Friday, May 10, 2013

Skeptics In The Cardiff Central Library

As with many twitter based stories, very quickly misunderstandings, assumptions and speculation can create a storm in a tea-cup. That's not to say that there is nothing to the story of how Cardiff Skeptics had their request to hold two events turned down. As the person involved in correspondence with the library over the matter, I thought it best to set out some of the facts.

On April 10th Cardiff Skeptics received a request via email to help curate an evening event at Cardiff Central Library. The event takes place on Friday 24th May, starting at 7 and finishing at 9. I myself was not available, but I got in touch with fellow skeptic Dean Burnett who was happy to help out. The event features Jon Ronson doing a talk before a Q&A session and then some book signing. This is pretty much the same start time and format as any Cardiff SITP event.

The library staff member who contacted me (we'll refer to him as Jason) also made it clear that the library, although disimilar to our usual venue (no alcohol), would be happy to help out with future events if we were interested.

This was serndipitous as I had two big names booked for June and July and needed a larger venue to cater for the resulting greater attendance.

Jason told me that if events are free then the library would be happy to host it, but paid ticketed events may be an option. During the daytime they could host 60 people but could accomodate up to 100 after hours.

I told Jason that SITP events aren't free as we need to be able to cover speakers' expenses such as travel, food and sometimes hotel. I then revealed that the two speakers we had booked were John Sweeney and Prof David Nutt.

On April 18th Jason replied, saing that if we ticketed the event and included a £1 charge on each ticket which went to the library then it should be fine. He mentioned that Cardiff libraries may be concerned about the controversial nature of the talks and that if we were still interested he would find out if there was an issue.

I followed up confirming we were still interested and confirmed the nature of the talks.

On April 21st Jason replied to inform me that he'd spoken to the library manager and that they'd in turn be speaking to the management team the following Monday.

Noticing that a publicly owned venue may potentially be blocking us due to the nature of the talks I politely enquired about guidelines about who can and can't use the venue.

Jason replied, citing Cardiff Council's equalities plan, Everybody Matters. Anything that went against its equalities plan would be a no no (therefore no EDL etc).

On May 7th I sent another email to Jason, asking if a decision had been made.

The next day I received a reply saying that Jason had spoken to the library's manager and that they "wouldn't be able to do them". No explanation was given.

I instantly resigned myself to having to find another venue, not particularly bothered by what I considered simple bureacracy. It was only once I got round to thinking about the context of the refusal that I indulged in two throw-away tweets saying how disappointed I was that the library refused us in te context of controversial speakers and an inclusivity policy.

I expected a few retweets and comments, but I didn't expect to be contacted by the press. The genie was now out of the bottle. Peter Law, journalist for Wales Online and the South Wales Echo contacted me and I gave a short telephone interview. He was also sent a copy of the email exchange with the library for him to verify. He also got in contact with John Sweeney for a quote. His article on the Wales Online website did a good job of summing up the situation.

At the end of yesterday the council offered the following statement:

"We would like to make it clear that Cardiff Council has not refused to allow Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub to hold their event at the library as a result of the nature of the topics to be discussed. Unfortunately in this instance the staff member has given incorrect advice to the organisers as despite the fact that Central Library does hold in-house evening events it is not set up as a night time venue, as there are budget implications in terms of staff costs. On this occasion the library is unable to host the event due to staffing issues. Since there has been a misunderstanding we will work with the organisers to find a suitable venue for their June meeting. And as with all requests, the manager of Central Library is happy to talk directly to the organisers about their proposals and explore the library’s suitability for any events in the future."

So Cardiff Council deny the talks were blocked because of their content. They cite staffing issues as the reason. This all seems very plausible, as many have pointed out. However, it does not address all issues in the correspondence between myself and Jason. 

There is a slight contradiction if we consider Cardiff Council's statement in the context of Jason's emails. Cardiff Council state that the venue is not set up for evening events, even though they admit that they do host evening events (Jon Ronson?)and one of their staff members has openly offered to host evening events. The implication is that Jason was operating outside of his remit.

Adding insult to injury, the library hosted an "Evening of Mediumship" in Janruary. There may be a real problem of staffing on June 17th for our event, but it is over a month away and it is strange that they are so certain that they will not able to make any arrangements by then. Any reference to budgeting is also bizarre as Cardiff Skeptics were happy to ticket the event, raising revenue for the library. If the library really needed certain costs to be paid then why not ask us to pay the hire charge?

They also don't address Jason's expressed concerns about management's apparent concern over controversial talks. Is it suggesting that management actually have no such concerns and Jason's were unfounded?

At the end of it all, the council seem to want to put it all down to miscommunication and shift the blame on to the staff on the shop floor. I am no conspiracy theorist, so I do not doubt the council's statement simply because it's an official statement. But I do not think it goes far enough to address all of the issues and I remain skeptical on all sides.

If there is an audit trail surrounding the decision to not host the event then perhaps a FoI request may help us uncover additional facts that may give us a bit more certainty. I will therefore be drafting a request over the weekend and submitting it first thing on Monday.

