Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Questions for a chiropractic Q & A

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog, thank you. It's nice to know there are people out there with as much time to fritter away as I have.

But if you're a regular reader, or even someone who likes to dip in now and again, much like the titular digestive (I was going to use the term 'dunkers' to describe such people, but that term is normally associated with Dairylea snack packs, or in some cases, condoms, neither of which seem particularly flattering), if you're either of these sorts of readers of this humble blog, then you may know that I have previously taken issue with the fact that the University of Wales, via the University of Glamorgan, offers accredited courses in Chiropractic.

I don't like the fact that the University of my country of origin, which I've helped to function, publicise and promote for nearly 10 years now, is lending its credibility to the teaching and promotion of chiropractic, the belief that you can treat all manner of illnesses via potentially dangerous back-rubs.

In case my subtle hints don't make it clear enough, I do not like chirocpractic. I would say I don't like chiropractors but I've never (as far as I know) met one. I do, however, resent the fact that there is one operating round the corner from me. My feelings about this are a matter of public record.

I emailed the University, but got the standard 'fobbing me off' response, which was so dull I didn't bother putting it up here. I also discovered that anti-quack maestro Prof. David Colquhoun has been pursuing this matter himself for many years now. If an eminent professor like him can't get useful results from the proper channels, what chance does an unknown unemployed Neurobod like me have?


A relative 'unknown' like me would probably be more effective on undercover operations. As it happens, I'm currently helping organise a big publicity project type thing for the University, and as a result I recently found myself in the University of Glamorgan.

(I should stress that the University of Glamorgan is generally a very respectable and hard working higher-education establishment, but this sort of makes it worse that they seem to be condoning the teaching of chiropractic)

While there, I happened to pass the information screens, and what did I see?

So, apparently they have a Q&A session for people with questions about chiropractic? I don't know where it is exactly, but should I find out, I hope to go along. After all, chiropractors and other alt-med supporters regularly turn up at sceptical events and raise objections, it would be rude not to return the favour, right?

So, what to ask them? Here are some things I'd like to see someone try and answer. Feel free to add your own.

1: "A mean skeptic in a pub told me that chiropractic was all made up and had no basis in science. So I've arranged to have him beaten up. But are there any injuries that chiropractic can't treat? I don't want him recovering if it's at all possible"

2: "I watched Star Trek the other day. The Vulcan's use neck pinches and death grips, and these are obviously chiropractic techniques. Did the Star Trek people ask permission for this or do we need to sue them? Or are they saying that a super intelligent alien race would use chiropractic? If so, shouldn't we say this in our promotional literature?"

3: "My friend was suffering severe stomach upset, so I did some chiropractic manipulation on his abdomen. The results were very messy. Was this an unpleasant side effect, or did I accidentally perform the chiropractic cure for constipation?"

4: "If I perform chiropractic on my broadband cable, will it remove any subluxations and make my Internet faster?"

5: Same question as above, but about the fuel lines on a car

6: "A lot of my family have health issues and have asked if I could treat them for free. If I spend too much time touching and massaging my own family, won't I end up in jail?"

7: "Exactly how do you spell and pronounce 'Chiropractic' and 'Chiropractor'? I'm dyslexic and I wandered into a Proctology class the other day. The the things they showed me were hideous, and when I tried to perform therapy on the affected areas all hell broke loose"

8: "What time is the big dance-off with the Osteopaths?"

9: "I was talking during a lecture the other day, and as I left the lecturer kicked me in the back. Was this assault, or was he just trying to correct my posture? I just want to know whether to inform the police or not"

10: "A lot of escorts offer massages (I'm told). If I'm performing chiropractic therapies on someone and they get aroused, do I stop or charge them extra?"

11: "Someone told me that you can use homeopathy to treat cows. I didn't want chiropractic to be out-done, so when my uncle said one of the cows on his farm was sick I said I'd treat it with what I've learned here. Basically, are there any heavy duty chiropractic tables and hoists available? We broke 3 tables, 2 barn doors and a farm labourers back trying to do it"

12: "Further to the previous question, does the course cover the effective chiropractic treatments for massive impact trauma and serious horn wounds? The 'cow' in question was actually a 'bull'. And judging by it's reaction to our efforts, it seemed to be a sceptic bull at that."

13: "A lot of athletes say they go to chiropractors and it helps them perform well. Doesn't this mean that they owe their success to their chiropractor? If I end up treating a successful athlete, shouldn't I be entitled to a cut of their earnings?"

14: "I practised some chiropractic therapy on my dog yesterday. It fell asleep it's leg started shaking. Do human patients do this?"

15: "What's the chiropractic treatment for serious sunburn?"

16: "If manipulating the arrangement and alignment of parts of the body has serious effects on a persons health, what's the chiropractors view on firm handshakes?"

17: "I saw that the film 'Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" on display in my local video shop the other day. Will the University fund my legal costs if I sue blockbusters for using this term in a public context?"

And so on.

e-mail: humourology (at) live.co.uk

twitter: @garwboy


Friday, 24 September 2010

The Science Is Vital campaign: Email(s?) to my MP

For those of you who don't know, there is a very real danger of the coalition government of the UK severely cutting science funding. Us in the science community aren't too keen on this happening, for reasons far too obvious to go into here. But there are many people who want to do something about it (check out the link for a full background as to why Science is as important as we say it is)

If you care in any way at all about the economy and international standing of the UK, please sign the petition. Even if you're not British. Actually, especially if you're not British; the argument that the cuts will affect the UK's international reputation will be strengthened if international people say 'Yeah, that will actually happen'.

