How to Read the Stars

Posted: August 27, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
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Today I got into a conversation about astrology with a work colleague after she told me that she found one paper’s horoscopes so much better than another’s (thelondonpaper’s are apparently better than the London Lite’s if you’re interested). Although I registered my disbelief in astrology, it was only later that I worked out what I should have said, by which time, as is so often the case, the moment had passed. So this is what I should have said to her:

The best way to demonstrate why I don’t think horoscopes should be believed is by telling you how to create them yourself. There are a small number of simple but effective techniques to use in order to easily convince people that you not only know a lot about them, but you also know what’s going to happen to them.

1. Barnum statements
So named because of P.T Barnum’s famous quote that his circus contained something for everyone, these are phrases that sound very specific to you but actually apply to almost anybody – and they’re incredibly easy to write. For example, almost everyone is outgoing and loud in some situations, and around some people, but self-conscious and quiet at other times. So if you tell someone that they are sometimes the life of the party but have a quiet side that occasionally feels very insecure, you’ll almost certainly be right.

In fact, by virtue of the fact that people are generally fairly complicated creatures and act differently in varying situations, almost any contradictory pair of traits will have the same effect. You are intelligent but occasionally you enjoy switching off your brain and watching really low brow TV… you like to try to stay fit, but some times you just can’t resist a naughty snack etc.

For a demonstration of these techniques in action, see Derren Brown or Penn and Teller (skip to about 3.30).

2. Compliments
Another way to be sure of hits is to compliment people on personality traits everyone likes to think they have. If you tell someone they have an excellent sense of humour, nobody will argue with you. Everyone likes to think they have a good sense of humour, whether they do or not, and it’s surprising how impressed people can be when they’re told about it.

Again this applies to almost any generally positive trait that most people either have or like to think they have – like trustworthiness, honesty or integrity.

More specific characteristics that are more likely to be wrong can also be used sparingly, as long as you keep in mind the principal I mentioned earlier about contradictory traits. If you tell someone they are tidy and they reply that they haven’t cleared away a plate in a week and don’t remember which pile of old papers the hoover is under, just come back that they are tidy in some important aspects of their life even though they are untidy in their flat. That may not sound very convincing written down, but that doesn’t matter when you bare in mind number 3.

3. People remember the hits
How many times has a horoscope predicted something that has never happened? Nobody can remember because there’s no reason to remember all the times you have been told you might be lucky with money and then haven’t been.

But how many times has a horoscope said something that has come true? Chances are, anyone who regularly reads horoscopes will have a bank of examples of times when something really did happen after it was prophesied in the paper that morning.

Hits are much easier to remember than misses, and that is also true in face to face readings, not just printed horoscopes. Once you’ve already impressed someone with your insights into their fantastic sense of humour and their saintly trustworthiness, people will find it very easy to overlook the odd misstep.

In a face to face reading, it can also be worth baring in mind the primacy and recency effects and using your most surefire and impressive items at the beginning and end of the session as these will be remembered significantly better than any of what happens in between.

4. Be vague
Horoscopes never contain really specific predictions like, “today you will meet your future husband”, “today you will get a promotion” or “today you will break your arm in a strange accident”. The reason for this is that the chances are very small that they’ll come true. If there’s more leeway in the phrase, then it’s much easier to interpret something as a hit. If, instead of writing “you will come into a large sum of money today”, you write “money will be at the front of your mind today”, an obliging believer will be able to re-interpret your statement in light of any number of different events that could happen during the day.

Of course, even if absolutely nothing applicable happens, there’s always good old number 3 to fall back on.

5. Make predictions
The problem with making any statements about someone, however woolly and likely to be true, is that you could still be wrong. Perhaps someone is aware that they really don’t have a sense of humour and despite your best contradictory wriggling, he won’t buy it.

No such problem exists when making predictions. If you tell someone that something will happen, especially if you make the time non-specific, nobody can ever contradict you. If you make the future event positive, their willingness for it to happen will make them even more glad to believe you.