In the meantime, Cardiff Skeptics welcome Cardiff Council's offer to help us find an alternative venue and look forward to a positive relationship with them in the future.

John Stabler, Organiser of Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub

UPDATE: An updated version of the story was feature on page 3 of the South Wales Echo and is also on the Wales Online website.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Death Penalty as a Cost Saver

Over the years I have spoken to many people online about the death penalty. Luckily, most of them are in agreement with me and think that it's a bad idea. A few will agree that it's not a great idea, but are sometimes swayed by emotion; for example, if a particularly heinous crime is committed or they’re personally affected. Then there are those who are so in favour of the death penalty that they actively seek to defend their position with what I call Murder Apologetics.

The one reason in particular I wanted to talk about is the so called "cost saver". There are actually people who think that a good reason to kill people is saving the tax payer money. I am hoping to show that this is not only illogical, but that if we take the logical argument to its conclusion, we get situations that are morally repulsive.

When faced with the cost saver argument I always like to point out that killing people to save money is an absolutely disgusting proposition and I am not happy that the many old and infirm individuals who could be considered a burden on the state should be deemed expendable. Of course, the apologist is quick to say that they do not believe old people should be killed, just the criminals.

Next I ask them why criminals deserve to be killed because they are a burden on the state and yet old people who are a burden on the state do not? What is the difference between the two groups? I am then treated to a text-book example of circular reasoning. Apparently criminals deserve to be executed because they have committed a crime. However, the apologist is only telling me what the definition of a criminal is. I know what the definition of a criminal is, what I am asking is why criminals THEREFORE deserve to die. They can phrase it in different ways; for example, if they are talking about murderers they may say "because they took a life", but the logical fallacy is just the same. What most people don't realise is that criminals being deserving of punishment is a non sequitur. There is no way to argue from one fact to another.

You'll be surprised how many people can't explain to me why people who commit crimes deserve to be punished. They've been taught it from a young age. It has been drilled in to them. But nobody can rationally explain why they think it is the case. The only thing they can do is offer it as an opinion or say “just because”. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't think we should be deciding whether people should live or die simply because of a majority preference.

Once you understand this simple truth, your view of the justice system changes somewhat. You don’t suddenly believe we should stop punishing people or that the doors to the prisons should be opened. But you do start to understand that there are legitimate, utilitarian reasons for punishment such as deterrence and rehabilitation. However, saving the tax payer money is not one of them, unless you want to support the murder of the elderly too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An Ode To Rhys

Last night's Cardiff Skeptics In The Pub event was awesome, as is usually the case. I wrote a little poem to serve as an introduction to his talk and I wanted to share it with online friends who couldn't make it to the event. Obviously humour takes priority over absolute fact, but I think it sums up my experience of Rhys pretty well. I'm not sure the content is suitable on the 21st Floor, so I'll play it safe and post it here. Enjoy!

I arrived early at the Promised Land,
and greeted Alice and Dean with glee,
I think they thought me sexually deviant,
Alice excused herself for a hasty wee.

I then met all of the regulars,
and in the corner, Jimmy Crankie himself,
I thought he was the local eunuch,
but it turns out he was a skeptical elf.

No, he wasn't really an elf,
or a halfling, hobbit or some other un-PC reference to a dwarf,
it was the one and only Rhys Morgan,
the purveyor of suits that are morph.

Now Rhys had been a bit poorly,
and he asked some people on the 'net what to do,
but when they recommended drinking bleach,
he knew they were talking out the wazoo.

He told them they were crazy,
and there were no studies to support their claims,
but when people got mad and feelings hurt,
it was him who got the blames.

So, he phoned the Trading Standards,
the BBC got involved, that was a shock!
before he knew it he was famous,
and all the girls wanted his – autograph.

Then our teenage hero was a critic,
of a bogus treatment, as most would agree,
some muppets in Houston have spent decades on it,
and the trial has only got to stage three.

His comments risked a libel suit,
when he took on the infamous Doctor Burzynski,
who sells terminal patients piss in a bottle,
and who's therapy can best be described as risky.

Rhys has also got into trouble,
with peers and school authorities,
for publishing a picture a Jesus and Mo,
that offended some religious minorities.

But, I don't want to paint a bad picture,
of Rhys as hell-raiser skeptic in a pub,
he's also founder, and talented writer,
of a blog called the Heresy Club.

Now, I don't want tell his story for him,
even though it may employ razor-sharp wit,
I'll let him do that himself,
and stop making myself look like a tit.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


In my last post I detailed how the IAIM have finally taken down the dodgy claims they made about the benefits of baby massage. Fulfilling my prophesy this arrived a couple of days later:

So, we have a result! As I said in the previous post, however, my work is not quite done. I now have quite a number of instructors' websites with equally dubious claims on them. At least I now have something to quote in my correspondence with them. If there is a way for me to get action on misleading and unsubstantiated claims without having to trouble an over-burdened ASA then I still believe it is worth my time.

I'd like to thank the few people who've supported my efforts and taken the time to show an interest in the practical application of skepticism.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Episode 69 - No Subtitle Required!

