All things Skeptical — Sunday Summary

This may or may not be a regular thing, we’ll see how it goes.

A round-up of news and stuff from the past week:




Northern Ireland



World Suicide Prevention Day 2012

Today is the 10th anniversary of World Suicide Prevention Day: the purpose of which is to promote awareness, commitment and action in preventing suicide. This year’s theme is “Suicide Prevention across the Globe: Strengthening Protective Factors and Instilling Hope”.

Suicide is a very personal issue, and many of us know someone who has thought about it, or indeed gone through with it. According to recent statistics, Health Minister Edwin Poots said in June 2012 it is “almost six times the rate of death due to road traffic accidents”. With a record 313 suicides registered last year.

The rise in these figures has been linked to a number of factors, including unemployment and the current economic climate.

Suicide rates are twice as high in deprived areas of Northern Ireland – for young men, it’s often said to be down to the over-use of alcohol and drugs.

According to Psychology Today the six reasons for attempted suicide are:

  1. Depression
  2. Psychosis
  3. Impulsive
  4. Crying out for help
  5. A philosophical desire to die
  6. They’ve made a mistake

A recet study by Queens University Belfast found that the highest rate of suicide in Northern Ireland is among men aged 35-44, also known as “Troubles Children”. Speaking about the study Professor Tomlinson, from the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work said:

“The increase in suicide rates can be attributed to a complex range of social and psychological factors.
These include the growth in social isolation, poor mental health arising from the experience of conflict, and the greater political stability of the past decade.
The transition to peace means that cultures of externalised aggression are no longer socially approved or politically acceptable.”

In June 2012 Edwin Poots launched the ‘Protect Life Strategy and Action Plan‘.

Worldwide statistics:

  • Data from The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 1 million people die every year of suicide worldwide
  • There is one death by suicide every 40 seconds
  • There are more people lost to suicide than to homicide and war combined
  • Suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death worldwide among 15-19 year olds
  • More than 100,000 adolescents die by suicide each year worldwide
  • Highest rates of suicide are among those age 75 and older
  • Up to 90% of people who take their own life have a psychiatric disorder

How to support World Suicide Prevention Day 2012:

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the Moon as commander of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, died today aged 82 — and he did it with less computer power that is in most mobile phones today! He was a true hero. The very act of man reaching the moon was such a vital moment to the human race, as Phil Plait of Bad Astronomer put it “we can divide all of history into two parts: before humans landed on the Moon, and after. It was not just an important moment, it was the moment… The end of homo sapiens terrestrialis and the birth of homo sapiens cosmos.”

The statement from his family reads:

“We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.
Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.

Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.

As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.

The very eloquently worded front page of The Onion on July 21 1969:

the onion front page moon landing
Click for bigger

The achievements of Neil Armstrong, and the crew of the Apollo 11 mission were far-reaching and inspire us all. As a race we extended ourselves beyond our own planet. He brought the moon to our living rooms and made a dream a reality. Despite this, he remained down-to-earth and shied away from media attention. To Neil Armstrong, Thank you.

Martin Robbins in the Guardian says:

Nobody born since 1935 has stepped on another world. Neil Armstrong’s death is a reminder that we have been screwing about for too long now – it’s time to go to Mars. It may not be rational, but we didn’t get where we are by being an entirely rational species – we did it by trying things, and failing pretty much most of the time. It’s time for someone to step up and show us all that we still have that drive, that when we have the guts to unleash that curiosity – and the guts to fail – we can still achieve greatness. Neil Armstrong’s death is wake-up call, a challenge to our generation. We can go to Mars, and it doesn’t need a miracle: we just need to decide to go.

Irish number plates to be changed to avoid “unlucky 13”

A proposal to alter the car registration system in Ireland for 2013 has been brought to government in order to avoid the “unlucky 13” superstition.

Michael Healy-Rae, South Kerry Independent TD, is getting his pitch in early. He told

“There’s people now who, we’ll say, always change their cars every two, three or four years. Take you, for instance — you might be one of these men who change their car every three years, and 2013 is your year to change. People like you are after going to the garages and saying they’ll wait until the next year before replacing their cars, simply because they did not want to drive cars carrying a number which is often thought to be unlucky.

Healy-Rae states that it is not his own way of thinking, but feels that this will ensure people will buy cars in 2013 who would otherwise have not done so due to this superstition.

