why the place has a higher-than-average number of 'broken' people scattered about it.
I was hoping to be patriotic and find a venue with a Welsh name, but I'm not that patriotic.

4. O'Neills Irish Pub

The first of 2 Irish pubs we visited. Not exactly Welsh themed, but beggars, choosers and that? I do gigs here quite often, so know the venue rather well. The upstairs room is nice and reasonably well laid out, but can get quite stuffy. However, if the windows are open then it lets in all the noise from outside, so it's a balancing act. I can just imagine a group of disgruntled homeopaths turning up and protesting outside, ruining everything. Although by their own logic, a homeopathic protest would surely follow their own rules for effectiveness? i.e. It would consist of one sceptic muttering supportive comments 50 miles away. So that shouldn't be too bad
The barman who served us was very intrigued by our t-shirts, in a sort of 'What the hell is that about?' kind of way. I assumed he was Irish, but probably wasn't because his accent was utterly different.
Myself and Alice (the gastropub) decided to stay and chill for a bit, as it was too hot outside. I'm not an astronomer myself, but I think we both agree that stars should maintain a respectful distance of at least 4 light years away at all times, not an 'arrogant in-your-face' mere 93 million miles. How does anyone get anything done? (Judging by Alice's response, they eat an ice cream, and she's an expert so it must be true).

5. 10ft Tall

Not part of the planned investigation, but we were passing and I remembered that many people do shows and events there, so thought it warranted investigation.
It's quite a 'trendy' place, if such a vague definition can be applied to anything. It also lies. It is significantly higher than 10 fit, it's 3 stories tall at least and that doesn't include any roof based fixtures.
The man at the bar was a bit wary of us (fair enough) but he himself was a bald, bearded man in his early 30s at most, wearing glasses and slicing lemons very delicately, so the feeling of apprehension was entirely mutual. Eventually, the manager appeared and took us to the function room we could hire. It's weird, it has the seating area of an enlarged living room, the performance area of an Indie club and the lighting scheme of a brothel. It's quite confined so can get very hot, but we're told it has 3 separate air conditioners to keep it cool. Considerate, but although this is probably not a problem for a pounding music performance, I can't imagine the constant triple-rumbling would do much good for a detailed talk about rational subjects and science.
Alice (the Gastropod) also noticed that it smelled bad in there too, probably the dried sweat of a thousand enthusiastic moshers mixed in with the souls of the damned. Creepy.

6. Dempseys

Another Irish pub, we use this a lot for comedy events and the like, and it has played host to several of my science-themed events in the past, so seemed like a logical option.
It's a bit crap though. They don't serve food there for start, something Alice (the metronome) is quite particular about, and rightly so. Although the downstairs area is quite rustic and olde-worldey as many an Irish pub can be, the upstairs room crosses the line into 'scruffy', 'run down' and simply 'crap'. Also, storing several bins and bags of rubbish by the stairs wasn't an encouraging sign.
Although well equipped, the upstairs area is a bit cavernous and sterile. Sterility is definitely a good thing when performing many types of science, but not when talking about it. Also, the manager of the place was up there, watching the football on the projector screen while sorting through paperwork. It made it look like he had a massive office, or that he was an elf in a normal size one.
A usable venue in a pinch, but not one we'd be actively returning too unless we had to. Plus it's directly opposite the castle, so the pseudoscientists could feasibly keep a garrison in there to lay siege to the event if it was at Dempseys.

7. Nos Da

Another Welsh named place, on the River Taf directly opposite the Millennium Stadium. It is apparently a 5 star hostel. I didn't know such a thing existed, I've not stayed in a hostel before but I thought they were meant to be very basic by definition. A 5 start hostel is like saying luxury gruel, surely?
I've gigged here before, and it's always nice to have your gigs and talks filled out a bit by bewildered Dutch backpackers with nothing better to do.
Alice (the artichoke) did point out that the food menu was limited again, but this paled in comparison to the fact that the basement venue (which has also opted for the 'brothel' look, which is a worrying trend in Cardiff venues, and makes me wonder exactly what sort of 'events' people are renting out their function rooms for) has massive pillar in the way of many of the seating areas.
It was quite nice overall, and they did seem very keen to have us in there on a Monday. But parking and transport links to this place are rather crap. You wouldn't think a 5 start hostel would be so hard to get to would you? But maybe it's a marketing ploy; it's so difficult to get here, you'd rather stay the night than make the return journey?

So that's what we found out. Cast your votes now people!

e-mail: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Articles by me, elsewhere

Hey y'all.

If you didn't catch it, here are some articles I did concerning my own take of science and scepticism when dealing with the general public

Just thought it would be convenient to have the collected works of myself and Concerned Citizen on one site for ease of navigation.


