Interview with Heather Pentler – Committee Member, Edinburgh Skeptics

by | January 5, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Heather Pentler is a Committee Member of the Edinburgh Skeptics. Here she talks about her life and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was personal and family background regarding culture, geography, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Heather Pentler:
I was baptised Roman Catholic, my mum was raised Greek Orthodox but lived agnostically. She couldn’t quite shake the indoctrination and didn’t want to risk condemning us to hell if she was wrong, so I was baptised.

My dad was a staunch atheist and scientist. They always left it up to us to decide. I think I was about 6/7 when I gave up on the idea completely. My mum’s family was Ukrainian and that was a big influence in my early life.

We used to celebrate all the festivals with the Ukrainian community near us but that always felt more about the community and the rituals than religion. I have never been able to grasp languages, unfortunately, but I did attend Ukrainian lessons until I was 8 but can’t remember much more than the odd word.

Jacobsen: How did autism/Asperger’s impact early life (please specify which as I am unsure which, or even if)? How did this become part of personal identity and change trajectories in life as well?

I am not, as far as I know, autistic myself. I work for my day job as an autism support worker, working with university students. I never had much interaction with autism until I started working there 3 years ago.

Since working there I have received extensive training on autism and learnt a lot from speaking to my students. The isolation and feeling different from your peers can be an intrinsic part of autistic person’s life but every autistic person is different so it may not be the same for everyone.

Quite a lot of the people I work with don’t receive a diagnosis until later in their lives, this can sometimes make their childhood make much more sense as they understand now why they didn’t fit into the neurotypical world.

Jacobsen: In Edinburgh, who are the perennial fraudsters? Who are upcoming or new ones? How can the public protect themselves and others from their bogus salesmanship?

Pentler: We have the same usual assortment of acupuncturists and reflexologists. Most places are careful with what they publish so there’s little action that can be taken. There’s a regular alternative medicine fair which we have attended a few times, to check on what they are selling. We attempted to get a stall there with full disclosure of who we were but they were apparently “full”.

There is one practitioner of an alternative practice in Edinburgh which I’ve not heard of elsewhere called German New Medicine, it’s a basic mind over matter methodology that claims that illness is caused by trauma and if you can resolve that trauma you’ll be fine.

The main thing people can do to protect themselves is question if something sounds too good to be true it probably is, so question it. Also just because it’s natural or ancient doesn’t make it safe or effective.

Questioning claims by anyone is good practice especially if it feeds into your preconceived biases. This is more important today for news consumption than anything else. Check a story before you share it, nobody wants to inadvertently spread propaganda.

Jacobsen: What makes the human brain distinctly capable of believing patent nonsense? For example, what are some of the nonsensical purported cures for autism/Asperger’s?

Pentler: Hope. That’s what makes it so insidious. The purveyors of alternative treatments sell false hope to desperate people. I have a lupus and having a chronic illness is really shit (replace with “awful” if you don’t want swearing) I frequently can’t sleep and I am in a lot of pain, it’s limited my career opportunities and future plans.

If I genuinely thought there was a magic cure I’d do anything to have it. I describe coming to terms with an illness, physical or mental as grief. You grieve for the life you will no longer have. Grief can make the best of us do crazy things.

The people who take up these treatments shouldn’t be treated with scorn or derision, they have made a choice that made sense to them in their circumstances. The people who misled them and fed them hope of cure are the only people who should have any repercussion for their actions.

In the case of autism, it mostly comes from parents. I imagine they are grief stricken that the life they thought their child would have is not their reality and try to find something to change it. I hope in time there is greater societal acceptance of neurodiversity and parents will find it easier to accept their child for who they are.

There are fantastic things that autistic people bring to the world and we need to be more accepting as a society. Autism doesn’t need to be cured, the neurotypical reaction to autism needs to change.

Jacobsen: What is the true architecture of pseudoscience? How does this relate to cults, cult-like behavior, and fundamentalist ideologies?

Pentler: Easy answers. The world is complicated and confusing, pseudoscience and cults explain everything in a singular theory that is easier to get your head around than the complicated truth. It can also give people a greater sense of purpose, not everyone can cope with the fact that we individually matter very little.

It reminds of the Total Perspective Vortex in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the idea that we are so insignificant in the majesty of the whole universe is difficult for our narcissistic brains to cope with (unless you’re Zaphod Beeblebrox in a universe of your own making).

Cults, religion, pseudoscience usually give humans a special place that’s easier to swallow than the truth that as far as we can tell our existence is just a blip in the grand scale of things.

