Thursday, June 3, 2010


There was once a time where I used to sit down and chat with friends, music on in the background. Now I spend time listening to British skeptical podcasts with friends and relatives talking to themselves in the distance. It does nothing for my popularity but it's an easy way to avoid some dull, one sided conversations. A few nights back I cranked up the speakers for episode fifteen of Skepticpod, an understated twenty minutes of critical opinion hosted by Barry Edwards and Juila Gatie. Dull it wasn't. But one sided? Hmmm.

The most interesting story covered by the pair was the recent criminalisation of the drug mephedrone by the previous govenment. The so-called legal high became the focus of a media led moral panic after the sudden deaths of three users. In a prior episode Barry urged caution; his point was that mephedrone and heroin substitute methadone sound very similar. So similar that it wouldn't be difficult for the press to get it wrong. Which, of course, is what they did: toxicology tests revealed two of the dead had methadone and not mephedrone in their systems. The third did indeed die from mephedrone abuse, but only after directly injecting it. Dumb move. As someone who dabbles with nothing stronger than a Starbucks Americano I find any drug related death unnecessary. But as Barry and Julia rightly state, more people die from peanut related deaths in Britain yet you can still buy them at the local supermarket alongside alcohol and cigarettes. Whether or not the mephedrone ban is justified the story serves as a reminder of politics as a vote winning exercise. Steps to appease public concern often trumps evidence and that is a real concern.

Still with media misrepresentation of science, Barry and Julia move on to the recent study which shows piercing the body with a needle can stimulate production of adenosine, a natural painkiller in mice. Whilst not validating the claims of acupuncturists the study will no doubt be used in such an erroneous manner by the treatment's fiercest proponents. Some skeptics could find themselves stuttering to address these people but Barry produces a somewhat forthright debunking.

I have to say that Barry is a very good host, but one criticism that I have heard made of the show is Julia's contribution. It is something that has puzzled me slightly in the past but Julia is frank enough in this episode to admit that her knowledge is lacking in some areas. This is particularly highlighted in the game that the pair end on, a 'science or fiction' type affair with one story pulled straight from The Onion. Whether intentional or otherwise I know it can have a divisive effect on listeners. I enjoy the light hearted sadism, but it has been put to me that Julia ends up looking a bit foolish at times, maybe even portraying women within skepticism as naive. It's not an argument I subscribe to or feel is fair, but I do feel that Skepticpod seems like a show in transition, one that could do with an additional voice to supplement Barry's insight and Julia's enjoyable banter.

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