List of speakers

Day one: Friday, October 14
Marie Prins Herbal fraud in the Netherlands: Libidfit
Abstract: With the appearance on the market of Viagra and later Cialis and Levitra the market for traditional herbal potency pills all but collapsed. But it recovered after a while, because effective herbal pills appeared, most of them, but not quite all, Chinese. However, after chemical analysis one after the other happened to contain Viagra or, somewhat later, Cialis. In the Benelux LibidFit appeared, based on a 400-year old recipe used by the Royal Court, but now made according to the latest scientific methods. It turned out, that LibidFit did not contain straight Viagra, but an analogue. LibidFit claims that the analogue is safe, since it was obtained by natural processes.
The lecture will cover the lies and deceit used to put the article on the Benelux market to begin with and to keep it there and in the rest of Europe (and after that the rest of the world). The case is still going on.
Barry Beyerstein Errors of perception and reasoning that make bogus therapies seem to work
Abstract: In response to the question of why so many intelligent, well-educated people continue to believe in discredited medical and psychological practices when they consistently fail objective tests of their efficacy Dr. Beyerstein has become an expert in the psychology of human error. I.e., how failures of memory and inference, and psychological processes such as self-deception and wishful thinking, can lead to false but comforting beliefs about the world. In dealing with various fringe claims, he has also developed an interest in deception and con-artistry. That is because a small percentage of those who sell worthless therapies do so in full knowledge that they are bilking an unsuspecting and vulnerable public. The majority of those who sell bogus products, however, are not deliberate frauds, but what Beyerstein calls "sincere but self-deluded."
James E. Alcock The appeal of alternative medicine
Abstract: So-called alternative medicine is growing rapidly in terms of acceptance by the public, despite the lack of a scientific evidential basis for it. It is argued that the appeal of alternative medicine is not dissimilar to the appeal of evidence-based medicine as it was traditionally provided by family physicians in the past; the family physician of yesteryear delivered much more than treatment per se. However, those important additional elements are much less likely to be forthcoming from modern-day physicians, whilst they are generously provided by alternative practitioners. There is much more to medicine than medicine.
Cees Renckens On the policy of some Dutch medical-scientific societies towards their members, practicing alternative medicine: reproachable negligence
Abstract: We informed the boards of four prominent medical-scientific societies (of the internists, the neurologists, the clinical chemists and the dental surgeons) about practices and statements of some of their members. The internist practices homeopathy, electro-acupuncture, hypnotherapy and cooperates with paranormal healers. The neurologist cooperated with the highly controversial Californian back physician Bonati, who treats backpain, whiplash, scoliosis, headaches etc. with an undisclosed endoscopically applied lasertherapy. The clinical chemist tests in his private 'nutrient-laboratory' bloodsamples of patients seen by alternative healers and doctors in the Netherlands and invariably supplies them with the diagnosis of (non-existent) severe nutritional deficiencies. So-called biological dentists claim that amalgam is a deadly poison, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths in the Netherlands. All patients with amalgamfillings should, according to them, be examined by electro-acupuncture and treated homeopathically or even by replacing their fillings by 'non-toxic materials'.
In their initial response all four societies said they could not do anything against these members, but one reconsidered this reply after we published our findings in the Dutch Journal of Medicine. The society of clinical chemists decided to speak out against the practice of their member and to sharpen the admission-criteria for its membership.
Frits Van Dam Fluctuations in the use of alternative cancer therapies through the years, the influence of mass media
Abstract: Diets have always been the most important alternative treatments for cancer in the Netherlands. Two diets have dominated the field: the Moerman diet which was en vogue since the fifties of the last century and its successor the Houtsmuller diet which was invented in the nineties. Both diets were advertised without any reservation in the media by their inventors, both charismatic medical doctors. The alternative diet movement recently got two important setbacks in the media. Houtsmuller who had propagated his diet by saying that he had cured himself of a metastasised melanoma was exposed in a popular TV program by the chairman of the Dutch Society against Quackery of being dishonest about his own medical history. Houtsmuller had to admit that he never had metastases of a melanoma. Much publicity furthermore was given to the tragic death of a well known actress who avoided regular therapy for her breast cancer and the death of the wife of a well known politician who used the Kushi diet for her gynaecological cancer . The Inspectorate for Health Care in the Netherlands used the case history of the famous actress to point out to the public what can go wrong by following alternative doctors.
