Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 18, 2010

You are doing your skeptical activism all wrong!

It started with a job advert and a Daily Express article.

NHS Tayside are cutting 500 jobs to save money.

At the same time, however, they are advertising for a £36,807 to £68,638 doctor. Not just any doctor, a Specialty Doctor in Homeopathy (advert cached by Zeno)

With prompting from his wife (who was probably sick of him whinging!), @xtaldave decided to apply for the vacancy.  Being a card carrying skeptic and scientist, and partially motivated by the depressing thought that spending years learning real science is not as financially rewarding as just making it all up as you go along, his application was not a serious application. It was designed to ridicule:

“I know lots of scientific and biomedical buzz words with which I can bamboozle prospective patients like ‘medical biomimicry’, ‘postconditioning hormesis’ ‘quantum entanglement’ and ‘the placebo effect.’

It was fun. It made other skeptics laugh. Everyone tweeted about it.

Then there were copycat applications. Zeno is keeping a list up to date. More laughs were had. I particularly liked @garwboy‘s effort in which he gets confused between Placebo (the band) and Placebo (the medical context).

This was skeptical activism at its finest. We were ridiculing an organisation that dare waste limited resources on pseudoscientific nonsense on behalf of patient choice. Perhaps we could even get them to remove the vacancy? Could this work?

Then I saw these tweets from @coxar.

“Skeptics! Why not look an arse by deluging a NHS HR Department with spoof job applications? The harassed junior employee will love you.”

“While you are at it, there are 6 chaplain jobs at Why not apply for them as well?”

This, of course, immediately reminded me of Science Punk’s Westminster Skeptics talk – the skeptical community is communicating badly with the non-skeptical community. @coxar disagreed with the approach being taken and said that, instead, he intended to write to NHS Tayside. That is fine. @coxar‘s approach is good and equally valid. I completely agree with that approach and I hope he does send a letter to NHS Tayside.

[One could argue that the way in which @coxar made his point was from the Frank Swain school of communicating badly with fellow skeptics, but that is a different discussion. :)]

My question: Can’t both approaches be right? Can’t we (as a skeptical community) do both?

The joke applications “went viral”. Yes, lots of people who read them were already in the “skeptical choir”, but not all. The applicants blog statistics show referrals came from non-skeptical sources. Some people, who were not aware of the waste of NHS funds, will now be aware.

If we all had just written a “To whom it may concern” letter to NHS Tayside, one person may have been made aware of our concerns. That one person may have just thrown these letters in the bin.

Yes, the joke applications will almost certainly just be thrown in the bin too.

Back to my question: Which approach is better? Can’t we do both?

We can use humour to quickly raise awareness outside of NHS Tayside, and perhaps amongst NHS Tayside staff too.

We can use the sensible letter approach to talk to the people responsible for the vacancy directly. Now,however, these people can’t just ignore the letters – everyone outside of NHS Tayside has been made aware by the viral nature of the joke applications.

As long as we aren’t being abusive in our approaches, I hope we don’t have to plan and do everything by committee!

Who knows, perhaps the sum of the parts will result in something great? Perhaps with NHS Tayside removing that vacancy.


  1. Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Nano doses of Evidence-based modern homeopathy medicine brings big results for everyone

  2. As usual I agree with everyone. I must stop doing that 😉

  3. “Who knows, perhaps the sum of the parts will result in something great? Perhaps with NHS Tayside removing that vacancy.”

    Or them giving me the job. I’d settle for that too.

  4. Having listened to Placebo for 12 hours straight, I’ve had all the Meds I need to cure my ailments. Thanks for the tip! The only issue I have now is my insomnia (may be as a result of my being faithless?!), though, have it on good authority that Sleeping with Ghosts may be the answer. Can anyone point me in the direction of a credentialed supernaturalist?

  5. I don’t really understand why @coxar’s approach is seen as a call for a different brand of skepticism in any way. He does things his way and has an opinion about the way others do it. What’s the big news?

    The skeptical “movement” in the UK is strong but nowhere near strong enough to justify introspection of this kind.

    @xtaldave’s approach is his own, @coxar’s is his own. If people want to join in with one or the other they do.

    My personal opinion is that we are nowhere near the point where this question becomes important. What’s important now is that individuals and groups do take action. For example Simon Perry’s excellent letter writing campaign, Andy Lewis’ quackometer plus many others some of which I’m involved in.

    Can we please get on with the job in hand? Take action and do it now.



    • My post wasn’t a “a call for a different brand of skepticism”.

      I was trying to essentially make the same point as you – whatever method you choose, it is correct (as long as it’s not abusive, of course).

      I brought it up as @coxar seemed to be suggesting that everyone else was doing it wrong and his way (of sending a letter directly) was the correct way.

      Perhaps I misunderstood. Would be nice if @coxar would add a comment 😉

  6. Well, I was trying to provoke a debate and twitter does not lend itself to subtle argument. 🙂

    The idea of a spoof blog post app to show up the ludicrous nature of the post is fine, but ending up with a campaign of multiple actual applications to the NHS is to my mind pointless and a bit “Look at us!”

    A political example is the by-election where Labor sent people round dressed up as Toffs to show up the Torres. It played well with the activists, but did not go well with the public.

    • Hi Anthony. I hope you are well.

