Friday, 31 October 2014


As part of the Good Thinking Society Psychic Awareness Month, Chris Richardson and Richard Sutherland fearlessly handed out leaflets to an audience attending a performance by Derek Acorah at The Prince of Wales Theatre, Cannock on October 30th.

We say fearlessly because of the proximity to Halloween, and claims by Acorah that he can summon up the dead. Despite these ominous portents, the event went off without so much as a hitch, let alone an attack by zombies!

Carefully following Good Thinking guidelines not to make a nuisance of themselves, Chris and Richard stationed themselves to one side of the entrance. As audience members arrived they confirmed that those entering the theatre were there to attend the performance, and then asked if they would be good enough to take a leaflet. The vast majority accepted, with only two exceptions. One woman who saw the headline and turned away a bit huffily, and another (with partner) who stated that she is a 'medium' and gave Richard and Chris the evil eye, or at least a dirty look. One woman was clearly au fait with the Mark Tilbrook situation and asked Richard if he was Mark.

Richard making polite enquiries of attendees

At a guess no more than 150 attended. Predominantly middle aged and female in small groups (2 to 4), although some mainly older couples.

At one point a very jolly chap working for the theatre asked if Chris and Richard would like to come into the theatre lobby. Without saying so, he gave the impression he approved of what they were doing. They politely declined. About half way through the duty Manager emerged to ask them to move away as they were causing an obstruction. It was politely explained that they were specifically standing to one side of the doors so as not do so, and that since not on private property they were entitled to be there, and that we would be extremely careful not to inconvenience the audience arriving in any way. She didn't seem very happy about it but gave up and went inside. A bit later the jolly chap popped his head around the door and had a laugh about the fact that he had asked them in and "the boss" had wanted to get rid of them.

From other reports it seems that Derek Acorah and Colin Fry have avoided confrontation with people leafleting, so all in all it was pretty uneventful, but hopefully may have prompted a few to question their support for such events.

We are aiming to continue with a wide variety of activities, not necessarily involving standing outside theatres!

If you are interested in participating in future Birmingham Skeptical Activist initiatives please email Richard on Alternatively, let Patrick or Chris know.

Good Thinking can be found here.

The Good Thinking Society leaflet

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Hots Potato

This post has been a long time in the making dating back to an email thread we received from one of our SitP attendees in July 2012 but a recent occurrence shows the issue isn't going away any time soon.

Shortly before that time the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had upheld a complaint made by Hayley Stevens against an organisation called “Healing on the Streets – Bath” who had been handing out leaflets in May 2011: Our correspondent had found a similar organisation, The Crossway using similar wording, on Harborne High Street, Birmingham and, being the good skeptic that they are, had made a similar complaint to the ASA against them.

For those unfamiliar with Healing on the Streets (HOTS) it was originally an organisation founded in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 2005 to “simply invite people to sit on chairs so we can pray for them”. Okay, that could be thought of as merely a little bit strange until you realise that they claim that “God loves you and can heal you” presumably through the power of their prayer. Many organisations have bought into the HOTS ethos which can be extremely lucrative (HOTS – Bath have taken in £137,000 in the last 4 years).

It is a well known phenomenon that any interventions can have a placebo effect and many people may assume that sugar pills, saline injections and sham therapies of all kinds may be responsible for an improvement in fairly trivial conditions. They ignore the many reasons that a condition may improve in favour of a belief that it was caused by the intervention. One classic case is that treatment for a long-standing condition which comes and goes, such as a bad back, will be sought when pain and immobility is highest. The fact that the sufferer has a lifetime's experience of knowing that the condition improves with time (and without intervention) is thrown out of the window if they take some pointless pills, or receive some other attention (such as being prayed for) when it is at its worst.

This wouldn't matter too much if people working under the HOTS banner limited their attention to bad backs and similar minor and self-limiting ailments but they don't. The leaflet given to our correspondent asked if people suffered from “Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction, Cancer, Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Migraines, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias or any other sickness, illness or injury” and offered “Healing on Harborne High Street”.

So anything then. Pneumonia, diabetes, sepsis, meningitis, AIDS, Ebola? You name it, they'll pray for you. Needless to say relying on prayer over medical expertise can have dreadful consequences.

In their adjudication the ASA noted that HOTS – Bath had not provided any evidence that they, or anyone else, could heal using prayer and upheld Hayley's complaint about the leaflet adjudging the claims to be both misleading and irresponsible. They also adjudged that the ads could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. This adjudication made international news.

In the summation for action the ASA said:

The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.”

So pretty much cut and dried then. Another organisation had used almost exactly the same wording with a list of medical conditions they have no hope of healing so our correspondent awaited the adjudication against The Crossway.

They didn't get one.