In Ireland, the first two digits of the registration plate represent the last two digits of the year. Alan Nolan from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) has said that the proposed change is not only due to superstition, but that adding a further digit; 131 between January and June and 132 from July to Dec; will give a more accurate idea of the age of a car.

At the end of the day, this silly notion that people have based on an ancient superstition (triskaidekaphobia) which holds no merit in modern society, and only enforces nonsensical beliefs rather than promoting critical thought.

Story is at


It’s #SexyALevels day again!

While have decided to call it a day, the fact still remains that the media loves attractive 18-year-old girls jumping in the air, and, boys don’t do A Levels. It is often said that ignoring issues such as this can do more good than pointing at it and giving it attention — though in the case of the Everyday Sexism Project, I think the opposite effect is occurring here and the newspapers need to answer why they do it too.

The guys behind gave a number of reasons for shutting down:

This thing has become a feedback loop. Cf. “We’re being ironically appalling”. As Chris Cook noted in the FT last year, this isn’t just something that newspapers do in isolation. The news agencies only submit the kind of pictures they think news publishers want; the photographers only take pictures they think their agencies are looking for; and the more publicity-savvy schools only pick and choose their most “beyootiful girls” to pimp out to the snappers. So it goes, right? Nobody is shocked, shocked by this stuff. But it’s sort of begun to feel like giving it a name and making it a big jolly media in-joke is only reinforcing that – what originated as a piss-take starts to feel like it’s become a pro bono branding exercise for the whole sweaty-palmed business.

Smash patriarchy, amirite? We’re dicking about here, obviously, but at the heart of this one-joke website is the tiniest, most serious core of fundamental truth: This weird boner that Fleet Street has for soft, female flesh is not OK and we all pay a psychic toll because of it. Now you’d be right to point out the psychic toll we pay is smaller than that which we pay for all the other sexist bullshit in the world, but that’s scarcely the point. It feels all enabley.

It’s likely that the attractive confident young adults who have received their results are more likely to want to post for the local press photographer, however this still does not explain the wanton need for newspaper editors to splash images of young girls all over front pages: It’s not what education qualifications/life are about.

In the news today: Sexy A Level girls:

This is the front page of the Mail Online:

And on the Mail Online’s article

The Sun also covered the girls:

Even the BBC:

As Steven Baxter of NewStatesman puts it: “It has just become a strange ritual, this yearly parade of young female flesh, a May Queen for the newspaper age. It doesn’t tell us anything about exams, or education, or anything like that.”

Not to be left out, the Belfast Telegraph also got in on the ‘girls jumping for joy holding A4 pages’ shot:

Plenty more examples are being posted on Twitter: #sexyalevels.

Jesus is Everywhere

Earlier in the week the Belfast Telegraph reported as “news” that the face of Jesus had been spotted in a tree stump. This newspaper has a very vague definition of news, but we could spend a long time discussing that. A video of the tree stump was posted on the YouTube channel of ‘bestofwest‘ with the description: “An image has appeared on a tree stump in Belfast’s City Cemetery. Upon close inspection, its hard to tell just how this image got there. Recently City Council employees trimmed trees in the cemetery, and as a result this phenomenon appeared.”

Stating where it is located they say: “Its located beside the wall which borders the Falls Park, directly behind the Feile marque which is errected in the park. If you walk up the path from the direction of the Falls, its on your right hand side”

One big problem with this “news” story is the wording: “An image of the face of Jesus Christ has appeared on a tree stump in a Belfast cemetery.” They say it like it IS the face of Jesus. While I feel ridiculous saying this, let’s just remind ourselves, and journalists, there are no images of Jesus. No one knows what he looks like. He image has not appeared on things.

But here’s some other things Jesus has appeared on:

Jesus on a dog’s butt

Jesus shadow

Jesus on a stingray

Another tree

Jesus on a Marmite lid

Jesus on tea towel

There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. — David Hume, ‘The Natural History of Religion’

This is also known as Pareidolia; a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. This is not news and people who see these things should not be encouraged or indeed duped into thinking that they have seen something significant, this simply furthers the problem of a lack of critical and scientific thought.

This is not news.

Homeopathic Sweets: There is Evidence of That

It is a good day for those who believe in science and achieving hard evidence in order for something to be suggested as “medicine”. According to Martin Robbins in the Guardian many of the homeopathic products currently manufactured for use by the general public are illegal and this doesn’t please the manufacturers, pharmacies, or registered homeopaths. Since much of their life’s work is based on nothing, if they were forced to reveal that, in fact, homeopathic medicines are in fact not scientifically sound medicine, it may be bad for business.