More relaxed podcasting and editing means you get this a little late. However, it's still definitely worth a listen! Go download it now.

We talked about the drug dealer who wanted more jail time, the Tories' solution to child poverty, Indian Skeptic facing arrest, Hooters, Jeremy Hunt, Julian Assange, David Cameron's poor parenting skills, John Sentamu's homophobic rantings, gay marriage, the Daily Mail's "hot" technology news and Trevor sends in some super secret bonus material to keep you happy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Finally There Is Action

Last night I thought I'd go and check the IAIM UK website to see if they'd updated their list of benefits of infant (baby) massage and lo and behold they've removed the two claims I highlighted in my complaint to the ASA! I assume that I will soon be receiving correspondence from the ASA telling me that the case is now closed. However, I can tell you now that my work here is not finished and I'll explain why shortly.

It's a shame that the IAIM had to be referred to the ASA rather than taking seriously very genuine concerns over the scientific validity of their claims. Their behaviour highlights a very real and concerning problem: many people and organisations neglect their duty to be truthful in their dealings with others. Unless there is a legal requirement, many are more than happy to make unfounded, misleading or even flat out wrong claims as long as they're supported by anecdote, loose or faulty interpretation of clinical data, cherry-picking of data or studies, or "intuition".

There are a great number of professional bodies and organisations who do much valuable work. Very often, however, we see an insulated culture where misinformation spreads within the "echo chamber". What sets the good, science-based organisations from the chaff is engagement with critics and action when problems are identified. In this case my legitimate concerns were eventually acknowledged but the seriousness and urgency of them were not; truth appeared to be of low priority. If professional organisations are not willing to act then they join the ranks of quacks and charlatans such as homeopaths and reiki healers who are happy to cash in on their denial of reality.

What also irks me is that only the bare minimum has been done. The two claims in my complaint were the most grevious and were easily shown to be unsupported and misleading. However, I still believe there to be scope for the IAIM to do more to support the remaining claims (or remove if required), although I doubt they will so, or impress upon its members to do the same. This isn't evidence of an attitude change.

My attention will now turn to the claim that massage can help "boost" the immune system, which I have seen on several massage instructors' websites. Although I do not have an adjudication against the IAIM to use in any correspondence with these people, I'll be highlighting the fact that the ASA has shown an interest in the industry, the types of claims being made and the fact that the IAIM has had to withdraw some of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

IAIM ASA Complaint Update

Just to keep people up do date with my compaint against the ASA, here's a letter I received in the post yesterday. 

I don't think it really shows much progress beyond my last update, but it does confirm that they'll be asking the IAIM for evidence to support their claims and then it will be looked at. Obviously the IAIM could simply remove the unsupported claims from their website and then the complaint would be resolved. However, I get the feeling that whatever the outcome, I'll be submitting many more complaints about unsupported or misleading claims on the websites of individual massage instructors. If the IAIM is unable to grasp the importance of this issue in regards to their own website then I'm not sure they can be relied upon to inform and regulate their memebers.

If it gets to the point that I need to comment on any recommendation to the ASA Council then I may be looking for a little help in formulating a robust response.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Episode 68 - Face Eating

Carwyn joins us again in another episode jam-packed full of nonsense.

This week we discuss a Queen's pardon for Gary McKinnon, the Daily Mail agrees with Steven, coffee mug-ger, Rebekah Brookes is hot, the Leveson Inquiry, misogyny loses baseball, stoning victim in logic fail, stupid kid's names, more government u-turns, Welsh nationalism, bath salt face eating and a watery threat to the Olympic torch.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

ASA Begins Investigation into IAIM Claims

It may not be as salacious as some other announced investigations, but I can now confirm that the ASA are investigating the IAIM UK Chapter for potential breach of advertising codes in relation to the truth / substantiation of claims. For those people who have missed my previous posts about the communication of my complaint to the IAIM you may want to go and read them here and here.

Although the IAIM agreed that I had made a valid complaint, they chose to fob me off with the promise of a "review", not acknowledging the seriousness of unsubstantiated and potentially misleading claims on their website. After receiving no further reply I referred the complaint to the ASA. Yesterday I received confirmation that the complaint has been handed over to the investigations team. I won't post the email as ot was just a simple confirmation of further investigation from Lewis Jones (Complaints Executive).

If the ASA uphold the complaint then I will be referring as many breaches as possible from massage instructors' websites, in accordance with the ASA's compliance procedure. A message needs to be sent to organisations and individuals who offer these types of services: just because you have years of experience and anecdote about happy babies and mothers it does not give you license to make exaggerated, unfounded or misleading claims about health benefits.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Episode 67 - Carwyn Davies

This week we welcome Carwyn Davies as guest co-host, filling in for a busy Trevor. We discuss Obama coming out to support gay marriage, Diagio PR corruption gaffe, Prince Charles presents the weather, Matthew Wright has OFCOM woes, drugged dolphins, libel reform, austerity in Europe, british trains, Kuwait's new blasphemy law and John's ASA complaint.

Download it here.