As with most campaigns like this, just adding you (electronic) signature to a document is the bare minimum you can do. We are also encouraged to write to our MPs. So I will.

Thing is, do I send a sensible, rationally argued missive in an earnest attempt to get my MP to take the issue seriously and act upon it? Or do I send one of my usual satirical, flippant letters which is more indicative of my 'style', is more likely to get noticed and will provide me with some brief amusement, but will probably be disregarded as gibberish and may in fact be detrimental to the campaign.

So, here are the two options.

Option 1: An e-mail to Alun Michael MP, from Dean Burnett (Doctor of Neuroscience and concerned member of the scientific community)

“Dear Alun Michael

I am one of your constituents. I would like you to sign EDM 767, the Science is Vital petition, and attend a lobby in Parliament on 12 October (15.30, Committee Room 10).

The evidence is clear that investing in research brings a range of economic and social benefits, and that severe cuts at the very moment that our competitor nations are investing more could jeopardize the future of UK science:

Although every member of the science community understands that,, given the current financial situation and the national deficit, potentially severe cuts are going to be unavoidable. However, as much of the economy of this country is dependent on world-class research and the resultant innovations from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, any short-term gains made by cutting science funding will undoubtedly be severely offset by the loss of the research and revenue that would have been made available had the cuts not occurred. In short, cuts will harm the economy and encourage the best scientific minds in the UK to seek opportunities abroad, particularly as many other countries are actually increasing scientific investment in response to the economic challenges currently being faced.

Given the nature of scientific research, any cuts made to research currently in progress would effectively nullify the investment already made into the research areas being cut, so it could easily be argued that the cuts made to scientific spending will actually waste money, rather than save it.

And although it is difficult to quantify in a financial sense, it cannot be denied that cuts will hurt world-class research, not eliminate waste, and damage the UK’s reputation as a leading home for research excellence. This is a particularly relevant issue for the University of Wales (UoW). As someone who has for many years been (and still is) involved with efforts aimed at raising the reputation of the UoW, I am very much aware of the efforts that have gone into the UoW earning a reputation as an internationally recognised centre of learning and research excellence across many areas and departments, attracting much attention and investment. As an MP for Wales, I would hope you would appreciate how damaging science cuts could prove to the Welsh economy in particular.

The Science is Vital [http://scienceisvital.org.uk/] coalition, along with the Campaign for Science and Engineering [http://www.sciencecampaign.org.uk], are calling upon the Government to set out a supportive strategy, including public investment goals above or at least in step with economic growth. Without such investment and commitment the UK risks its international reputation, its market share of high-tech manufacturing and services, the ability to respond to urgent and long-term national scientific challenges, and the economic recovery.

I have signed the petition at http://scienceisvital.org.uk/sign-the-petition. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Dean Burnett


Option 2: An e-mail to Alun Michael MP, from Dean Burnett (Unemployed Neuroscientist, aspiring but generally crap comedian, writer of weirdly popular-but-pointless ‘satirical’ science blog, sciencedigestive.blogspot.com)

Dear Alun Michael

All right Al, how’s things? Dean here, remember me? I interviewed you that time when you came to my school during your campaign to be the first minister of the Welsh Assembly. Actually, I think it had just been established, so you were campaigning to be the first first minister. Would that be the first [squared] minister? Although first = 1, and 1 x 1 is still one, so the first minister and first [squared] minister would logically be the same thing, so probably not worth differentiating. Presumably, that’s why you didn’t.

Sorry, tell a lie, it was Rhodri Morgan who came to my school campaigning. We never saw you. What happened between you and Rhodri anyway? I don't really follow politics normally.

So we’ve never met in person, but you may have seen me. I live very close to the Welsh assembly, so if you’re in there often you’ve probably seen me walking past. Although I should point out that there’s another guy around here who looks and dresses exactly like me, so if you’ve seen someone giving you the middle finger and/or ‘wanker’ gesture while passing, it’s definitely the other guy.

I’m writing to you to see if you’d be willing to speak out against the science cuts proposed (or more accurately, ‘hinted at’) by Vince Cable and the coalition government. There are many reasons for this, some of which I will go into now.

Firstly, Cable argues that only ‘quality’ research should be funded. However, we in the scientific community (of which I am still a member, but probably because they haven’t got round to kicking me out yet), we question Vince’s credentials in judging what defines ‘quality’ research. He’s obviously a clever man/back-stabbing Tory loving git (delete as appropriate), and I’ll be the first to admit that there definitely are a number of scientists who don’t really engage in worthwhile or decent quality research. These can be easily spotted as they tend to be rather self- promotional, are usually seen on Big Brother or other tacky media formats as ‘experts’ on mundane or unrelated issues, or take bastard months to mark my I mean a typical postgraduates PhD thesis corrections.

However, the whole concept of funding only quality research is logically questionable. Research projects don’t even know if the thing their researching even works or is real (depending on the field), let alone what the economic or social benefits are. Why not just cut any research projects that don’t include an assessment of all the unforeseen circumstances they’ll encounter while you’re at it?

However, given your past clashes with members of the scientific community, maybe you agree that the cuts are a good and necessary thing? Well, fair enough if you think that, it’s your view and you’re entitled to it. I would only ask that you consider the implications of this ‘only fund things of demonstrably high quality’ approach. Who’s to say it’ll end with the science community? Presumably, other areas will be given the same treatment?

What if the political system itself gets the ‘quality’ axe? Exactly how useful is, oh, let’s say, the Welsh Assembly? Would you be ok to scrap that? No doubt it would affect you and your position, but how would you justify its continued existence? Bear in mind I live nearby, and can see for myself that most of the time it just sits there empty like an elaborate inverted mushroom, occasionally getting everyone together to approve of such vitally important things as golf tournaments.