Under current UK law*, it is an offence for a lay homeopath to supply or sell unlicensed homeopathic medicines for which they do not hold a certificate of registration from the MHRA. Unlicensed remedies can only supplied by those with prescribing rights – medical doctors or registered pharmacists – and then only after a face-to-face consultation with the patient. Since very few homeopathic products are licensed, this means a huge swathe of Big Sugar’s products are, in theory at least, not legal.

Cancer Research UK has a simple definition:

“Homeopathy is based on the theory of ‘treating like with like’. So to treat an illness a homeopathic therapist (homeopath) uses tiny doses of a substance that in large doses would actually cause the symptoms of the illness. Homeopathic remedies are made from plant, mineral and animal substances. They are diluted in water and shaken vigorously many times until there is little, if any, of the original substance left. The water is used to make homeopathic liquid (drops), pills or creams. Homeopaths believe that the original substance somehow leaves a molecular blueprint in the water that triggers your body’s healing mechanisms.”

One of the major pharmacies, Helios, who supply the majority of remedies in the UK, were told in September 2011 by the MHRA, who regulate homeopathy in the UK, to “discontinue the sale and supply” certain homeopatic remedy kits as “kits contain remedies that are not registered or authorised.”

In response to this Helios said:

If necessary we could revise the manufacturing method, the labelling of the bottles and kit box to present them as non-medicines and non-homeopathic and market them as ‘confectionery’. Customers who have an interest in homeopathy would still know how to use them and would continue to purchase them despite limited labelling. There would of course be media repercussions and uncontrolled sources appearing and confusion among the public and MPs who would demand a full explanation for the change.

This is an option which our customers would support if it ensured a continuation of the supply of kits until they are fully licensed.

In short, the manufacturer of homeopathic remedies would like to conceal the fact that what they are producing is simply sugar pills, by labelling them as sugar.

#TwitterJokeTrial Win for Paul Chambers and Freedom of Speech

Today Paul Chambers received a very positive win on the so-called #TwitterJokeTrial case which was based around a tweet sent in frustration: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” The, now very well known tweet, was written in January 2010 after Paul discovered the Robin Hood airport was closed due to snow before he was due to visit his then-girlfriend, now fiancée, in Northern Ireland.

It was always a joke, albeit a bad one, however, Paul Chambers had never once seriously considered blowing up an airport, similarly, you nor I would never kill anyone despite our rage and or perhaps uttering the worlds “I could kill…” These words are not to be taken seriously, nor are they meant in a serious way. A lot of the English language is figurative, the fact that it took so long for the English court system to see that is sad, though in the end they did and this case referred to as the case that showed that common sense does prevail.

On 10th May 2010 Paul was prosecuted under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.


The Crown Prosecution Service stated in 2010: “Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 was considered to be the correct charge in the particular circumstances of the case. Under 127(1) an offense is committed where suspect sends by means of a public electronic telecommunications system a message or other matter that is “grossly offensive, or of an indecent obscene or menacing character”. A message can be any of these (rather than having to be all of them) and the message in this case was clearly of a menacing character.”

As stated in a detailed article in by Paul’s Lawyer, David Allen Green:

It seemed to me to be the wrong offence in a prosecution which could not be in the public interest. It also seemed to me to be a huge leap to take section 127(1) from its application to telephone calls to a Twitter posting just because of the technological contingency of the internet being an aspect of a public telecommunications service.

So I asked the CPS why this prosecution was seen to be in the public interest. Their response was:
“While Mr Chambers may have meant this as a joke, the airport could not risk treating it as such. The threat had to be taken seriously by the airport authorities, who contacted the police. It caused unnecessary disruption because of a menacing communication.”

While neither police nor the airport considered the tweet to be a serious threat, the judge stated that it was “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.” The judge in this case could see that it was not funny, yet did not understand that it was not meant literally. At the time, this brought out discussion on what constitutes a funny joke.

The point was made in the Heresy Corner blog that this was “an offence against the deepest principle of Englishness. And I don’t mean justice, fair-play or common sense. I mean humour.”

