Saturday, 16 March 2013

Event Report - An Introduction to Skepticism

Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic Magazine, came to give a fun and informative talk about what skepticism is and its place in the modern world. Hyde first emphasised that skepticism is a diffused and diverse movement. There are many magazines worldwide that specialise in the topic and they communicate with each other. Groups such as the Westminster Skeptics are interested in skeptical issues in law and government, while the Soho skeptics focus more on science. Hyde's online alter ego Jourdemayne specialises in superstition, religion and the supernatural. Hyde explained how she first became interested in skepticism through her research into the supernatural. She realised that there are people that believe as fervently in vampires as in God.

She explained skepticism as denying the possibility of knowledge in a particular sphere. Humans have perceptual and cognitive limits, and these limits must be understood to gain a better understanding of reality. Skeptics believe that knowledge must be supported by evidence, and they are not the same as cynics, as some things can be established as true.

In practise most skeptics tend to be atheists also, but this is not essential as people can hold these two ideas in their minds at the same time.

The issue of the spellings of 'skeptic' vs. 'sceptic' was addressed. The 'skepticism' movement began in the US, meaning that international members of the movement use the American spelling. It began in the 1970s when new age beliefs were in fashion, with figures such as Uri Geller gaining popularity.  There was a motivation to debunk these ways of thinking, with James Randi drawing attention to the flaws in Uri Geller's act. Another reason to use the spelling 'skeptic' is that 'sceptic' can be used more generally such as a '9-11 sceptic', and these opinions are totally separate from the skepticism movement.

Hyde stressed that the movement is not centralised in any way, it's a grass roots movement where people meet like minded others to start projects they're interested in. The movement also doesn't include a body of knowledge - only a dedication to the scientific method.

Common interests of skeptics and subjects covered in The Skeptic magazine were discussed. Cryptozoology, urban legends, conspiracy theories, the paranormal, UFOs and alternative medicine are issues which interest skeptics. Skeptical campaigns which have gained attention include the libel trial of Simon Singh vs. The British Chiropractic Association. The BCA attempted to sue Singh after he labelled some of their claims 'bogus', but the case was eventually dropped. The 10:23 campaign challenged homeopathy, with skeptics taking a mass overdose of homeopathic remedies to draw attention to their complete ineffectiveness. This aimed to inform people who weren't sure of what the remedies really were and bought them casually. The pharmacy Boots has admitted that they sell homeopathic remedies which have 'no evidence' of effectiveness.

Skeptics also challenged the popular psychic Sally Morgan. After rumours of her using earpieces at performances to feed her information she was offered a chance to test her powers under controlled conditions. She obviously refused.

Finally, Hyde stated that she hopes that one day the term 'skeptic' will be redundant, as society will accept the scientific approach as the best way to discover knowledge, and will be better educated against bad arguments.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Event Report - Circumcision Debate

We had two fantastic guests to discuss the issue of male circumcision. Jonathan Arkush, barrister and Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, represented the argument that male circumcision is ethical. Antony Lempert, GP and Chair of the Secular Medical Forum argued against it.

Jonathan Arkush began by stating that he is a proud member of the Jewish faith. He sees Judaism as a way of life with a set of values that go back four thousand years. Circumcision is part of these values due to the bible, when God commanded Abraham to circumcise his son. Arkush emphasised that it is possible to decide which traditions you keep, and that he chose to abide by circumcision. Circumcision (called Brit Milah in the Jewish community) is a covenant, which is a promise between man and god.

Arkush argued that circumcision is a safe and simple procedure with virtually no incidence of complications. As it is such a long tradition it is highly regulated and performed to the best standard and skill possible. In reply to the objection that circumcision is carried out on babies who cannot give consent, Arkush emphasised that there are many things that parents decide for their children. These include medical procedures, vaccines and ear piercings. Also, parents decide to bring up their children in an environment of faith or lack of faith. In addition, the safest and kindest age to circumcise a child is eight days old as in the Jewish tradition, meaning that letting a child decide at eighteen will lead to additional discomfort.

Arkush believes that to ban the practise of circumcision is unwarranted as it is not socially harmful. Instead, it should be regulated, allowing people for whom this is a religious practise to have equal treatment and respect.

It was then Antony Lempert's turn to put his point across. He first stated that parents have many rights over their child, but these rights are limited by the need to keep the child safe from harm. Parents do not own their children's bodies. Circumcision is not comparable to vaccines which are proven to protect against childhood illnesses and cannot be postponed until adulthood. Lempert used the General Medical Council's guidelines for doctors as the foundation of his argument. Doctors are urged to make the care of their patients their first concern and do no harm to them. In addition, the bases of medical ethics include autonomy; the right of a patient to decide their own fate. Doctors should maximise a child's ability to decide for themselves. Lempert thought it ridiculous that people feel that their religious beliefs are under threat if they can't cut another person's body. Freedom of religious belief is important, but its expression must be limited by its harm to others.

Lempert compared circumcision to tattooing, which if performed on a child is classed as criminal assault. A doctor must sometimes make decisions for a patient who is not able to give consent, but must ask themselves whether their incapacity will be long term. In the case of a child, it is possible to wait until they are old enough to give their consent.

Lempert then confronted the effects of circumcision on health. Historically, the supposed benefits included reduced masturbation as sensitivity in the penis is lessened. In terms of harm, there are instances of scarring, urinary difficulties, and one in five children experience a narrowed urethra. Lempert cited some tragic incidences where children died in the process of circumcision, which were legally treated as an unforeseen accident.

The foreskin is an important sexual organ. It has been theorised that the most sensitive part of the penis is on the foreskin which is unfortunately lost. Circumcised men often report sexual difficulties including their partners having difficulties reaching orgasm. The foreskin also offers protection from infection and is naturally stuck to the glans in early childhood.

Lempert related the experiences that a Jewish person might expect from objecting to the practise of circumcision, including feeling isolated and threatened, and finding it hard to talk about a matter so private. Finally, Lempert asked for consideration of the rights of the child. A child should have freedom of thought and religion and protection from harm. Parents have a right to guide their child, but this must not include acts which cause physical and emotional harm.