And what about banks? Surely public funds should only be invested in banks that are of acceptable quality? I’m no financial expert, but I would dare to suggest the way to recognise a poor quality bank is that IT NEEDS PUBLIC FUNDS IN ORDER TO CARRY ON BEING A BANK! But like I say, that’s just my take on things.

But please, if you could, will you join the science community (and help mend some bridges) in opposing the suggested cuts. Even if you don’t feel particularly inclined to supporting the science community, it’s a chance to put the boot in to the Tories isn’t it? Sometimes we do things we don’t want to in order to gain the advantage, e.g. form a coalition government with rivals against the currently ruling party. I myself voluntarily did a comedy fundraiser in support of the (successful) campaign of a local Labour candidate before the election. I was very popular on the night as well (really, I was, surprised me). I didn’t want to do it, I’m not particularly enamoured with modern Labour policies, but I did it.

She got her funds and a successful campaign, I got to meet and perform with Andy Parsons (who’s a lot taller than he looks on the telly, which is weird as it’s usually the other way round with famous people I’ve met). So technically, the Cardiff Labour party owes me a favour, so I’m calling it in. e a mate Al, sign EDM 767.

It’s not like you’ve got much else to do these days, is it?

Love and kisses

Dean Burnett (PhD)"

So, which one should I use? Answers via any communication medium I'm contactable via.

Email: humourology (at) live.co.uk

Twitter: 'garwboy


Sunday, 19 September 2010

A letter to the BBC, about Science Reporting

For the background to this article, please see Prof. David Colquhoun's brilliant (and genuine) post regarding the BBC asking for comments regarding their science reporting.

What follows is my effort, which I emailed and which may ruin everything. I did say it wasn't meant to be taken literally, but still. Ah well...

Dear BBC

I was recently informed that you are, whether by choice or inadvertently, soliciting opinion regarding science reporting on the BBC. No doubt you have received several well informed and articulate observations from a variety of expert science bloggers, and I would wholeheartedly recommend you to take their advice on board.

Admittedly, if you don’t there is nothing significant I can do about it apart from withhold my license fee, in which case I’ll be severely fined or jailed, neither of which really seem like preferable options to ‘crap science coverage’, if I’m totally honest. You’ve got me over a barrel before I even start, so any threats would be completely empty. So I won’t bother.

Although technically I am regarded as a Science blogger, I’d describe myself as more of a science humour writer if I was forced to give a title to whatever it is I spend my time doing for the amusement of strangers. As such, my following recommendations will be posted on my blog which people still keep reading for no discernible reason and are FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY. Feel free to consider them by any means, but if you do and it turns out to be a bad idea, then I’m covered. I’m aware that this is a weasely trick, allowing me to make wild claims and influence your behaviour while removing all accountability on my part. I got the idea from watching the programmes featuring psychics.

Here are my concerns regarding Science reporting with the BBC.

BALANCE: The primary and most pressing concern regarding BBC science reporting is the obsession with ‘balance’, and no doubt others who have contacted you will say the same. Although it is understandable to present opposing viewpoints in a news story of concern, the extent to which this is done regarding science stories is completely baffling. Actual scientists train for years in order to earn the right to be described as such, they don’t have to have just printed a business card themselves after reading a book about how pretty rocks give you better Karmic enemas or the like. Two such individuals should not be given equal time to express their views on an important subject.

In an ideal world, the amount of time given to an individual arguing a specific viewpoint or opinion should be directly proportional to the evidence they can muster to support their claims. In this instance, two scientists arguing the pros and cons of a new experimental drug would have equal time to get their point across. However, in the case of contentious subjects like alternative medicine or climate change, the qualified scientist would be able to deliver a 5+ hour monologue on the subject and the basis for his views, whereas arguments from pseudoscientists or climate change deniers would be like that bit in Fight Club where Brad Pit’s character splices single frames of pornography into children’s films at the cinema; We’d get the occasional flash which is too brief to actually recognise, but causes a subconscious feeling of unease.

Failing this, if the dedication to ‘balance’ is to be maintained, then logically it should be applied to all areas of reporting. Every political debate should not be limited to the major parties with the possible addition of an extra one, but should include the input from every person involved with politics with a differing opinion. We have a chap in Cardiff who keeps running for political office under the name of ‘Captain Beany’. I would very much like to hear his position on the upcoming economic cuts or the stability of the housing market.

At the very least, every news report (including natural disasters or major terrorist incidents) should give equal time to someone pointlessly claiming that the events being discussed never happened, based on the argument that they weren’t there to observe them. You may think this is ridiculous, but you’re the ones who seem to think anecdotal evidence is just as valid as the actual kind.

PEOPLE’S ‘INPUT’: I have no problem with people, I am one. And as a broadcasting corporation, the approval of the people who fund you is obviously important to you. However, when it comes to science reporting, I don’t really care what people think, unless the science in question is based on theories about what people think. This reflects back to the balance issue discussed previously, but it is understandable that you want to represent the views and opinion of the licence paying public, but that isn’t how science works.

People may pay their license fees, but this does not mean their opinions carry equal weight on subjects outside of their areas of expertise/interest. Science and the NHS are also funded by the taxes people pay, but you don’t see Mary (Accountant, Stoke-on Trent) performing major heart surgery, or Brian (Plumber, Grantham) having a go on the advanced particle accelerators, purely because they help fund these things. Because that would be mad.