Since 1987 a survey is held regularly to determine the use of alternative diets and other alternative treatments among all patients visiting the outpatient clinic of the Netherlands Cancer Institute/Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital. Patients are asked about their current and past use of alternative therapies, their reasons for using these therapies, the way they were informed about these therapies and the expenses involved.
After an all time high at the end of the nineties when Houtsmuller triumphantly presented his own life saving therapy, 13% of cancer patients used an alternative cancer diet. In 2005, after all the negative publicity, hardly any patient believes that an alternative cancer therapy has an effect on his or her tumour. The number of patients using an alternative diet has shrunken to a mere 2%.
Willem Betz The WHO and Homeopathy
Abstract: The WHO is an organisation that still enjoys great authority all over the world. In the past, its initiatives and resolutions have always been able to bear the test of scientific criticism, based as they were on rational conceptions, but this situation has changed. Several uncritical, very biased and even factually untrue reports have been issued by the WHO in the recent years. Organisations that sell or promote un-scientific or anti-scientific medicine have infiltrated the decision making levels of the WHO. The latest scandal was the secret attempt to prepare a dishonest pro-homeopathy propaganda pamphlet for publishing. Is was only thinly disguised as a scientific study.
Sheng-Xian Li Will China see a third Qigong craze?
  • The first two qigong crazes in Chinese Mainland from 1949 to 2000.
  • Damaging social effects as is caused by qigong.
  • The heated argument between opponents and supporters of pseudo-qigong
  • How to define qigong when the argument is far from coming to an end?
  • Qi: an nonexistent, conceptual association
  • Prediction: will China see a third qigong craze?
Micheal Heap Let's wave goodbye to the unconscious mind
Abstract: It is usual to refer to various mental processes as though they are entities in themselves - percepts, thoughts, images, memories, etc. - rather than activities we engage in - perceiving, thinking, imagining, remembering, etc. Unconscious mental activity is also reified in this way when we speak of 'the unconscious mind'. In reality there is no such THING as the 'unconscious mind'. Believing otherwise, and investing 'the unconscious mind' with agency, power, and mystery, leads to unusual and misleading ideas and claims.
Alternative evening
A guided skeptical walk through Brussels
Day two: Saturday October 15
Christopher French The "Haunt" Project: Can we build a "haunted" room?
Abstract: Recent research by psychologists and parapsychologists has indicated that a number of environmental factors appear to be associated with a tendency for susceptible individuals to report mildly anomalous sensations typically associated with "haunted" locations. These sensations include a sense of presence, shivers running down the spine, inexplicable smells, and so on. On rare occasions, full "apparitions" have been reported. Factors which have been reported to be associated with such sensations include fluctuations in the electromagnetic field, the presence of infrasound, and variations in light levels. A brief review of such work will be presented, followed by the results of the "Haunt" project in which an attempt is made to construct an artificial "haunted" room by systematically varying such environmental factors.
Krissy Wilson Striking a happy medium (or why some people would like to punch self-satisfied TV psychics!)
Abstract: Spiritualist groups, mediums and psychics all over Britain are prepared, and able it seems, to talk to your dead relatives in front of an audience of like-minded individuals for the price of a glass of wine. The popularity of these groups appears to be compounded by the largely uncritical coverage of such activities by the media. On a typical evening on British television for example, it is possible to watch allegedly psychic performances such as Crossing Over with John Edward, Britain's own Colin Fry, the star of the programme Sixth Sense, or to watch Derek Accorah allegedly contact the dead in a selection of Most Haunted locations. This paper will explore the nature of media coverage of such programmes, review recent critiques of some of the leading players, and show just how bad a psychic can be and still maintain acceptance from a credulous audience.