Astrologers and psychics often tell people that they will find love. This is a perfect prediction because chances are that sooner or later they willl. If you give no specific date, then even if your subject sits reflecting on your prediction in their 70s as a spinster with their cats, they still can’t be sure that they won’t find love yet.

Another useful tool in face to face readings is the past to future switch, often used by John Edward and his peers to cover mistakes. This is simply the hasty re-labelling of a miss about something that happened in the past as a hit that hasn’t happened yet. For example, you come out with a solid line like, “you’ve recently met someone you feel you have a real connection with”, and they spoil it by disconcertedly saying that they haven’t – you can quickly smile, raise your eyebrows and say “ah, well look out for them then because it won’t be long!” This little trick has the added bonus of making it look like you’re so far advanced beyond this world’s trivial framework that petty human concepts like time hardly matter to you – an event that hasn’t happened yet is just as clear to you as something that happened last week.

It is these five remarkably simple tools that lie beneath the work of every horoscope writer and, along with cold reading and hot reading, also form the basis for all face to face readings by astrologers, psychics and faith healers. Perhaps they sound too simple to account for all the successes you have experienced and heard about. But in future, just keep them in mind when you read the horoscopes in the paper and make up your own mind with the honesty, intelligence and personal integrity that I can tell you have.


Labour’s housing legacy and Ecotowns

Posted: August 16, 2009 by newhavenlse in Politics
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The UK government has announced plans to go ahead with the controversial (which for the most part actually means unwanted) Ecotowns, this includes Rackheath in Norfolk England.

As the situation develops I will post articles highlighting the impact this will have on Norfolk a county already suffering from the governments neglect of coastal erosion issues.

Initially for more information you can see the Guardian website:

Over the coming weeks I will provide links to protest sites, what the Green party has said on the matter, those providing information on the Rackheath scheme and general information on why the so called “Eco” Towns are nothing but a white elephant.

Before we look at the potential Rackheath development and Ecotowns in general, it is important to provide some context on the Labour governments past housing projects.

Labour’s housing legacy

We should first start at looking at England a whole. England is currently one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, covering approximately two thirds of the British landmass and housing some 83% of its population (approx. 51m inhabitants).

Urmee Khan writing for the Telegraph in September 2008 reported on the results compiled by the ONS (Office of National Statistics):

In 2008 the average number of people per square kilometre in Britain was 253, rising to 395 in England.

Latest figures from Holland show that its population density was 395 a square kilometre in 2002 and 393 in 2005. It is estimated that English population density will rise to 464 people for every square kilometre by 2031. – Daily Telegraph

This obviously raises a number of questions with regards to population density and how we plan to cope with this from a housing perspective. Many factors need to be taken into account ranging from infrastructure, jobs, affordability, community cohesion, transport and the environment.

The increase in England’s population density has put a fair amount of strain upon these factors and as a result of this the Labour government have come up with many ill thought out schemes in attempts to address this.

One of the most criminal of these schemes was ex-Deputy Prime Minster John Prescott’s policies in Liverpool and several other Northern English cities.

His plan was to demolished some 90,000 houses in these cities and replace them with new builds. These houses could of course been renovated with Green technology for a fraction of the cost of demolishing the houses, cleaning up the mess and rebuilding from scratch.

The existing infrastructure could have been improved at the same time, social housing issues addressed and of course facilities in inner cities in dire need of redevelopment tackled.

Things were not looking good for these projects when they were announced in 2003 and the UK property market was in a boom. Many young people found the lack of affordable housing a block to getting a foot on the property ladder and council housing was over subscribed in many areas.

The ludicrous nature of Prescott’s project in the face of the above was highlighted on the “Tonight with Trevor McDonald” show.

For the sum of £24,000 a house in the Toxteth area of Liverpool (where 400 houses where slated for the bulldozer) was renovated and valued at £65,000, considerably less than the prices of homes in the South of England at this time. To make matters worst, the cost of demolishing the houses, many of which have survived the Luftwaffe and where a part of Liverpool’s heritage was estimated at £18,000 and the cost of the new houses? Somewhere in the region of £140,000, not exactly affordable to the average Liverpudlian first time buyer.

