Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A chance to bring evidence-based practice to the fore at City of York council

At our latest meeting Councillor Anna Semlyen asked us for help giving evidenced-based decision-making a higher profile in York politics, by introducing it as a topic for this year's scrutiny committees.

Scrutiny is where backbench councillors challenge cabinet members and council policy by doing research on chosen topic areas. They are committees comprised of cross party councillors not on the cabinet. Evidence-based practice affects all scrutiny. There are 5 scrutiny committees;  scrutiny management, economic and city development, health, learning and culture, and community safety. Cllr Semlyen has suggested evidence-based decision making as a topic for scrutiny management and an overarching theme for all 5 scrutinies.

She is asking for help to get this topic adopted (chosen by the committee) by writing to the chair of scrutiny management committee Cllr John Galvin and scrutiny staff and copying in

Our member Paul Hopwood has already written to them, and has been asked to make a three minute presentation in support of evidence-based practice at the relevant meeting on the 15th of July. We're not asking everyone to attend, but writing a letter would be very helpful, and if anyone else would like to make a presentation, that would be great.

Here is the text of Paul's email, in case you'd like an idea of what to write:

To Whom it may concern,

As someone who is a very passionate promoter of science, skepticism and evidence-based research; I would like to suggest that York City Council's Overview and Scrutiny for 2013/14 should be focused on looking at Evidence-based decision-making by the council.

If you wish to discuss the matter further, or require any more information, don't hesitate to ask.

Yours Sincerely

Paul Hopwood
I shall be writing a similar email soon, and would urge our members to do the same. The deadine to do this is the 14th of July but the sooner, the better. Let see if we can help to raise the profile of evidence-based practice in York.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The 2012 Mayan Calendar Misreading

This is a cross-post from my personal blog at

Here’s the headline story: the world has as much chance of ending in December 2012 as it does in any other year. None of the best minds in any civilisation, ever, have been able to predict the types of events that destroy civilisations with any sort of accuracy. Modern risk assessment experts can’t agree within five orders of magnitude on the likelihood of a specific hazardous outcome for a specific factory, but even they are yards ahead of the Meso-American calendar makers, who were focusing on things a little more certain, like the phases of the moon and the orbit of Venus.

The Mayan civilisation kept calendars for the same reasons that any civilisation likes to keep track of time:
  • To attach dates to things in order to keep some sort of history (the “Long Count” calendar)
  • To keep track of the seasons and manage a civilisation heavily dependent on crop management (the “Haab”, or civil calendar)
  • To keep track of the moon and Venus – they didn’t really cotton on to the idea of planets – (the “Tzolkin”).
The Long Count calendar didn’t need any sort of careful mathematics. They just declared a particular date to be the start (no one can tell for sure anymore exactly what date that was) and started counting. This calendar doesn’t match up with anything in the real world, it just keeps ticking. If the Mayan civilisation were still around, this calendar would be used to put on the front of newspapers or on the timestamp on photos.

The Haab required careful records to work out how long a year was. They did a better job than the Romans did a few centuries later, but it wasn’t perfect. This is the calendar that would need leap-year style corrections to keep it lined up with the seasons if it was still in use today.

The Tzolkin required careful records of the rising and setting times of Venus. They probably used this calendar to work out “good luck days” and “bad luck days”, when to go to war and whether to shake hands with passing European Conquistadors. Evidently, this calendar was very good predicting moonrise, and rubbish at predicting anything actually useful.

Now, if anyone tells you that “THE WORLD IS GOING TO END!” because the Mayan calendar predicts it, they’re talking about the Long Count Calendar. Remember, this is the calendar that doesn’t even predict Summer, or the full moon. It’s just there so people know what the date is. By some interpretations (remember, no one actually knows when this calendar was meant to start counting from), this calendar will need an extra digit sometime soon. This is just like the  Y2K bug – only no one uses any Mayan computers, so there’s no bug. So 2012 marks the Mayan Y2k NotaBug.

The Mayan’s did try to predict the future, but they got it right just as often as anyone else – exactly as often as if they’d just guessed or made it all up. And their guesses had nothing to do with 2012 or any other date in our near future.

Good sources on the topic:

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The stone tape projector; what is it?

This post is an eye-witness account of what was said and seen during a demonstration of Richard Felix's stone tape projector at Ghostfest 2012, followed by my opinion of it. It follows on from my assessment of the theory behind the device.