Dirk Volckaerts Man Bites Dog - Dog Sells Story : On Ethics and Credibility in Newspaper Journalism
Abstract: Recent polls in Great-Britain and in other European countries show that newspaper credibility has never been lower. A lot of people don't trust what they read any more, and with good reason too. Strikingly enough, it's not the major journalistic fraud cases (e.g. the Jason Blair-case at the New York Times) that cause this lack of credibility, but a general neglect of elementary ethics in journalism. In his lecture, newspaper editor Dirk Volckaerts gives some stunning examples of unethical and incorrect newsroom practices. He also looks deeper into the individual responsibility of the journalist, who has to deal with a growing number of professional restrictions, due to a lack of time, of resources and of training. And who has to cope not only with in-house competition - the struggle for the scoop - but also, and more important, with ever-more-demanding publishers, who consider newspapers (and the media in general) not as vehicles for unveiling the Truth, but as mere commercial products. The main questions are: how do we have to read our newspapers? How do we restore journalism excellence in our newsrooms? How do we restore newspaper credibility? How do we keep the dog from selling the story? Answer: by not buying it any more?
Luis Alfonso Gámez Paranormal in the Press. A skeptical point of information for millions of readers
Abstract: Is it possible to talk in the Press about the paranormal from a skeptical point of view? Is it possible that skeptical ideas reach millions of readers? Is it possible to present the non believer side of the paranormal mysteries as the main stream? Yes, it is. But the skeptics must now how to sell their ideas as more atractive and interesting intelectually than the magical ones, with more aparently 'neutral' titles and style.
Hans van Maanen Sex and science
Abstract: As any skeptic will tell you, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But when was the last time you read about a really extraordinary claim in the newspapers? Journalists no longer believe in UFOs, Loch Ness or even homeopathy. They heed Carl Sagan's warning.
On the other hand, no newspaper is complete without some small scientific tidbits. 'Coffe causes liver cancer', 'More emergency contraception after victory national football team', 'Left-handers have advantage in fight' and 'Women with narrow hips have attractive voices'.
These are the sexy stories, the stories that find their way to the front page. Scientists know it, the editor of Nature knows it, but journalists still don't know it.
Therefore, I would propose to alter Sagan's old dictum. It's not the extraordinary claims, but the fun results that tend to get swallowed whole. With these, everyone should take extra care, and scientists, PR officers and journal editors have to raise their standards. Sexy claims require extraordinary evidence.
Jean Paul Van Bendegem 2 + 2 = 4, or whatever you want
Abstract: There is something strikingly odd and paradoxical about mathematical data and knowledge: the further it moves away from the mathematical research community, the quicker it seems to lose its certainty. What is totally convincing evidence for a mathematician, say, a mathematical proof, becomes either incomprehensible or something arbitrary for the layperson ("You can prove anything if you're clever enough!"). Many explanations have been put forward to explain this curious phenomenon: (a) the growing innumeracy of the general public (see the work of the same title by John Allen Paulos), (b) the curiously mistaken intuitions we seem to have about numerical data (see, e.g., the well known work of Tversky and Kahneman, the Monty Hall problem and such like), or the misrepresentation of data, wilfully or not (see the famous "How statistics lie"). We would like to add another important element: to evaluate mathematical evidence is basically to learn a set of practices, partially explicitly, partially implicitly, as is the case for any practice. The implicit part can (obviously) only be transmitted through a sharing of these practices. In a sense you have to be a bit of a mathematician to get the mathematical "feeling". But, and this is the core problem as I see it, how could the media transmit this kind of knowledge? And, if it turns out to be indeed impossible, what then is the strength of the use of numerical and exact data to support or reject specific claims? Are we facing here a fundamental barrier?
