Skeptics on the Fringe 2011: review

Written by Gerard Phillips. Published by The Skeptic online on 25th October 2011.
Gerard is Vice President of the National Secular Society.

What do the following have in common: Joseph Lister, Robert Adam, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton, Charles Darwin…well you’ve probably got the answer already – Edinburgh. (Hutton by the way is credited as the founder of modern geology.) James Buchan lauded the city’s contribution to Enlightenment thought: “In just 50 years Edinburgh had more impact on our ideas than any town of its size since the Athens of Socrates.” (Capital of the Mind, 2004.) More surprising then, given this heritage, that “Skeptics on the Fringe” has only been put on at the Edinburgh Festival since 2010.

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The Nightingale Collaboration

Written by Alan Henness. Published in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 4 and Volume 23, Issue 1 (Double issue). Alan Henness outlines a recent initiative designed to help sceptics challenge unfounded medical claims.

I’m a serial complainer.

There, I’ve said it. But I don’t say that with any embarrassment; just an admission that I’ve been making complaints for years. Not as a fully paid-up member of the green ink brigade you understand, complaining for the sake of complaining, but as someone concerned at misinformation, particularly about healthcare.

I have been doing it for years and one of my early complaints was to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about the high street Chinese herb shop, Dr & Herbs. In a leaflet, they were making claims about the efficacy of their products for all sorts of medical conditions and I wasn’t convinced these claims were backed by sound evidence.

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Chris French remembers Hilary Evans, 1929-2011

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Hilary Evans, who passed away on 27 July 2011. As readers of The Skeptic will know, Hilary was the co-proprietor of the Mary Evans Picture Library in Blackheath which he founded with his wife, Mary, in 1964. Hilary Evans. Picture courtesy of the Mary Evans Picture Library.Mary, a long-time sufferer from Alzheimer’s disease, died on 29 June 2010, shortly after The Skeptic ran an essay competition in her honour on the topic of religious belief and delusion.

As well as running the internationally renowned Mary Evans Picture Library, Hilary also found time to write 16 critically acclaimed (and often beautifully illustrated) books on UFOs, visions and other apparitional encounters as well as three novels, 15 books on art, illustration, and picture librarianship, and seven books on social history. His 2009 book, Outbreak, co-written with sociologist Robert Bartholomew,  looks set to become the definitive reference work of our age on bizarre collective delusions and mass hysteria. His final book, Sliders, published in 2010, looked at the phenomenon of street light interference.

Hilary was always a generous friend to The Skeptic. Readers cannot fail to have noticed that many of the images in the magazine are supplied by the Mary Evans Picture Library. As from our July issue back in 1992, his Paranormal Picture Gallery has graced the second page of every single issue with a striking image from the picture library along with a paragraph of commentary from Hilary. The only exception is the issue that is currently being printed for which I acted as a guest contributor as Hilary’s health was failing.

On a personal note, I would like to add that Hilary Evans was also quite simply a very nice man. I feel honoured to have known him.

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BHA Conference 2011 review

Even without a Grayling grilling, the first BHA Conference in a decade is a success.

Written by Richard Godbehere. Published for The Skeptic online on 13th July 2011.

On the weekend of Friday 17th June, the great and the good of the British Humanist Association gathered in Manchester for the first annual conference in a decade. Boasting talks from some of the most prominent humanist thinkers, the weekend promised to be a carnival of rational thinking and Godless morality focusing on the search for the meaning of life, with talks from such luminaries as likes of A.C.Grayling, Peter Atkins, Chris French, Philip Pullman, Natalie Haynes and Stephen Law. It was a weekend I couldn’t possibly miss but, being an impoverished student at Goldsmiths College, not one I could afford. Thankfully, through a little eyelash fluttering and help from one of the speakers, namely Professor Chris French, I managed to blag my way in as volunteer. Here are my thoughts of the weekend.

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Newman on Miracles

Written by Adam Buick. Published for The Skeptic online on 22nd September 2010.

When the Pope visits Britain this year he will “beatify” Cardinal Newman who died in 1890. Beatification, which requires one miracle, is a step towards “canonisation” (becoming a “saint”) which requires two.

John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and became an Anglican clergyman in 1825, but in 1845 he converted to Roman Catholicism and eventually rose to become a Cardinal. He wrote two essays on miracles, one in 1826 (when he was still a Protestant), the other in 1843 (when he was well on the way to becoming a Roman Catholic). The full text of both can be found at

The first essay expressed the orthodox Anglican/Protestant view on miracles: that the only true miracles are those described in the Bible (and that they are to be accepted as really having happened only because the Bible is the revealed word of God). This position implies that all miracles claimed outside the Bible and any since the first century of the Christian era – as by pagans, the Catholic Church and the Koran – are not miracles and that natural, non-miraculous explanations for them can be found.

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Monster or mirage?

Written by Alexander T. Lovcanski. Published for The Skeptic online on 30th August 2010.

The initial report and its subsequent versions

On 22 July 1933, a London businessman, George Spicer, with his wife, was driving on the road from Dores to Foyers along the southern shore of Loch Ness (Scotland) when their attention was drawn by an unidentified object which appeared on the road straight ahead. The time was between 1530 and 1600L. Spicer gave his initial account of the incident in a letter to the Inverness Courier (4 August 1933), as follows:

I saw the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life. It crossed my road about fifty yards [45 m] ahead and appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some kind.

It seemed to have a long neck which moved up and down in the manner of a scenic railway, and the body was fairly big, with a high back; but if there were any feet they must have been of the web kind, and as for a tail I cannot say, as it moved so rapidly, and when we got to the spot it had probably disappeared into the loch. Length from six feet [1.8 m] to eight feet [2.4 m] and very ugly…

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Night Terrors: Sleep paralysis

Night Terrors: Sleep paralysis, old hags and sitting ghosts. Published for The Skeptic online on 05th October 2009.

Nat Guest explores and explains the phenomenon of sleep paralysis; the state between sleep and wakefulness.

It rolled over her and landed bodily on her chest. There it sat. It breathed airlessly, pressing her, sapping her. ‘Oh, no. A Sitting Ghost.’
– Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

I was once attacked by a lion in my own bed.

At least, I thought it was a lion. All auditory and sensory input was pointing to it being a lion; the rasping, growling in my ear; its hot breath in my face; the enormous shaggy weight of it on top of me and the razor sharp teeth and claws mauling at my neck.

But not quite all input. Because how ever hard I tried, I could not open my eyes, and I could not move any part of my body. I could feel my bed beneath me, and I could feel the sheets around me. I could feel what position I was lying in. I simply could not move. I, like somewhere between 25-40% of the population (depending on which study you go by), was suffering from an episode of sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon which can occur in the state between REM sleep, where dreaming occurs, and waking up. During REM sleep, the brain paralyses the body to avoid us carrying out our dream-actions and harming ourselves somehow. Sometimes, on waking, the brain does not quite turn off these dreams – or the paralysis accompanying them – resulting in a potentially intensely frightening experience. I have always regarded sleep paralysis as lucid dreaming’s ugly sister, in that both occur when there is some discrepancy between different parts of the brain, some parts of which still believe you are asleep and continue to dream away happily, whilst other parts are lucid and know full well that you are actually awake.

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