As sadly seems to be the case with most of the “housing” projects Labour have touched in the past twelve years, matters went from bad to worst. Compulsory purchase orders where issued with many people effectively being forced for their homes, and being offered the pathetic sum of £28,000 for their homes.

And as if to add insult to injury… property developers with an eye for a profit were able to buy up streets of empty homes on the cheap (some houses going for as little as £5000) and make a profit from the compulsory purchase orders, effectively from tax payers money.

Somewhere in the region of £2.2bn was spent on the re-development project, a project not driven by the desires of a local community, nor actually beneficial at relieving the problems for first time buyers, or those looking for social housing.

The legacy of this project by 2007 was approx. 10,o00 houses being demolished, only 1,000 built and another 37,000 derelict caught up in wrangling over planning and demolition.

An article from 2007 on illustrates just how much of a white elephant the scheme turned into and provided much of the information above.

So with this in mind, can we expect any better from Gordon Brown and the proposed Ecotowns soon to be seen springing up across England? Based upon the evidence we have at the moment, it would seem not.

Rackheath in the Media

Below I have included some interesting articles on the Rackheath situation from the Guardian website:

The US based Center for Inquiry has the following mission statement on it’s about page:

To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present, the world needs an institution devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. The Center for Inquiry is that institution.

At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny—certainly not fringe science and religion, which have an enormous influence on beliefs and conduct.

Based out of Amherst NY, the Center for Inquiry is responsible for publishing a number of magazines and the Point of Inquiry Podcast.

I fully recommend checking out the Podcast and the Center for Inquiry website here

For those of you who enjoy listening to Podcasts, one of the best I have come across (hat tip to pazot for this) is Little Atoms.

You can visit the website for Little Atoms here.

Little Atoms is a Podcast and Radio show that discusses, politics, atheism, rational thinking, science and humanism. Its impressive range of guests include:

It can be heard every Friday from 19:00 to 19:30 on London’s Resonance 104.4 FM, is available for download on itunes, and can be heard via the website

It was believed to be one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire, its name was Altinum and it sat upon the mouth of the river Silis. The port town was blessed with Amphitheaters, temples and all the modern conveniences of the Roman world. Hypocausts and Aqueducts would have provided its wealthy citizens with warmth and water whilst Roman galleys brought goods from around the Empire to its doorstep.

However in the middle of the 5th Century (approx. 452AD)  the city was deserted as Atilla the Hun and his army marched south towards Rome sacking all in their path. Unlike most Roman cities, the site was not buried under layers of Medieval and modern construction. In fact the inhabitants are believed to have settled in Venice taking some of the building materials with them.

Some 1555 years later during the dry summer of 2007, aerial photography of the area revealed the city hidden below the parched crops. Archaeologists from Padua and Venice University are currently drawing up plans for excavations of the site which may give way to some impressive finds.

Below you can see some fascinating computer models of the site from the BBC:

This is certainly going to be an interesting story to follow as it develops.

The Spinal Trap

Posted: July 29, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Science
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free debateIn April 2008, Simon Singh, author of the excellent Big Bang and Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, wrote an article in the Guardian demonstrating the lack of evidence for the claims made by chiropractors. He pointed out that true chiropractic did not limit itself to helping back pain, but was in fact originally created as something of a panacea that could supposedly cure all manner of diseases and disorders through spinal manipulations. He demonstrated that, despite chiropractic’s success in hiding some of its pseudo-scientific past, many practitioners still do claim, without evidence, to be able to treat conditions such as asthma and colic.

The British Chiropractic Society disliked all this talk of lacking evidence and dubious claims and promptly sued Singh for libel. Note that they did not try to disprove his claims or present the evidence for their position as any proponent of a scientific position would, but instead used the conveniently prohibitive expense of the flawed English libel laws to silence the perceived threat.

Rather unluckily for the BCA, Singh happened to be in a position that allowed him to fight the suit rather than be chilled by it, and by doing so has vastly raised the public awareness of the complaints the BCA was trying to suppress. A classic case of the Steisand effect.

Much has been written about this case around the internet, so for the full story, I would direct you here, here or here.