Jean Bricmont From the Sokal affair to the Teissier affair
Abstract: In 1996, the New York physicist, Alan Sokal, published an article entitled "Transgressing the boundaries. Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.", in a cultural studies journal, Social Text. The text was densely filled with obscure references to modern physics, quotes of famous french and american "postmodern" authors, and embraced quite openly a radically relativist attitude with respect to scientific knowledge. He author revealed later that the article was a hoax, whose goal was to test the willingness of the editors to publish blatant nonsense. In 2001, the astrologer Elisabeth Teissier was awarded a doctorate in sociology at the university of Paris V, for a thesis entitled: Situation épistémologique de l'astrologie à travers l'ambivalence fascination/rejet dans les sociétés postmodernes, which claimed to be a sociological study of astrological beliefs but in reality was essentially a defense of astrology. These two affairs are quite different (at least concerning the intentions of their authors), but both reveal a hostility to science and a sympathy for the pseudosciences that is surprisingly present in certain academic or intellectual circles, that can loosely be described as postmodernist. My goal will be to try to analyze the connection between pseudoscience and those intellectual currents.
Richard Monvoisin Forewarned is forearmed - How to use examples of pseudoscientific gaps and insidious philosophical trends in science magazines to teach critical thinking
Abstract: The fact that paranormal beliefs and pseudoscientific propensions are not correlated with science knowledge is well known nowadays. We aquired conviction that popular science press and magazines for a wider public, responding to commercial and sensationnal constraints, are one of the most way to instil such beliefs. Therefore, we decided to use this material with students, to teach them what is a pseudoscience through knowledge gaps in articles, and to warn them against insidious philosophical or spiritualists pitfalls.
Evening program
Evening banquet with skeptical after-dinner speech
Nick Trachet The omnivore's dilemma
Day 3: Sunday, October 16
Jean-Michel Abrassart Paranormal beliefs: the psychological approach
Fadel Niang Pseudosciences, libertés médiatiques et esprit critique en Afrique de l'Ouest
Abstract:La rumeur ainsi que les allégations extraordinaires semblent se prêter d'évidence à l'intégration régionale, au sens des cercles concentriques géographiques tout du moins. A la faveur de l'avènement des alternances démocratiques de la fin des années 90, les pays de l'Afrique de l'Ouest ont assisté à la naissance de nombreuses stations radio FM et télévisions privées, ainsi qu'à de nouveaux journaux, revues, et autres magazines associés à leurs versions en ligne sur Internet. Etant soucieux d'augmenter ou de préserver leurs parts de marché face à la rapide saturation du secteur assez restreint des médias d'information dans ces pays, ces groupes médiatiques sont devenus de plus en plus des adeptes de la diffusion "d'informations peu ordinaires", usant et abusant du champs fertile de l'émotivité et de la superstition qui caractérise les populations subsahariennes de l'Afrique. Véhiculé par ce réseau médiatique bien structuré qui couvre une grande partie du continent africain, on imagine volontiers une "allégation globalisée", sans substrat scientifique ou culturel, ni stratification sociale, ni enjeu, causer des méfaits et des drames insoupçonnés. De nombreux exemples ont pu être identifiés: cela va des "retrécisseurs de sexes" nigériens lapidés dans certaines villes du Sénégal, du Gabon ou du Cameroun, au "jeune messie" Tanzanien de 5 ans reçu par plusieurs Présidents de République, en passant par les "notes d'examens sexuellement transmissibles" dans les universités maliennes, "la télépathie par transfert de bosons de Higgs" pratiquée par des étudiants au Sénégal avant les sessions d'examen, ou encore les shows télévisés de "guérisseurs traditionnels" ou "d'astrologues couleur locale". Ces exemples peu ordinaires, qui finalement restent confinés à certaines aires culturelles malgré leur grande médiatisation, viennent rappeler d'une part, qu'il ne suffit pas de connaître une histoire pour la faire circuler, ni pour y croire a fortiori. Ils nous rappellent d'autre part que dans l'euphorie actuelle liée à l'ouverture démocratique et le développement des libertés individuelles et médiatiques en Afrique, il nous faut à tout instant avoir à l'esprit que "le droit au rêve a pour pendant le devoir de vigilance".
Rupert Sheldrake Lecture about telepathy, followed by debate