This goes for the supposed ‘balance’ when presenting pseudoscientific arguments; it’s obvious that many people believe in things like homeopathy and acupuncture, but why must they be catered for to such an extent? A lot more people are technically overweight, but I have yet to see a programme called ‘Being Fat is Fabulous (with James Corden)’, or something like that. Plenty of shows like Jamie’s school dinners where unhealthy eating is criticised and borderline mocked. If overweight people want respect and consideration, they should start banging on about the magical healing properties of water that’s been slapped around a bit? This is a bizarre system to operate under.

Involving the general public in science programmes that are nothing to do with them does not reflect science or it’s workings and could be viewed as a cynical attempt to avoid doing research and pandering to the wider audiences. The general public shouldn’t be involved with science on TV, unless it’s a programme about Sociology, although the jury’s still out on whether that is actually a science*

HAIR: As is the case with most fields, I notice that the BBC has several ‘big names’ when it comes to reporting science; Hawking, Dawkins and Attenborough, mainly.

(n.b. ‘Hawking, Dawkins and Attenborough sounds like an excellent title for a comedy/drama series where the three of them have to travel the country solving science-related crimes and getting into various scrapes, sort of like ‘Big Bang theory’ meets ‘The A-team’. If this ends up being made, I expect a percentage of the royalties)

As brilliant and inspiring as these people can be, I notice a disturbing trend in their promotion to leaders of science; they each embody the ‘elaborate white hair’ look of a stereotypical scientist (although given Hawking’s physical condition, I’ll assume he doesn’t have much say or choice in his style). Although there is nothing wrong with this hairstyle, when taken in conjunction with other big-name scientists such as Simon ‘Pineapple’ Singh, Ben ‘Curly’ Goldacre, Brian ‘looks a bit like a mullet’ Cox and Robert ‘Gene Shalit’ Winston**, it shows a worrying bias against a very common type of male scientist; bald ones! As someone who expects to be a bald scientist myself very soon, I find this follicle-based discrimination quite alarming.

FASHION: Although I see a number of stories related to my area of expertise Neuroscience, this is to be expected as it is by far the coolest of all sciences. But other sciences are equally as important (but not as cool), so it is perhaps not fair to feature programmes and articles related to only to what the general public would find the more interesting. A greater range of sciences should be given more public exposure. Here are some possible titles.

· Pile-on the Nylon: an in-depth look at synthetic molecules (with James Corden)

· How now, Brown Cow?: an investigation into the impacts of technological developments of the last 50 years on the process of intensive farming (with Vernon Kay).

· Winning Smiles: The ins-and-outs of standard dental procedures, featuring a contest where contestants answer questions based on what happens in the show in order to win the ability to jump to the head of an NHS dentist waiting list (with Jonathon Ross)

· Text-tiles: interactive programme where viewers can text/email questions to a panel of leading experts in the field of construction and durable materials (with Ulrika Jonsson)

· Bother Down Below: A celebrity develops serious haemorrhoids and then goes undercover to reveal what really goes on in a typical proctology clinic (with James Corden)

‘FILLER’ SCIENTISTS: Although all scientists have trained to earn their titles, some are less credible than others. These scientists shouldn’t be treated with the same respect as others, lest it give the impression that their views are highly valued in the scientific community when they are in fact figures of ridicule.

Over the past year alone, BBC Scotland’s prestigious ‘Fred McCauley Show’ has had a guest ‘scientist’ to discuss topical issues they knew nothing about, and the BBC Radio programme ‘Moments of Genius’ even had no-name scientific wannabes making contributions alongside individuals such as Attenborough, Fry, Winston and Goldacre. This is not a wise use of license-payer’s money ***

I hope you will consider my comments carefully before rejecting them completely, which you really should do eventually.

Yours Sincerely

Dr Dean Burnett

* = It is, I’m just kidding. Honest!

** = All these people are brilliant and their hair is well good and that, my comments are fuelled by the burning resentment harboured by all this with significantly receding hairlines.

*** = Yeah, it was me on each occasion.


Skeptics in the Pub (terms and conditions)

Tomorrow, after much planning and faffing about, the for the first time ever a Skeptics in the Pub event will take place in Wales. Lets hope this is the first of many, so fingers crossed the druids don't get wind of it and barricade the venue with massive stone circles.

Check the link for details, times, prices etc. However, as skeptics in the pub is such a well known institution which preaches inclusiveness and outreach, we have to take precautions regarding the legality of any claims made or events hosted, and to ensure nobody is unfairly excluded in the process.

So, should you feel you wish to attend this or any other SITP event, please read the following and click 'I agree...' at the end.

SKEPTICS IN THE PUB (terms and conditions)

1. Skeptics in the Pub’ (SITP) operate an ‘everyone is welcome’ policy. However, in the event of ‘everyone’ turning up (current estimates would mean 6,000,000,000+ individuals) then people will be granted entry on an individual basis until the hosting venue reaches capacity, and entry will then be determined on a one-in/one-out system. As the majority of venues range in capacity from 40-300, the majority of events last less than 2 hours and a queue formed by every living human being in existence would potentially require a long-haul flight to get to the end of, attendance at the event in such a circumstance is not guaranteed.

2. As SITP is a not for profit organisation which possesses no specific premises, provisions for disabled access is dictated by the venue which hosts the event you wish to attend. SITP cannot guarantee any special access provisions for disabled individuals desiring to attend. Should a disabled individual wish to attend an inaccessible event, contacting the organisers in advance may enable them to rig up some sort of pulley system in order to hoist you into an upper storey window, or rubber-band powered stair lift/elevator. However, given the meagre resources of SITP organisers (coupled with the alcohol consumption common at SITP events), anyone wishing to use such temporary facilities acknowledges that doing so may actually increase/cause permanent disability.