The ASA contacted our correspondent saying that the issue had gone to their Compliance Team, an arm of the ASA which deals with repeat offenders. When this was queried they were told that:

The Crossway’s website demonstrates, in our view, that they are distributing the ads that you have objected to under the name of Healing on the Streets: Also, Healing on the Streets’ own website shows that they are a national organisation, who can assist church groups to set up local branches: The similarities between The Crossway’s literature and that of other leaflets produced by Healing on the Streets, in addition to their use of the blue “Healing” banner, which is used by other H.O.T.S. groups, also suggests that they are a local group who are endorsed by the national H.O.T.S. organisation.

In the course of their response to this complaint, our Compliance team will contact The Crossway to inform them that the advertising they are handing out is in breach of our Code, but we would consider that the advertiser is Healing on the Streets. We will also contact them and demonstrate that a local group affiliated to them is still using adverts that are not compliant with our Code.”

This would be fine if it worked however it appears that it had already happened and this was already a repeat offence:

Furthermore the message still didn't get through and it looks like it won't any time soon:

(October 2012, Oxford)

(October 2014, Bishop's Stortford)

The latest breach was last weekend.

Although we have been keeping our eyes open for breaches (posted on Twitter or Facebook for instance) it is inconceivable that there aren't some we've missed and indeed a much larger number that won't have been spotted or posted at all. Also an appeal against the original complaint confirmed that the websites of these different groups running HOTS activities do not fall under the ASA's jurisdiction so HOTS could not even appear on the ASA's Non-Compliant Online Advertisers List.

We know that some of these breaches have not been reported to the ASA. Of those that have you will find no public record of them being dealt with by the ASA as they have not been adjudicated upon. The ASA has a system of reporting “Informally Resolved Cases” whereby an advertiser agrees to stop using certain wording in their adverts but it appears that this is also not being used. It's almost as if they don't want these further breaches to be mentioned anywhere. Indeed, our correspondent received this from the ASA when asking if the Harborne breach could be publicised:

As the previous adjudication was made public, we have no recourse to prevent you from making our response public, should you so wish. I would like to point out of course, that any large scale public disclosure of the breach could potentially affect the advertiser’s willingness to comply with our Codes, as part of the ongoing compliance work we are doing with regard to Healing on the Streets.”

We can only hope, that due to this blogpost, any willingness of HOTS organisations to comply with the ASA's codes hasn't been damaged too much.

A small aside: 

Although this issue seems a bit complicated the initial complaint by our correspondent took only 10 minutes and many issues of dodgy advertising are cut-and-dried. Also, anyone reporting such issues are guaranteed anonymity by the ASA by law. We have continued this in this blogpost by not naming our correspondent at their request.

We are currently setting up a Birmingham Skeptics Activists strand and one of our possible aims may be to police the West Midlands area to weed out dodgy advertisers such as this.

If you think you can spare the occasional 10 minutes then please consider giving us a shout.

Saturday, 4 October 2014


If your goat has been got by a scam, fraud, or woo then please read on.

Some of you may have attended the Birmingham SitP talk by Michael Marshall of Merseyside Skeptics Society, and Project Director at Good Thinking Society.

For those who weren't there, amongst other achievements, Michael was instrumental in organising the 10:23 campaign, which successfully spread the word about the ineffectiveness of homeopathy.

You can find out more about Good Thinking at:

That talk inspired me to want to develop an idea that has been been running around in my head since I started attending SitP a couple of years ago.

Having taken part in a few skeptical activist activities myself (e.g. carrying out a survey of attendees at a Colin Fry show in London; campaigning against Gary Mannion , 'psychic surgeon'; and establishing a campaign in the U.K. to expose and help bring an end to the fake explosives detectors trade - see ADE651 and GT200; I am interested in setting up Birmingham Skeptics Activists as a spinoff from the main group.

B.S.A (Bull Shit Annihilators; just kidding!) will be a group of people who are prepared to take part in campaigns to combat the panoply of nonsense that surrounds us. It may be pseudoscience, quackery, 'psychics', or creationism in schools. One example that still resonates with me was the talk by one of the speakers at the first open mic night on cancer quackery, and how her dad was sadly taken in by people in the area offering false hope via quack 'cures'. Targeting, exposing and bringing people like that to justice is a compelling motivation. Campaigns may involve anything from emailing your M.P., protests, leafleting, blogging or other coordinated action.

I recognise that not everyone has the time or the inclination to take part in skeptical activism, but I am sure that some of you will want to get involved.

What we need:

What we need is a bit of your time every now and then.

What we don't need:

We're not after your cash, in fact we'll be looking to cover any expenses and you don't even have to be close to the centre of Birmingham as there are plenty of things going on almost everywhere. We're also not looking to drag you along to a load of committee meetings either.

Depending on the level of support, over the next couple of months we will look to establish Birmingham Skeptics Activists and agree how best to move forward with this initiative.

If you are interested please let me know. I will also be at next SitP featuring Chris French on the 8th of October, or feel free to email me on rgns(at sign)

Richard Sutherland