The action against Paul Chambers has rightly been dubbed the “Twitter Joke Trial”. Not just because it was a joke of a trial – though certainly not a funny one – or because it centres on what everyone involved acknowledges to have been a joke. What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever. Against that age-old national instinct to make light of adverse circumstances – the spirit that got us through the Blitz – we now find a new and alien notion that there are some things that are beyond joking, that even an obvious joke must be treated seriously. Because it’s no laughing matter. Because you can’t be too careful. Because any imagined threat, however patently absurd, must be ritually investigated. And the person making the joke must bear the responsibility for the time-consuming and costly process of investigation, even though the possibility of such an investigation never crossed his mind, just to drive the message home that You Cannot Make Jokes About Terrorism.

The case proved to be a serious blow to freedom of speech and simple common sense. With over 10 million people on Twitter, this had an affect on the freedom of speech of each one of them, not just Paul.

Today, however, the judge stated: “The appeal against conviction will be allowed on the basis that this ‘tweet’ did not constitute or include a message of a menacing character; we cannot usefully take this aspect of the appeal further.”

According to the Guardian, John Cooper QC, who represented Chambers, said: “It’s an important decision for social networks. It means that in future not only does a message have to be of a truly menacing character but the person who sends it has to intend it to be menacing.
Head Of Legal has a short interview with Paul Chambers’ legal team.

Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers

In summary, it is unfortunate that Paul Chambers was targeted for posting a simple, facetious tweet, having since lost two jobs and “dragged out of obscurity and forced to be a public celebrity of a kind.”

As one commenter has said: “Will the duty manager who reported it to the police be arrested for a) wasting police and everyone elses time b) being a self righteous jobsworth?”

The full judgement is online for your reading pleasure [pdf].

Larry Pratt wants to “Loosen” Gun Laws

larry prattWhile the obvious, and most logical, response to the shooting in Colorado yesterday would be to tighten gun laws in America, Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America and a member of the National Rifle Association, said last night on the Stephen Nolan show on Radio5 Live that the laws should in fact be “loosened”.

“It’s very sad that there was a ‘no guns’ policy in that theatre, and that nobody had thought to take a gun with them anyway.

“[The] clear take-away message from what happened is don’t go into gun free zones unless you’re willing to break the law.”

“Self-defence is incidental; the real reason we have guns in America is to keep them trained on the government…” “…That’s the way we have been maintaining our political freedom all along…”

“The idea that you tell people they’ve got to go into a public place without a firearm is setting them up for this kind of disaster. Most of our mass murders have occurred precisely where the criminal knew that he would find unarmed victims and by and large he has been right”

As the guest on the Stephen Nolan show pointed out: “The second amendment declares the right to bare arms but not to have bullets.”

In my mind this seems absolutely ridiculous. If more people have guns the more danger other people are to each other. If no one has a gun the danger of such a massacre is surely dramatically reduced. Gun Owners of America has reiterated this point on their website.

“It isn’t just “criminals” who we have to stop from getting guns.” — Ray Hanania

Roger Ebert puts it eloquently in a post titled ‘The Body Count

You know what? The hell with it. I’m tired of repeating the obvious. I know with a dread certainty that I will change nobody’s mind. I will hear conspiracy theories from those who fear the government, I will hear about the need to raise a militia, and I will hear nothing about how 9,484 corpses in a year has helped anything. That is a high price to pay. What depresses me is that half of my fellow countrymen are prepared to pay it.

Equal Marriage NI Survey Shows 75% For Marriage Equality

This afternoon some members of the Equal Marriage NI campaign team carried out a small poll of random people in South Belfast on same-sex marriage. The survey, although small in number, showed overwhelming support for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, which is about giving the right to all people to marry, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation.

The results were:

220 polled in total between 10:30am and 12:30pm 20th July 2012

164 polled in favour of full marriage equality
70 of those in favour were male
94 of those in favour were female

3 polled as undecided on the issue
2 of those undedicded were male
1 of those undecided were female

53 polled against full marriage equality
20 of those against were male
33 of those against were female

All those polled were randomly selected out on the street or within various coffee shops in the areas of Botanic, Queen’s University Belfast, Stranmillis, Lisburn Road, Sandy Row and the Holylands area.

This data, though small in number, and taken from a very small area of the city, show that a large majority, 74.5% are for, while 24.1% are against same-sex marriage. While only 1% are undecided.

Equal Marriage NI said that the majority of those who are against marriage equality do so on “religious grounds due to the doctrine that a marriage before God is between a Man and Woman.” This reasoning is unexpected, though undoubtedly saddening that it is still such a widely held opinion.

Equal Marriage NI plan to conduct a more comprehensive survey in the future.