3. SITP acknowledges that some views and opinions expressed at events may be unpalatable or offensive to others. However, as SITP employs no dedicated security staff, individuals in seen to be carrying the following items may be denied entry; Firearms of any description; bladed weapons over 5cm in length (2cm for pre-sharpened house-keys); any tools which have a primary function that could be described as agricultural, medical or for the preparing of meat; poisonous/toxic gasses/liquids and the facility to distribute them liberally into an open space; dangerous biological agents. Burning torches or custom made explosives are dependent on the specific fire-safety restrictions of individual venues. It is recommended that individuals do not bring a weapon of any description, with the exception of a working phaser or Lightsabre, possession of which will guarantee free entry providing all other present get to have a go.

4. SITP accepts no responsibility for anyone expressing dissatisfaction with a talk/presentation on the grounds that they have accidentally crossed from a parallel dimension in which the rational and scientific people control society and genuinely try to suppress rebellious pseudoscience groups which actually have evidence for their claims so have started a ‘sceptic/skeptic’ movement, and as such the SITP talk they attend seems like propaganda. Should this individual be willing to provide a detailed and interesting account of life in their dimension, their entry fee will be refunded and they will be bought a packet of crisps.

5. SITP aims to educate and encourage learning about alternative viewpoints with evidence to support them. As a result, SITP encourages people to remember the talks they witness. In order to encourage memory formation, it is recommended that those attending SITP events bring the following items; 1 x fresh and tender kiss; 1 x stolen night of bliss; 1 x girl; 1 x boy; n x grief (required amount varies between individuals); n x joy (required amount varies between individuals). Given the typical demographic of SITP events and the availability of alcohol, these items may all be obtainable at the event itself. However, this is not guaranteed.

6. The price of entry to an SITP event is determined by the organisers/location/cost of speaker of each specific event. In some cases the entry fee may be in the form of a voluntary donation, whereas others may be mandatory. In the case of a mandatory entry fee, this may be reduced/waived for the following;

a. Individuals attending via the astral plane

b. Individuals who are titular heads of major religions who turn up accompanied by the prophet/messiah they profess to worship

c. Individuals who exist below/above the macroscopic scale

d. Individuals who turn up in possession of working science-fiction objects (see point 3)

e. Individuals who are able/willing to provide a replacement talk for the scheduled speaker, should the scheduled speaker cancel last minute for a highly improbable reason (e.g. filled their car’s fuel tank with water after accidentally using a homeopathic garage)

f. Individuals who are famous enough in the scientific/skeptic community to ensure increased attendance via use of their name in future publicity in an effective but hideously cynical name-dropping exercise (should attendance increase exponentially, see point 1)

g. Individuals injured in the use of hastily constructed disables access mechanisms (see point 2)

7. In order to avoid accusations of cliqueness, elitism or exclusionary policies at STIP events, those attending may be asked to join in with exercises such as sing-alongs, anecdote exchanges, rap-battles, games of Twister™, extreme battle-chess, ‘hungry hungry hippos’™ or, if required, more intense forms of ‘interaction’ involving copious amounts of oil and the removal of most/all clothing. Individuals are not compelled to join in with these ice-breaking exercises, but forfeit all rights to accusations of non-inclusivity if they decline.

8. SITP respectfully asks that any individual with the intention of screaming and raving hysterically at the speaker(s) for an event do so during the Q&A section where it is expected.

I confirm that I have read the above terms and conditions and find them utterly ridiculous so shall ignore them and attend any SITP event with the intention of enjoying myself, experiencing something interesting and meeting some cool people/make some new friends [ ]

Email: humourology (at) live.co.uk

Twitter: @garwboy


Thursday, 16 September 2010

How evil is the Pope? An assessment

For those of you who don’t know, the Pope is currently in the UK. Some people in the UK aren’t happy about this. These people seemingly outnumber those who are pleased that he is here, so it’s weird how the latter group ended up with what they wanted. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising though, as those who protested the Iraq war would point out.

But is it fair? Should the Pope be as maligned as he is? In recent months the image of the Pope in general society seems to have crossed a line, going from a sort of ‘corrupt politician/leader’ to ‘fictional super-villain’. Is this fair though?

In a recent on-line discussion, I mentioned the whole ‘protecting child molesters’ thing the Pope does. An angry Catholic then called me a fool for ‘believing what your told and not looking at the facts’. When I regained consciousness after being hit by such a massive blast of hypocrisy, I decided I would address this ‘concern’ in the only way I know how; scientific analysis. So, just how evil is the Pope? Let’s see how he fares on the villain scale.


Every major villain seemingly wants power. It’s uncertain to what extent the Pope wants power because he clearly has power. ‘Pope’ is, in the real world, about as powerful a position as it’s possible to occupy. But obviously, he had to work his way up to this position. I’m not sure how this works with regards to the inner-workings of the Catholic church, but it can’t be particularly easy what with there being so many of them, even if you automatically disqualify all the women. To have climbed to the top the ancient and convoluted of the ancient structure that is the Catholic Church must have taken some considerable drive. And although it seems like he’s on top, many devout Catholics believe the selection of the Pope is made via divine influence. If this is the case then the Pope isn’t quite at the very top yet, and if he is truly power hungry we may yet see him try to dethrone God.

However, it could also be argued that someone with a genuine desire for power would use a medium other than religion, which has seen better days in terms of global dominance and has a pretty poor track record of producing doomsday devices. But this is largely a subjective viewpoint, seeing as it could also be argued for those who are Catholic that the Pope has control over their eternal existence, and the closest runner up to this is whoever controls the process for gaining entry into the USA.