The device

At the core of the stone tape projector is a large box, approximately 50cm at each side. It was reported that the box contained a police scanner and that various components were made of Bakelite, due to its high silica content. There was a blue light, which was emitted from the top of the box. Next to the box was a plasma globe, which was described as a Van de Graaff generator. A cable ran off the stage and was attached to the stone of the prison building. A smoke machine was arranged so that its stream passed through the blue light. We were told that this was no ordinary smoke machine. It allegedly emits special ‘high-silica’ dry ice. The sketch below should give an idea of the arrangement of the components which make up the projector.

Diagram of the Stone Tape Projector

The machine was started up and the beam from the blue light illuminated the stream from the smoke machine. Images of spirits would be displayed on the smoke. The audience were encouraged to take photographs of the smoke and if anything interesting appeared, to come to the front to show everyone. There were a few dozen people who came forward, and some of the pictures they had taken did have reasonable facsimiles of faces in them. Here is an example taken by York Skeptics that night. Unfortunately none of our photos contained such a face.

The Stone Tape Projector in action

An engineer’s perspective

In my opinion the entire machine is a prop. The plasma globe and blue light seem to be there only to make it look scientific. I don’t believe the box contained any kind of scanner, or any Bakelite. Even if it did I struggle to see what difference it would've made. The claim about Bakelite being high in silica is also incorrect; it contains none. If the smoke did contain a quantity of silica then breathing apparatus would be required by the audience and crew. In addition to this the same smoke machine had been used earlier on in the show. If the smoke machine was so special it seems very unlikely that it would be used for stage effects.

I think that a better name for this device would be a pareidolia generator. As far as I could tell, the only essential components of the machine were the smoke machine and the audience’s cameras. If one was to take repeated pictures of any cloud, be it dry ice, water, or smoke from a fire, one would be able to identify all sorts of objects in the images.

In conclusion the stone tape projector is, as far as I can tell,  a gimmick. It is based on scientifically flawed concepts, and is poorly implemented. Even the name does not seem to be original. The BBC made a drama in 1972 about a haunted house, where the haunting was the replaying of events which had happened in the past which were stored in the fabric of the building. This programme was entitled The Stone Tape.

The theory behind the stone tape projector

This post is the first of two that will form a report based on Richard Felix’s presentation and demonstration of the stone tape projector which took place on Saturday 15th September 2012 in York as a part of Ghostfest 2012. This first part is an explanation of the theory he described, followed by my opinions of it. I will follow with a post about the device itself.

Richard Felix


Richard Felix is an historian who has appeared with the psychic Derek Acorah on the TV series Most Haunted, where they visited locations which were allegedly haunted and attempt to gather evidence of the hauntings and information about the spirits involved. Derek would converse with the spirits (through his spirit guide) and obtain details of the spirits and happenings of the time. Richard would then comment on the known history of the location and show consistencies with Derek’s report.

He currently runs Derby Gaol and arranges ghost walks in the Derby area. His new book What is a ghost  deals, according to him, 'with the realities of ghosts rather than the Scooby Doo side of things.'

The theory


Richard Felix believes that only 40% of hauntings and apparitions are actual spiritual intelligences; the remainder are the replay of events which have occurred in the past. This explains why in some ghost reports the spirits are said to not respond to viewers. The ghostly woman walking along the corridors of a stately home retracing the steps she took in life, and the roman soldiers marching blindly through a building which didn’t exist in their time are examples of this phenomenon. These images are stored in the fabric of the building and replayed later; the more powerful the event, the stronger the images. How could these images be stored?

Here's how Felix thinks this could happen: Many buildings are made of stone. Stone contains large quantities of silica, which is primarily composed of silicon. The integrated circuits (ICs, or chips) of computers are also made of silicon, and they store information. Therefore stones are capable of storing information. Certain stones (such as sandstone) also contain significant amounts of iron oxides. The tape within audio and video cassettes is nothing more than iron oxide spread on an acetate tape. Acetate is also claimed to be high in silica (which it is not). All is needed is a suitable device to extract this information and display it somehow. This device is the stone tape projector.

The science


I cannot comment on the nature of ghosts, or whether images are stored in the fabric of buildings. I can, however, discuss the science behind the proposed mechanism.

Put simply there is none.