      Is it ever good to ridicule?



  7. I have miscommunicated.

    I didn’t mean to imply you were seeing it that way, although I can see the wording is ambiguous. Probably should read:

    “I don’t really understand why @coxar’s approach should be seen as a call”

    To clarify the first part of my point, I don’t see any reason to make more out of @Coxar’s comments than they are simply his opinion.

    Sorry about the confusion there. I get where you were coming from.



  8. Would also add I am big fan of Dave, and don’t want to suggest I have the correct approach.

  9. Debunked by whom? Oh Skeptics. Skeptics the scientists. Very well.
    Do these have also been debunked?

    British Medical Journal (1991) (2000) //allergic rhinitis

    Chest (2005)//COPD

    And don’t forget…
    I’m just a *LOVE MACHINE*

    • As Monty Python would say:

      Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam! Lovely Spam!

    • Nancy Malik, you are Yoda and I claim my $10!

  10. Kash, a brilliant blog post.
    I agree. Why can’t both approaches be correct?
    This dual approach will cause the profile to be raised more than solely sending letters or solely parodying.

  11. On a more serious note than previous post…

    Humour (occasionally comprising a wee bit of ridicule) is often well placed to raise general awareness in the wider community – as previously stated by others – so as to gain potential support (and critical mass of such) for change to take place in the minds and actions of those with the power to do so. Human nature (assuming they that have the decision making power in whatever instance of misplaced, public funded ‘opportunities’ or similar) typically dictates a cause for consideration, at least, for change.

    Though, when it comes to effective action a more formal approach to said decision makers is most likely required to capitalise on the momentum of change of stance.

    This needs to be, above all, consistent and so the approach needs to be orchestrated.

    My fear (though not – hopefully – clear hope) is that the community of skeptics is so fragmented that such an orchestrated – ergo effective – approach is more a hope than an expectation…

    As much as groups and followers such as readers of this site and others are – in my mind – well intentioned, they/we lack the time and means to bring together similar folk to effect real change.

    This may, on the face of it, sound defeatist, though the very free-thinking, arguably radical (in the sense of the wider community) nature of these people and groups doesn’t lend itself to such co-ordination of like-minded people. Therefore change is a real challenge until such time as congregation and co-operation of such groups is arranged.

    Much the same situation exists, as it does with skepticism regarding homeopathy, in the area of secularism. Despite the valiant efforts of such groups as The Secular Society (hats off to them), real change takes place slowly – if at all – not due to a lack of interested and devout (excuse the phraseology) parties to make ‘appropriate’ change, rather a lack of cohesive action by such disparate yet like-minded groups.

    I welcome any opportunity to learn of – and become part of – any initiative to make positive change in our establishments (be that re: vs homeopathy, religious teachings or similar, which are sadly (increasingly?!) prevalent within our institutions and state….

  12. I think that this initiative of skeptics with applications to Tayside will not succeed. Rather NHSTayside will take a real GP with experience in homeopathy for the position and will ignore other applications. And humor will not save the situation. You can write your application even completely in obscene language or even in Chinese or arsy-versy. They will be accepted, registered, and… nothing will happen else! They will not be considered. And certainly, none of skeptics will receive this position. And none of your appeals will help you! NHS will say: “We have taken for position the person, who is quite suitable to our requirements. Thank you for your efforts. Good-bye, sirs!”. And you will do nothing with it.

    The success of this action would be more probable if the number of applications was more considerable (100-200). It would be a sort of “Streisand effect”. But now the number of applications is too little. It will not be too effective…

    The talk with administration in NHS can turn out useless too. Certainly, I admit that they can turn out the reasonable persons like the administration of NHS in Manchester (this administration abolished the funding of homeopathy). But other outcome is more probable. NHSTayisde can say that they act on the basis of government’s decisions. Unfortunately the parliament, as we know, adopted a decision to continue the state funding of homeopathy. Moreover – the cuts of the staff in different spheres (industry, medicine, science, etc) are a decision of government too.

    Certainly, the actions of skeptics must be continued. Maybe some positive effect will be yet. But better to work on the government. It is necessary to make the government to change its decision about state funding of CAM. How to do it? It is necessary to work in several directions:
    1) to work on your own MP;
    2) to influence on more progressive and clever MPs, who has reasonable opinion and sufficient power. For example, it is well-known, that Julian Huppert is “our” MP. Further – Vince Cable is MP, who demonstrates the sober views and has considerable power both in parliament and outside of it. Et cetera… All these MPs must pull off yet the abolishment of state funding of homeopathy.
    3) to work with both Houses of parliament. For example, it is necessary to “pep up” the Science and Technologies Committee of House of Lords. Its members (scientists!) could make some reasonable actions.
    4) to create a sort of “working group” of skeptics (including former MP, such as Evan Harris, etc) for the work with current MPs. All skeptics and public can influence on MPs by the writings. However the “working group” must obtain the personal meeting with current MPs and to discuss with them the possible actions. Skeptics must not only “press” on MPs. “Working group” of skeptics must question MPs what support from “outside” (from skeptics and public) they would like to get.

    So, it is necessary “to force” the law, i.e. to make MPs to abolish state funding of CAM.

    And analogical measures could be taken for abolishment/decreasing of cuts of staff in science, education, etc. Though this question is more complicated.


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