Super villains are generally rather arrogant. Where it could be argued that a truly smart villain would perform their evil deeds anonymously so no blame or retribution can ever affect them, what’s the point of being powerful if nobody knows who you are? In order to differentiate themselves from your run-of-the-mill criminal or corrupt bureaucrat, super-villains tend to look or dress rather elaborately. Presumably, the fear and respect your image causes and the subsequent ego gratification this provides offsets the risk of standing out from a mile away (or any distance within the range of a standard sniper rifle).

The Pope, as it happens, is one of the most gaudily attired individuals on earth. With a signature (and massive) hat, more flowing robes than the bridal gown industry and a selection of jewellery that would embarrass even the most self-aggrandising princess, the Pope does indeed look ‘unique’. Points are lost, however, for wearing things which most people would regard as rather feminine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless you’re Catholic, which I’m reliably informed the Pope is. Whether or not he shits in the woods too is, as yet, undetermined.



Super villains are quite prolific liars. This would seem a logical necessity, as an honest super villain would be unlikely to get very far. “Hello, I’m evil. Will you give me all your possessions and obey my commands as I pursue my plans for world domination” is an opening conversational gambit that is unlikely to pass unnoticed at the UN. So your typical super-villain presents an acceptable public facade and says the right things while being a right bastard when no-one important is looking.

The Pope, already being a high-profile powerful public figure, seems to not feel the need for layers of deception in his dealings with people. If anything, he’s refreshingly honest about what he believes. He seems to relish in being abrasive by spouting his archaic viewpoints.

The Pope has, however, tried concealing the truth via the covering up of child molesters, and spread outright lies regarding the effectiveness of condoms in preventing AIDS, but these are very straightforward lies/concealment, the sophistication equivalent of a child breaking a vase and hiding the pieces, then denying it to his mother. Just swap ‘vase’ for ‘the mental and physical well-being of hundreds of children and the lives of millions of innocent people in the third world’



Every super villain needs trusted henchmen to carry out their evil deeds or help out with controlling the evil empire. One man cannot do it alone; they just don’t have the time. A trusted henchman is a must for any super villain. The Pope, the lucky beggar, has a number of choices available to him when he needs someone to go and be ignorant or affronted by something on his behalf. Most up to date example at time of writing is Cardinal Kasper, the crazy bastard.

The Pope appears to have gone for quantity over quality with his henchmen though. As far as I’ve seen, none of his Cardinals are particularly identified as a ‘right hand man’ sort of individual, and they all seem to be middle-aged to old men; it seems unlikely that the Pope could rely on any of them to give James Bond a good pasting if it came down to it.



Every super villain needs disposable minions in order to exact their will on the masses who may not really want to obey the instructions of a diabolical madman. Minions are needed in order to combat any groups which actively resist the plans of a villain. They means they are likely to take heavy losses if it comes to actual battle, so need to be loyal to their master but inconsequential enough in the scheme of things so that their demise doesn’t really mean anything to the overall plans, hence ‘disposable’. It could be said that the Pope could command the obedience of all practicing Catholics, which would certainly give him the advantage of numbers.

However, and this can’t be stressed enough, the vast majority of Catholics are undoubtedly decent, pleasant, well-meaning people who probably wouldn’t have the fervour to oppress others just because the Pope said so. The Swiss guards might count, but they are apparently loyal to anyone who employs them, and how useful are soldiers from a neutral country anyway?

When it comes to minions, the Pope can probably rely on the priests and missionaries around the world. This is still a decent number, but the Pope loses points for showing concern; a real super villain wouldn’t have covered up the deeds of the child molesters, but would have thrown them to the wolves and watched as they were torn apart, cackling all the while.



Every super villain needs a lair, or fortress, or hideaway, or base, or just somewhere where they can make evil plans and hoard their ill-gotten gains out of sight of the prying eyes from the world outside. The Pope has the Vatican, which almost fits this description perfectly. Thousands of years old, so giving it a mystique which helps give gravitas and impress the masses; vast and convoluted, housing the mind-boggling wealth accumulated from thousands of years of spreading the word in a way which is NOT AT ALL LIKE PLUNDERING! It’s architecturally impressive and intimidating, with even a perfect set-up for addressing loyal followers. The Vatican is even a country in its own right, so outside influence is minimised.

The Vatican loses points, however, for location. Whereas most super villain lairs are ‘secret’ lairs, the Pope has his smack bang in the middle of the Capital city of a developed nation, one that is a global tourist hotspot to boot. Plus, he makes no effort to keep people out, the closest thing to guards at the gates of the Vatican are the people selling refreshments or catholic souvenirs, and they surely can’t be trusted to ward off those who want a look around.



Whereas many super villains are just evil men with sufficient resources, in other cases they’re actually imbued with super/magical powers of their own, with which they can combat similarly powered superheroes who would challenge their evil plans. The Pope’s main powers seem to be based on his influence and control of the resources of the Catholic Church, which is nothing to be sniffed at. However, he also has some powers which enter into the ‘magical’. It is believed that the Pope is the representative of God, so has the power of Papal infallibility, which means the Pope never does or says anything wrong with regards to morality and faith. Catholics apparently believe this, non-Catholics look at the evidence and risk dying of laughter at the ridiculousness of this claim.

The Pope also has the power to abolish (and presumably create) metaphysical concepts such as Limbo. This could be said to be an example of the Pope having the power to create and erase entire universes, or just a mad man changing his mind about something that was never there in the first place. The Pope’s magical powers depend on who you are and what you think, and that’s not very powerful when you think about it.