Stone does contain silica, and integrated circuits do contain silicon, but there the similarity ends. The circuitry inside an IC is made by building up many layers of silicon and other compounds to make transistors, which in turn are arranged into logic gates, some of which can be used to store data. The arrangement of crystals within a rock is simply too random to allow it to function even as a crude diode, never mind even a single byte of memory.

Some rock does contain oxides of iron, but again the arrangement of these is random. The only reason that audio tape stores anything is because it has been exposed to a specific magnetic field by the recorder. Even if a person emitted a massive magnetic field when they died (which I doubt) it would not be able to affect the iron oxide molecules in the rock. The orientations of these molecules are used by scientists to deduce the state of the Earth’s magnetic field when the rock sedimented; this would be impossible if anything dying in the vicinity affected it. Also, audio tape works because it is continually moving under the write/read head. If it were to stay still there would be no way of discriminating between the different sounds recorded as time progressed.

I hope this post sums up the theory behind the ghost tape projector. I’ll follow it up with a post discussing the device itself.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Explaining the importance of the scientific method

The first time I ever came into contact with the Skeptics Community was when I attended the talk of my very good friend Doctor Tom Williamson in Leeds (please check out his excellent blog at His talk was entitled ‘The Scientific Method – Uses and Abuses’; and provided excellent explanations of various pieces of scientific jargon and some very clear examples of how the Scientific Method has been correctly and incorrectly used.

I was extremely happy to see this talk, because for my money the Scientific Method is one of the great accomplishments of the human mind. As a result I made a conscious effort to come up with as clear and concise a way as I possibly could for explaining both the method and its importance to others, whether in discussion or debate.

The method I came up with was to point out that there are essentially two approaches to exploring and guiding ourselves through the reality in which we find ourselves. The first is that we can base judgements on no evidence, or ‘on faith’; and the second approach is to actually use evidence as a foundation for all our thoughts, opinions, theories etc.

What the Scientific Method has been developed for is quite simple – to produce the highest quality of evidence possible, on the basis of current human understanding; and that is, again to the best of our current understanding, what it does. The evidence to support this claim comes from the phenomenal success rate of accurate future predictions that have been made; based on scientific evidence, compared to any other attempts to make such predictions.

This method of explanation has worked suitably well for me so far, but there is one thing that puzzles me; and that is why have I never come across anyone else referring directly to the quality of evidence produced by scientific research. I’m not making this point from a position of considering my own explanation to be superior to what has gone before; rather I am genuinely concerned that I might be missing something obvious, which is common knowledge but that I have somehow managed to keep on missing.

I can see that there are various reasons as to why this approach might be a bad idea. For instance, the use of an absolute statement (‘science DOES produce the highest quality evidence as far as we understand’) could be setting yourself up for a rather large fall, especially if you find yourself not having the relevant evidence on a particular topic to hand! It would seem to me to be rather embarrassing to find myself in conversation uttering something along the lines of, “Well Science has produced the highest quality evidence with regards to this matter…but unfortunately I don’t know what it is!”

However, what concerns me more is another practical problem with using such a bold factual claim, which is that it might actually seem rather arrogant. From my own personal experience the perceived arrogance of science and scientists is one of the two main objections that people have expressed to me as to why they hold a negative view of the subject. This strikes me as yet another case of evaluation by what has been said being based on who has spoken and not an attempt to evaluate the words themselves (One of the most common, and in my view, annoying of all human traits). Bearing that point in mind though, I presume I have to remember one of the lines from my own Skeptics talk, namely, “Perception is a two-way process”. In other words it doesn’t matter what I might know and understand compared to others, that doesn’t mean that from a practical point of view, others will simply change, or are in any way obliged to change, their negative opinions about science.

Therefore, regardless of what I think about the validity of my explanation, I may be able to persuade more people of science’s importance simply by not including a statement that could be perceived as being so overtly arrogant. I’m sure that my positive energy levels and natural enthusiasm will try and dismiss this as pure fiction, but only time will tell! However, I have only used my explanation in discussion with others and never in a debate. I have a feeling that could make a difference and I will be interested to find out what happens in this regard in the future.

So, what, if anything, am I missing? Do the points I have mentioned above hit the nail on the head, but I just haven’t realised until now? Or, am I missing something else entirely?  I would be very grateful to hear others views; especially those from people who have had greater experience of communicating the scientific method; or using scientific evidence in any kind of debate/argument against non-scientific evidence than I have.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

QEDcon tickets go on sale today!

