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4th April 2021

Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and web 2.0 a simple online search can reveal information unknown to experts and the media alike. This information can be used to combat the spread of disinformation, demand accountability from those in power, and inform a new generation of citizen journalists, and that’s where Eliot Higgins comes in.

Higgins, rejecting the cyber-miserablist view that the internet is the source of all evil in the modern world, believes the digital era offers new opportunities. Founding Bellingscat he laid the foundation for the entirely new field of online open-source investigation, which combines criminal investigation, rights advocacy, and investigative reporting.

Bellingscat kicked off with a bang by exposing Russian military involvement in the downing of Flight MH17, then discovered Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizen, identified ISIS supporters across Europe and neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, before turning their attention outing Russian spies...

And, if you think you can handle even more truth then join Cambridge Skeptics: Live! for a discussion of some subjects that have piqued our interest during the long lockdown days:

Erika Nitsch will be pondering on the origins and spread of HIV/AIDS in a previous pandemic.
• Sam Livingston will be considering important factors for a good voting system, without getting too political.

The conversation will commence at 7:00pm (BST) on Tuesday, 6th April on our YouTube channel; you know you want it.

Cambridge Skeptics

How to Hunt Russian Spies
from the Comfort of Your Own Home
with Eliot Higgins
Thursday, 8th April 2021 at 7:00pm
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins explains how Bellingcat investigators uncovered the real identities of the Skripal suspects, linked their team to another European assassination attempt, uncovered Russia's secret Novichok programme, exposed the FSB team that poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and uncovered a Russian domestic nerve agent assassination programme targeting multiple individuals, all from the comfort of their own homes.

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat, a multi-award winning collective of online open-source investigators.

Useful Links:
Bellingcat, the home-grown investigative unit, is redefining the way we think about news, politics and the digital future. Here, their founder – a high-school dropout on a kitchen laptop – tells the story of how they created a whole new category of information-gathering, galvanising citizen journalists across the globe to expose war crimes and pick apart disinformation, using just their computers.

From the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine to the sourcing of weapons in the Syrian Civil War and the identification of the Salisbury poisoners, We Are Bellingcat digs deep into some of Bellingcat's most successful investigations. It explores the most cutting-edge tools for analysing data, from virtual-reality software that can build photorealistic 3D models of a crime scene, to apps that can identify exactly what time of day a photograph was taken.

In our age of uncertain truths, Bellingcat is what the world needs right now – an intelligence agency by the people, for the people.

Eliot Higgins tells Daniel Bennett of the BBC Science Focus Podcast the story of how a group of amateur hobbyists ended up taking on Russian spies.
How did Bellingcat beat media giants to revelations about the downing of a Malaysian airline and the Skripal poisonings? Founder Eliot Higgins reveals some of his methods to Cathy Otten of Big Issue North.
Bellingcat’s founder Elliot Higgins reveals to Daniel Bennett of the BBC Science Focus how the internet has reinvented investigation, how it helped his team discover who shot down flight MH17 and why now, more than ever, we need an intelligence agency for the people.
The founder of the online investigative collective Bellingcat talks to Luke Harding of the Guardian about working with Alexei Navalny, open source reporting and the trouble with ‘cyber-miserablism’.
Don't Get the Wrong Idea!
Piaget Says You Have a Mind Like a Mollusc
When Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget set out to understand the nature of knowledge, after finding out one of his earliest memories was a false one, he did so, as his own theory would have predicted (had he had it to hand at the time), based on his background in zoology. The theory he developed helps explain why personal experiences are not to be relied upon when forming beliefs.
Illustration by Sophie Corrigan
Cognitive development, Piaget hypothesised, must just be another biological process, like those of the molluscs he studied (and published on) from childhood to doctorate. Equilibrium, the preferred state of any organisms, is achieved in this development, he concluded, through the basic biological mechanisms of organisation and adaption.

The organisational part of the theory, which we can call knowledge, comes from schemata, a concept adapted from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Schemata are mental frameworks created through interaction with the environment, which are, in turn, used for the interpretation of new interactions. A basic schema of a snail for example might include concepts such as small, slow-moving, spiral-shaped shells, tentacles, slime trails, and, depending on your culinary background, edible.