As previously stated, the Pope’s main powers are based on the resources and influence of the Catholic Church. In a surprise twist, even the most overblown of comic super-villains can’t match the might of the Catholic church when it comes to pointless wealth and undisputed influence over others (unless we’re talking sci-fi or fantasy, where super-villains may have multitudes of planets under their control, but it’s all relative, as the equivalent of the Catholic Church in this situation would have 87 galaxies and solid platinum spaceships at their disposal, for no reason at all).

The Pope is clearly one of the most influential people on Earth, but his influence is limited to those who believe in Catholicism; he’s not really that popular with non-Catholics, for many reasons. His access to Wealth is also formidable, but he appears to be satisfied with using it for ‘bling’, rather than constructing some devastating space-laser. We should be grateful for small mercies, I suppose.



One way in which super villains gain power and influence is through their use of superior technology to oppress or overcome those opposed to them. As previously stated (again) the Pope gets his power form the Catholic Church, an institution which was only ever really at the forefront of technological developments for a few years in the 14/1500’s, in the field of torture implements. This is to be expected for a body which rewards scientific development or curiosity with imprisonment or ridicule and denial

The Pope’s main concession to technology appears to be the Popemobile which is some sort of armoured car/aquarium cross (shout out to my friend Stuart Vale for that one). This does suggest developments for anyone who needs to regularly transport aggressive fish across reasonable distances.



In order to get to the top and stay ahead of the game, super-villains tend to be smarter than average, or even super-intelligent. From Lex Luthor style scientific/economic genius, to the practical street-smarts of Proposition Joe to the warped view of morality of the Joker, most super villains have the advantage over others in at least one area of mental ability.

In contrast, the Pope seems like an idiot. And this isn’t some mega-cynical ‘anyone who believes in religion is an idiot’ crack, because that’s simply wrong (and quite hack these days), and clearly the Pope has to have some wits about him to rise to the top of a major and ancient institution like he has, but the Pope seems to have trouble grasping simple issues, e.g. ‘Children = liked, Child Molesters = disliked’, or ‘Sex = popular, AIDS = Unpopular’. It may be a pretence or face-saving act, but when the Pope makes statements or does things that will obviously be offensive to vast numbers of people, he and his cardinals seem genuinely shocked and angry that people get offended. This inability to grasp cause and effect is not particularly encouraging in an assessment of mental ability. But as George W. Bush demonstrated, this proves no barrier to having power over millions these days.



Most super villains don’t start out that way. If nothing else, it’s very difficult to form world-conquering plans when you’re too young to form memories or digest solids. Many super villains can explain their evil and twisted tendencies with some sort of traumatic or disturbing experiences in their past (e.g. Magneto’s time in a concentration camp).

The most commonly known fact about the Pope’s childhood is that he was in the Hitler Youth, which suggests it is likely that he was the traumatic event in the lives of other people (which is very much still the case, arguably). Many Catholics defend this rather worrying aspect of the young Pope’s life by pointing out that registration in the Hitler youth was compulsory at the time, and that we should not judge the Pope for something that those in authority made him do. This is a fair point, and it’s good to see that this traumatic experience has prevented the Pope from ever using overwhelming authority based on intolerance and nonsensical theories to control the lives of others. . . . . what?



Super villains are overwhelmingly male. This makes sense, seeing as self-aggrandising and dominating behaviour tends to be largely testosterone powered. The people who take them on are, invariably, male also. The whole heroes-villains thing is a very macho area. To take advantage of this, a super villain will sometimes employ a beguiling female to charm their enemies and possibly snap their necks once their guard is (or certain garments are) down. This is a questionable strategy as a particularly noble and charming (and unfeasibly well sculpted) hero can entice the female operative into changing sides, but your typical super villain should always have a sexy woman involved in their operations in some capacity, if only to keep the male minions distracted from what they’re actually doing.

At the risk of sounding alarmingly shallow, the Pope fails massively at this aspect of villainy. It is probably due to the Catholic churches utter contempt for women in general that seriously reduces their options when it comes to employing glamorous agents. If the Pope were in a situation where he needed to have a man seduced (how this would come about, I don’t know) then his only options seem to be send a Nun (some men like a challenge, but even the most sex-addicted male bozo would probably realise he’d have better luck elsewhere) or Ann Widdicombe (as seen above, and about whom you can make your own conclusions)



A villain isn’t really a villain without someone to test themselves against. If nobody objects to what you’re doing, how is that villainy? Every villain needs a nemesis to defy and scheme against. The Pope is head of the Catholic Church, which over its history has amassed a collection of people and things its fundamentally opposed to which would make even the most rabid sociopath feel embarrassed, and since his appointment the Pope appears to be adding to this list at a frightening rate. Thus far, the Catholic Church appears to have as its enemies; Protestants, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox Church, 7th Day Adventists, Muslims, Hindus, Socialists, Humanists, Atheists, Women, Homosexuals, Journalists, Education, Dan Brown, The British, Liberals, Environmentalists, Darwinism, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, Condoms, contraceptives in general, abortion clinics, ice cream adverts, scientists, secularism and the laws of reality itself.

For sheer belligerence alone, the Pope deserves a round of applause.


FINAL SCORE = 5.54/10

So there you go. The analysis reveals that the Pope can be regarded as a super villain, just not a particularly good one. This is arguably the worst of both worlds, so feel free to mock him all you want.