Sense About Science have started a campaign to have the libel laws changes so that they can’t be used to silence important scientific concerns and stifle debate. You can sign your name to show your support.

Anyway, in a show of solidarity to Simon, many blogs and magazines are today, 29th July, reprinting a version of his original Guardian piece (slightly edited to remove the specific bit that the law suit is about). So I reprint it below:

 Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

God Hates Us All

Posted: July 23, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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One of the most contraversial and widely hated groups in America is the Westboro Baptist Church. Following wide-spread media attention, and features by journalists such as Louis Theroux, their methods of picketing the funerals of victims of anti-gay hate crime, as well as service men, with slogans such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” have become well known and widely despised.

Westboro Baptist Church

Their behaviour has earned them myriad lawsuits and numerous arrests. For example, in 1995, Benjamin Phelps, the grandson of the church’s founder, was convicted of assault for spitting in the face of a passer-by during one of their regular pickets. In 2007, the father of a marine whose funeral was picketed successfully sued them for damages amounting to $5m.

Most people’s reaction to hearing or reading about this group’s actions tends to be disbelief and disgust. How could anyone be this callous? How could anyone show so little respect for their fellow humans? The answer, of course, is that they believe they are doing God’s work.

Homosexuality, they assert, “pose[s] a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah”. They interpret the Bible in such a way that they believe it is the job of anyone who truly believes in God’s greatness to war against “workers of iniquity”, and this includes gay people, and those who accept them and enable them to lead their lives. They picket the funerals of soldiers and service men because “they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Quite rightly, the WBC has drawn criticism from Christian religious groups just as it has from non-religious and other-religious groups. Perhaps Christians find their rhetoric more offensive because they claim to be speaking for God and on behalf of those who truly follow him. Perhaps they are also worried that actions like this from one Christian group will bring disrepute upon the whole church and be a shot in the foot for the whole mission of the glorification of God. Perhaps they particularly dislike the way they twist the words of the Bible to justify their hateful position.

To despise this group on humanistic grounds, for their hideous disrespect of humanity is reasonable and, in my opinion, absolutely correct. However to criticise them on religious scriptural grounds is not. The reason is that the WBC does not twist the words of the Bible to justify their position – they don’t need to – those hateful words are there already.

The WBC point to Psalms 5:5, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity”; Proverbs 6:16-19, “These six things doth the Lord hate:… he that soweth discord among brethren”; Psalms 11:5, “The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth”; and Malachi 1:3, “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”

The argument that the they are misrepresenting the Bible’s meaning, because really God loves everyone starts to look a little thin when you start to read a bit more of the Bible and come across these examples of God being unashamedly hateful towards, not just people’s actions, but people themselves. Indeed, as Skeptics’ Annotated Bible points out, one can hardly fault the group’s logic: God hates “workers of iniquity” (Psalms 5:5); homosexuality is “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); therefore God hates fags.

I will reiterate quickly that I do not think this group deserves anything but the deepest contempt and condemnation, but for the religious to dispute them on scriptural grounds is hypocritical. What are they doing but validly, albeit selectively, quoting parts of the Bible? And this is exactly what every moderate sermon does aswell. For every John 3:16 quoted, there is a Psalms 5:5 being ignored, because to give equal weight to both would lead to so much contradiction and cognitive dissonance that no believer would know what to do with themselves.

In order for Christianity to function as a religion, the Bible needs to be read selectively, or at least certain passages need to be interpreted liberally. So it should be no surprise that there is one group that pays attention to those bits that everyone else leaves out, and who saves their liberal interpretations for those sections that others might prefer to take literally. This is the problem with the claim that the Bible offers any sort of revealed moral teaching – without engaging the evolved humanist moral sense to overlook the contradictions and to only pay attention to the positive messages, the Bible can be used to justify violence and hate just as well as it can love and compassion.

The Westboro Baptist Church are a disgusting group, but theirs are the same tools that are used in every pulpit every Sunday. A long, ambiguous book of myths can be used to justify any moral position, for real goodness, we must look to the evolved sense to protect ourselves, our families and our species that we all have without having to take any book’s word for it.