At 10:23 today, tickets will go on sale for the 2013 edition QED: Question, Explore, Discover which is a yearly conference organised by the Merseyside and Greater Manchester Skeptics Societies, and is held at the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester. The price to attend the two day event is £99 or £59 if you're lucky enough to be a student.

I've been to both previous conferences and can heartily recommend the experience. Here's a panoramic photo of the main room that I took at this year's edition. You can see more on my flickr account.
QEDcon 2012

At the time of writing, the speakers for the 2013 edition have yet to be announced but at both previous events the speakers have been of a consistently high quality. There were several "big names" such as Steve Novella, Jim Al-Khalili and Eugenie Scott in 2011, and Edzard Ernst, Steve Jones and Richard Wiseman in 2012. Even those speakers I hadn't heard of before the event turned out to be fascinating and entertaining. I can't wait to see who they announce for this year!

A new addition for this year is the provision of child care facilities which means that parents of children up to the age of twelve will be able to attend and leave their kids in a safe environment.

I hope to see you there!

Addendum:  The first of the speakers have been announced and it's looking good!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Psychic and science show with Derek Acorah and Richard Felix

OK, so an unusual title for the show in York: Psychic and Science!

Here's a brief resume of what happened. Harry Martindale, the man who saw the Roman Legion in the basement of the Treasurer's House gave his story. We all know about this famous York ghost sighting, but this was the first time I'd heard it first hand. Derek then did some readings for members of the audience. A number of hits and a number of misses here, although none of the misses appeared to be a fault with Derek or his spirit guide Sam, clearly the audience member had forgotten the person who was now a spirit who was looking over them. I found this to be great news really. Its nice to know that if all this is real, we will have loads of people, including people we don't really know, looking out for us. Then again, perhaps it just means that life after death is so boring you'll poke your nose into anyone's business. A couple of the hits were obviously not due to random chance as the names were too unusual, but in other cases I think the spirit must be having a laugh and feeding false information to Derek. Oh, that would be so tempting wouldn't it? Other interesting things that Derek's spirits know are the future (one woman will get pregnant next October or November, and a friend called Steve will present a good plan to make money) and how to heal people (one audience member with an occasional bad back will feel better in the next few weeks). Well, maybe that's not so good on the healing side, I'm sure some sufferers of asthma, psoriasis, eczema, or depression could have done with the treatment.

Richard Felix then led a glass divination with 6 members of the audience chosen by Frisbee. The 'glass' correctly answered a number of questions (although did not seem sure if it was male or female) before Derek had a revelation that the spirit involved was a young lad hung for stealing three horses that were actually stolen by his dad.

Just before the break, Derek mentally projected an image of an object that was in a small flat case and asked people to text their thoughts. Amazingly someone guessed an old pistol - who'd have thought! And this was the first time in 18 or 20 shows that someone got it right. Why did the right guess happen tonight - Richard did not know.

In the second half, we had a human pendulum controlled by a spirit, a walking table, eight people holding a seance in Dick Turpin's cell and one person having a solo vigil in the cell. This last item was very entertaining. Finally - and I'd been waiting all evening for this - the science bit. A collection of objects and leads and a crystal Van der Graaf were set up on stage to project the images recorded in the stone of the building into a cloud of steam caused by dry ice. The audience were invited to take lots of photographs and look for faces. I took over 150 and did not see a single face, but other people were much more fortunate, with a number of ghostly apparitions caught on camera. Strangely the building only ever recorded faces, no bodies, and no images from the back or underneath where you might expect(!) a building to notice events.

So my conclusion. An impressive bit of reading (but I have never witnessed this before), a variety of ideomotor effects and a strong 'dousing' of pareidolia. The show promised that it would "break away from the normal Hollywood or TV ghost show, where the scare factor was always prominent. “Instead we’ll conduct various experiments and demonstrations and test theories to open people’s eyes and prove that the realities behind ghosts are far more fascinating than the Scooby Doo side of things.” Well it had a complete lack of experiments, no science (unless a useless box and wires is included as science) and no proof on "the realities of ghosts". An entertaining evening, but there was no way this could be argued to have any science or experimental content - a breach of trading standards perhaps.

Addendum: Skeptical paranormal researcher Hayley Stevens has written a more in-depth article about the "Stone Tape Projector" used in the show.