It also gives a purpose, the vast majority of us are not going to leave an impact on the world, being part of something bigger than yourself can make someone feel like they have a legacy. It’s easier to believe that our existence is purposeful rather than random.

Humans are good at spotting patterns and that can lead us down wrong paths because there’s not always a pattern to follow. That urge to make connections accounts for conspiratorial thinking, pseudoscience and religion.

Someone who makes the connection that homeopathic remedy that took cured their headache is falling for the same fallacy as the person who thinks their prayers do anything.

Jacobsen: Why was Edinburgh Skeptics founded in 2009? How has it evolved over time? Also, what are the approximate demographics of its membership or audience?

Pentler: I wasn’t part of the founding, in fact none of the current committee were. From what I understand it was started around the same time as other groups in the country and at the urging of their first speaker Chris French (he’s a parapsychologist who helps run the UK Skeptic magazine).

They got involved in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the following year in 2010. We run a 23 night run of talks in August as part of the Fringe Festival in the city. I have only been in Edinburgh since 2014.

So I can’t really speak to what it was like before I moved here. The current demographics tend to be older 45+ and we have a pretty even gender split. Our Facebook analytics tell us our gender divide is 55% male 43% female which makes us happy. We try to ensure we have at least half our speakers be female when we can.

Jacobsen: Edinburgh Skeptics has podcasts, a newsletter, a blog, and events. How does each of these help with providing for the needs of the skeptic community in Edinburgh? How does this relate to other skeptic communities within Scotland as a whole?

Pentler: The podcast and newsletter both run around the events. The podcast is predominantly recordings of the talks we have had and the newsletter mostly announces upcoming events. Our events are a place for people to get together and develop a community. We also put on a stall at a local weekend festival in a park.

There we use horoscopes and paradoleia to explain some basic principles of skepticism to people who may not have encountered it before. There are usually stalls belonging to local chiropractors and acupuncturists so we like to bring a bit of rationalism to the festival.

We do this to try and engage with new and different audiences rather than just preaching to the choir. Our events are a chance for people to enjoy being part of the choir. We are relaunching our website in 2019 and hope to have more blog posts on the new website.

As the biggest and most well funded group in Scotland we try to help and share cost where we can. We’re very close to the group in Glasgow and will often share speakers and split expenses. The other 2 groups in Scotland are unfortunately dormant at the moment. The smaller cities struggle especially as travel expenses can be very high to the furthest north cities.

Jacobsen: What makes some faiths and fundamentalisms more dangerous than others, when things stop being humorous in their absurdity?

Pentler: I think any faith that encourages isolationism is dangerous. Humans worked best together and develop the best ideas through exchanging thoughts.

If you look at it too hard even the humorously absurd ideas are dangerous because it demonstrates that detachment from reality which makes more dangerous actions more likely. I think The Book of Mormon is the best and funniest musical ever written though.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more recent updates happening for 2019 for Edinburgh Skeptics? What are some of the prominent pseudoscientific and fraudulent claims in Scottish society? Who are some the prominent fakers in Scottish society, who need calling out by name and their fraudulent practices?

Pentler: We are doing some exciting things in 2019. We are launching a skeptical fact of the day with a different skeptically related fact or concept everyday. Having been involved in skepticism for so long it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what a Barnum statement is or what homeopathy actually is.

We are hoping this will be good outreach and introduce different ideas to people. We are also running our 500th(ish) event with science comedian Robin Ince who hosts the BBC Radio Four show Infinite Monkey Cage with physicist Brian Cox.

We are trying a new type of event for the International Science Festival in Edinburgh this year and hosting a cabaret night with science, magic and comedy.  It will also be our 10th Fringe run which will try to mark with a prestigious line up.

We would like to work with The Good Thinking Society to get homeopathy off the NHS in Scotland as they have managed in England and Wales. We don’t manage to do as much as we would like in terms of activism. Our committee is only 4 people and we all work day jobs as well, so we don’t always have the time/energy to do as much as we want to.

Jacobsen: Why is the phrase “respect people, challenge ideas” important to the Edinburgh Skeptics ethos?

Pentler: We felt it was important to not be arseholes. There was an issue in skepticism of people being derogatory to people who had fallen for alternative medicine or believed in the paranormal.

Here at Edinburgh we try to encourage people not to direct your anger at the people following the ideas but direct it at the ideas themselves. Calling someone gullible for taking homeopathy won’t win people over.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Heather.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Photo by Clark Wilson on Unsplash

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