E-mail: Humourology (at) live.co.uk

Twitter: @garwboy


Saturday, 11 September 2010

Knee Jerks

(What follows are some musings on the consequences of immediate emotional responses)

When I was in Comprehensive school, one of the more enthusiastic teachers in the maths department attempted to encourage more enthusiasm for his subject by putting up a poster in his classroom window saying ‘MATHS IS FUN!’ A decent attempt, but lacked any supporting evidence (and before any mathematicians read this and start raving, this was no-doubt the fault of the curriculum)

The English department in the building opposite, seemingly under the impression that pupils had some say in which lessons they attended (which, in fairness, usually was the case, but due to the rampant truancy problem rather than any official policy), were clearly offended by this. They retaliated by putting up a poster of their own, simply saying ‘ENGLISH IS FUNNER!’ This tells you everything you need to know about my school.

This was a good example of acting on a knee-jerk reaction and looking like an utter tit as a result. So I did learn something, which was appropriate as it was a school

Knee-jerk reactions are very common, more so than ever these days, what with the ever-increasing options available to express your opinion, e.g. pointless long-winded blogs.

A lot of news these days seems to be centred around scandal-provoking non-stories that exist purely to exploit and perpetuate knee-jerk reactions, e.g. The Koran-burning plans of the Florida maniac who usually has the audience-pulling power of an accordion-playing busker on a wet Tuesday morning, or the plans to build a mosque on a ground zero that exists in a dimension accessible only via right-wing pundits, or the fact that two overpaid performers were a bit cheeky to an old famous man who wasn’t listening at the time, in fact anything involving the words ‘Muslims’, ‘Cancer’ or ‘Immigrants’ seems to be a decent provoker of emotional responses.

Provoking a strong knee-jerk response in someone will potentially entice them to find out exactly what it is they’re reacting to, presumably so they can work out just how outraged they need to be and so are better equipped to ration their outrage for day-to-day occurrences, like being given the wrong change when buying milk, being splashed by a car driving through a puddle or witnessing a different coloured person living a normal life when yours isn’t as ideal as they’d like. In order to find out more about the knee-jerk inducing thing, they will hopefully purchase the item that tells them about what it is. Hence, as far as the media is concerned, this is a lucrative strategy.

I’m used to knee jerk reactions, doing what I do. When people hear that I’m a neuroscientist, they often assume (correctly) that the field involves animal research, so I am therefore morally inferior to a typical torturer or murder (I’ve genuinely been told that). When people hear that I do comedy, the knee-jerk reaction is ‘you'd better not talk about me on stage!’ My knee jerk response in this situation would usually be ‘I won’t, you’re predictable and boring’. But I don’t say that, because when people have their knee-jerk reactions criticised, they risk becoming rather unpredictable.

Every comedian has to deal with knee-jerk reactions on a constant basis, as an audience member could shout out or heckle at any moment if you say something they take exception to. It could be just that it’s not as funny as they would like, or you could mention a sensitive subject which they feel shouldn’t be joked about, no matter that you mention it in order to say something they totally agree with; the knee jerk reaction responds to words and phrases and basic stimuli, application of rationalisation would kill it.

I have been on stage and mentioned that ‘I met a gay man recently’, which I had done, and this fact was relevant to the joke. Before I got to complete it though, a woman stood up and declared that I was a homophobe. This annoyed me, because I’m not. When I met the gay man in question, I was able to resist the urge to lynch him from the nearest lamppost. Conversely, telling the same story in a pub to my friends, the same phrase ‘I met a gay man recently’ provoked a similar knee-jerk but polar-opposite reaction in a complete stranger on a nearby table, who pointed out that it was only incredibly good fortune that I wasn't sodomised in the street. Charming chap.

I bring it up because I've been getting a lot more traffic here lately, possibly because science-themed blogs which feature confusing sentence structure and half-assed attempts at pith humour are currently fashionable? Whatever the reason, it's appreciated, so thanks for that? But it's been especially interesting to see how some of my more popular posts such as the homeopath job application or guide to skeptic dickery have been getting angry responses. See for yourself, it's quite entertaining.

I'm guessing I got a lot of knee-jerk reactions. I've had people telling me that I'm useless, stupid and wasting time. This from the people who felt it worth commenting on or emailing the author of a purposeless blog? I've been linked to from conspiracy theory and pseudoscience websites, and God only knows why. They clearly haven't read or understood my blatherings, they must just see some words they like and make knee-jerk assumptions that I agree with them. But in general, people who have certain viewpoints or beliefs have seen what I have written and decided it's unacceptable, and felt compelled to point this out.

I still fail to see how me writing down the pointless musings that dribble from my cortex and essentially kicking them out into the online void can be seen as something so upsetting. It strikes me as the equivalent of scrawling a rude word on a scrap of toilet paper and flinging it into the sea; maybe it is offensive if you happen to find it, but why the hell would you take it so personally? But maybe it's understandable. Nobody likes having their beliefs or opinions 'publically' mocked, it's basically an indirect way of being called an idiot, and nobody enjoys that. So they feel compelled to respond.

But once people have stated their grievance/argument in public, any attempt to point out why it's wrong (assuming it is) is just another method of calling them an idiot, which will invariably cause further anger and cause them to rigidly stick to their original (wrong) opinion in order to save face and salvage their pride. Further criticisms reinforce this behaviour, and the cycle may never end.

You can't stop people from having knee-jerk reactions, but you can stop yourself from acting on them, and that may limit their propagation

Although, I say it's inadvisable to act on a knee-jerk reaction, but last night I went to the pub and a guy came in who had clearly modelled himself on Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine. Hair, sideburns, clothing, he may even have had a fictional metal grafted onto his bones as far as I know. My knee jerk reaction was to get a photograph, but decided that may prove offensive and upsetting if I was caught. By the time I was drunk enough to think it actually would be worth it, he'd left.

I shall regret this always.

email: humourology (at) live.co.uk

twitter: @garwboy


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