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

An email to the university of Glamorgan

Recently, I found out about this. As a Scientist, Skeptics-in-the-pub organiser (fingers crossed), and former pupil of an underfunded state-school for which Glamorgan University was the main port of call post A-levels, I did not like this. But I am a fair man, and a true scientist must be open to evidence. So after searching around the website for a bit and coming up with nothing useful, I sent the following email.

(I'm aware it's ridiculously flippant and borderline insulting, but that it addressed at the end)

Dear Sir/Madam

My name is Doctor Dean Burnett, and I am writing to you as I have some concerns regarding the teaching of the Chiropractic courses that take place at the faculty for Health, Sport and Science. As a scientist and enthusiastic science-communicator, I have several concerns with this subject and would appreciate any information you could provide me with.

However, before I go further, I apologise in advance if this is not the appropriate email address to use regarding this topic, but it was the only one I could find on the University website which appeared relevant (which itself is somewhat suspicious). If you are the wrong department/person, could you please forward it to the relevant party(s), or possibly reply send me the correct email address? In the unlikely event of there being no valid email address, I will consider other means of communication, up to and including carrier pigeon.

I have recently obtained my PhD in Neuroscience from Cardiff University Psychology School, so I am a very highly-qualified scientist. I am also keenly involved in Science communication and various methods/projects designed to promote scientific understanding to the general public. Several time, I have worked with the ‘Hands on Science’ project, part of the ‘First Campus’ partnership. These are connected with/part of Glamorgan University, so I know from experience that Glamorgan University has a definite commitment to promoting scientific understanding and enthusiasm.

This is why I found it particularly disappointing to discover the University of Glamorgan teaches several chiropractic courses. I must point out that is email is from me alone, with no group associations. As you can no-doubt tell I am neither a user nor believer in the medicinal properties of chiropractic; like I previously said, I’m a scientist. As such, I find the claims and information available (or not, in some cases) on the official University website potentially alarming, and I would appreciate some clarification as to their accuracy/intent. In no particular order, here are my concerns.

- Regarding course content, the website provides a list of the modules taken on the Foundation Certificate in Chiropractic course. This appears to be a list of subjects one would expect a student to be familiar with before beginning an undergraduate course in a subject concerning biology/health science. However, the content description for the MChiro Chiropractic course is far less detailed and worryingly ambiguous. Admittedly, many of the course content descriptions available via the website for ‘similar’ courses (e.g. Medical sciences) are of similar length, but clearly provide more detailed information of areas of study covered. The Chirpractic course, in contrast, states skills a student will expect to have gained upon completion of the course without saying how exactly this will occur. Any other information is presented in the manner of addressing someone who is already familiar with the specifics and theory of chiropractic. Is this really suitable for a website which is intended to encourage individuals to choose the subject as a profession?

- The chiropractic course description contains the following phrase. “… training means you will understand the scientific principles relevant to chiropractic”. Is it possible to clarify what these principles are? I myself and, more importantly, the global scientific community are yet to identify any scientific principle on which the ‘efficacy’ of chiropractic may be based, with the exception of a placebo effect or possibly ‘it’s nice to have some attention and a massage’ resulting in improved sensation of well-being. My own anecdotal experience also leads me to doubt any possible link between chiropractic and science, as during my time as an anatomy technician then postgraduate neuroscientist at Cardiff University, I have been exposed to dozens of thoroughly dissected nervous systems and spinal columns (human and otherwise) and have yet to encounter anything that could be said to represent a subluxation (a miss-alignment of the joint/organ which chiropractors believe to be the cause of ill health). Granted, the cadavers I examined did often have their joints, organs and vertebrae out of alignment (usually on different tables), but such a condition can only really be tolerated by the deceased.

- If the Faculty has discovered a scientific cause for the supposed efficacy of chiropractic, would this not warrant more publicity than a casual mention on a course description? This would represent a major scientific breakthrough for the university and surely should be touted as such?

- If chiropractic course does include modules that give students a grounding in health sciences and the practicalities involved, in what way do these differ from other, more general courses taught at the Faculty for Health, Sport and Science? I would be greatly interested in seeing a module description for the course in order to ascertain the necessity for the inclusion of the chiropractic element. Would this be possible? I can’t help but feel the Chiropractic component is analogous to the ‘contains no meat products’ stickers on bottled mineral water, but I am willing to be dissuaded of this admittedly cynical assumption.

I realise that this may be an ambitious request on my part. I ask only because I am currently part of a group setting up a Skeptical movement in Wales, and such things as Chiropractic will no-doubt be discussed at our planned events. I have received interest from the University of Wales outreach groups and feel it only fair to inform the University of Glamorgan as to my attitudes before it reaches you via word-of-mouth or other means. Or carrier pigeon, which I mentioned earlier I would use if necessary.

In the spirit of the freedom of information act, I would very much like more details regarding the content of the chiropractic course. I would hope to avoid having unfair criticisms of the University made by myself or my colleagues at our public events.

In the same spirit of freedom of information, I will be posting this email, unedited, on my popular blog ( This is a combined science and comedy blog, so if you were surprised by the rather flippant and seemingly sarcastic tone of this email, this is because people read my blog expecting humorous ramblings and I feel it my duty to provide (similar logic is, ironically, often used by those who promote chiropractic). Also, polite and formal enquiries I’ve sent in the past have always been politely and formally ignored, so I thought I’d try something different.

All the very best, and apologies for the overly-long email.

Dean Burnett (PhD)

email: Humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

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

Thursday, 10 June 2010

"Dear Andrew Wakefield, from Science" (No. 20)

Whoop whoop, here we go again. Admittedly, I had the idea for this a while ago, but only now gotten round to writing it.

"Dear Mr Andrew Wakefield

This is a letter to inform you that, regrettably, we will no longer be requiring your services here at Science. Although we do not have a policy of criticising or suppressing individuals with controversial or unusual theories and ideas, we do insist that they follow company procedure and provide evidence via experimentation for said theories before releasing them to the public. We cannot tolerate those who do things in reverse. Although I'm willing to believe you may have had extenuating circumstances (judging by your performance I'm prepared to concede that you may have read the employee orientation handbook backwards), I'm afraid that your overall actions have led me to decide that you are no longer welcome here at Science.

I assure you Mr Wakefield that this decision was not arrived to lightly

(and just to clarify, the term 'mister' is used in the sense of 'someone who is most definitely NOT allowed to do medicine on a professional basis', not 'someone who is such a good doctor they get promoted to consultant', I'm sorry if you find this clarification patronising but you do seem to have a habit of arriving at conclusions based on evidence which says the exact opposite to what you claim)

However, in the interests of fairness, what follows are the primary reasons for your dismissal, which are issues you may want to address when seeking further employment (if it helps, I hear the chiropractors are looking for people, and I'm sure you'd feel right at home there).

- Over the last decade, your actions have brought considerable negative publicity to Science. Despite the fact that you claimed to have used 'science' to prove your theories, the use of the same 'science' (properly, this time) has constantly disproved your claims. Your recalcitrant attitude to your colleagues has caused disruption, ill feeling and has damaged moral. We always ask for good teamwork skills when interviewing applicants, and you assured us you had these qualities. Now we discover that you do not.
It's possible that you felt you were in some way helping the company, under the axiom 'all publicity is good publicity'. However, we here at Science do not subscribe to that belief, in much the same way that I imagine BP no longer does. Your actions have caused considerable damage and disrupted the long term goals of the medicine division (in brief, these can be summarised as 'Where Possible, Stop People Dying!'). Though whether through self-aggrandisement or a misguided attempt to be helpful, your actions have had the same effect. To clarify, those signs in the lobby that say 'Please do not feed the Media'? They are there for a purpose.

- It has come to our attention that you have been moonlighting with law firms and other rivals of Science? According to our records, you were paid in advance to find a link between the MMR vaccine (one of our most useful innovations, I might add) and autism? Although there is also evidence to suggest that you weren't asked to associate MMR with a specific disease, but chose autism due to it's poorly understood nature? A simple request to upper management and it should have been simple to transfer you to the autism research division if you were that curious. But if you chose to exploit the health of children for your own ends, than that is simply against the values and ethics of Science, and as such your services are not desired.

- Speaking of which, your methods are not tolerated here. You may argue that there was no form or instruction ruling out 'stabbing children in the spine without their consent and the relevant training to do so', but we here at Science try to think well of our employees, and until now it was believed unnecessary for such a policy to be put in place. If you feel that was an oversight on our part and you are thus blameless, then please feel free to take your grievances to the ombudsman, I would very much like to hear how he responds to your argument.

- You continue to allow celebrities onto the premises. You are fully aware that this is against company policy, ever since the incident where Fiona Phillips was found rummaging in the company bins for 'dirt'. It was only disappointing good fortune on her part that prevented her from getting a serious infection and trying to treat herself with homeopathy or crystals, would have saved us a lot of bother. But celebrities have a sense of value of their own opinions that is massively disproportionate to their actual knowledge, and your antics have only made them worse.

There are other reasons for your dismissal, and you will not shoulder the full burden of responsibility.I shall be talking to your supervisors who let your actions go unchecked for so long. But from this point on, you are no longer welcome at Science. Please hand in your keys, badge and gun at the front desk (I don't know why you'd have a gun, but am not prepared it rule it out based on your past behaviour).

If you are spotted on the premises again, I have the security guard under instruction to drag you to the nearest ditch after shooting you with tranquillizer darts (in the spine preferably, for the irony)

Yours sincerely

The anthropomorphic personification of Science (C.E.O. of 'Science')'

email: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy

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