Just as the digestive processes of the snail allow it to adapt the decaying organic matter that it feeds upon into something it can use, so adaptive processes, which we can call intelligence, are also needed to allow new experiences to be fitted with the pre-existing schemata. Failure to achieve such adaption resulting in an uncomfortable state of disequilibrium.

Piaget proffers two processes for the purpose of achieving this adaptation:

  • Assimilation is the process of taking new experience and adapting it to fit into the existing schemata. A giant African snail, for example, may be somewhat different to the garden snails most of us built our snail schema upon, but it can be assimilated with minimal adaptation.
  • Accommodation is the process of taking existing schemata and adapting them to new experiences. A slug, for example, is so significantly different from the garden snail upon which our snail schema was built that disequilibrium can only be avoided by creating an entirely new schema for it.

These twin processes are based on our own unique schemata and are thus highly subjective.

In order to avoid the discomfort of disequilibrium and the additional effort of accommodation we tend to prefer experience which assimilates easily into our existing schemata (confirmation bias) and to misinterpret those that do not in such a way that they do. Thus, either way, personal experience is far more likely to reinforce existing beliefs than change them.

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

So, Ive Been Thinking...
Resistance Is Futile: You Will Be Assimilated
Fears of Borg-style assimilation stirred up by CBN News’s mostly accurate reporting of RFID chips and vaccines, discussed previously, can best be seen in a version of the video shared and, judging by the watermarking, re-edited by Elizabeth Johnston, aka Activist Mommy. A quick comparison of this to the original reveals how apparently innocuous statements can be re-interpreted to fit with existing beliefs through Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s own process of assimilation.
Only around a minute and a half of carefully re-edited footage from the original CBN News interview appears in the Johnston version, titled Vaccine In Development With "Optional" Tracking Microchip. Much of this redux’s three-minute runtime is instead taken up with title cards, which, in suspicious subversion of the screenwriting aphorism “show, don’t tell”, give us an, at best, creative summary of what was actually said in the edited out sections.

The first such intertitle introduces us to Jay Walker, somewhat miscast as an evil CEO, and his company’s nefarious plan for, “mass delivery of vaccines with microchip technology”. These plot points are later backed up with carefully selected clips of Walker talking about long-term goals first for America and then the world, and of the interviewer promising to keep an eye on his new technology, referring to the pre-filled syringes, not the chips as we are seemingly misled to believe.

The chip, we are informed by the next intertitle, “would give officials information on who has and has not been vaccinated,” a claim in direct contrast to Walker’s actual statement at that point in the interview. “That chip only refers to the dose,” he states, “there’s no personal information, no patient information”. An actual part of this stock control chips’ real use, to provide information on when the vaccine doses expire, is, however, quietly tagged on to the end of the title card with a quick “as well as”. 
“The chip tracks the location of the patient,” the intertitles continue, “so that official can know where the vaccinated patients are,” again in direct contrast with Walker’s actual statement. “It’s simply like a barcode,” he states, “only we know instantaneously where and when that dose has been used.” Once again a little of the real value of this information, in allowing logistical allocation of the vaccine doses to the areas where they are most needed, is stirred in to the mix, presumably for the sake of authenticity.

These intertitles reach an ominous conclusion with the statement, “Walker says the chip is optional,” which the inverted commas in the title have already prepared us to distrust. The option in question is not, however, if we want to have this chip injected into us, as the re-edit would seemingly have us believe, but rather, as Walker makes clear, whether or not the government wants to pay the additional cost for this fancy stock-control option. Hardly a concern we need inverted commas for.

Ironically, this apparently deliberately misleading re-edit was far from necessary, as a quick scan of the original video’s comment section or even of those debunking the claims, such those by VERIFY and CBN News itself, and show that these misinterpretations were already being made. As Piaget has informed us, the mental frameworks (schemata) and ability to adapt new information (assimilation) into those frameworks needed to mislead us are things we already possess as a simple matter of biology.

Chris Gyford, Cambridge Skeptics

While Mandela Effect believers seek fantastic explanations, the mundane truth is that our memories are far less reliable than we'd like to believe, writes Mark Horne for The Skeptic.
The question of who gets to decide how boundaries are set in society can often be a way to distract from efforts to change the status quo, writes Aaron Rabinowitz for The Skeptic.
As historians continue to deconstruct the myth of the Dark Ages, we shouldn't be so fast to write off the intelligence of our ancestors, writes David Mountain for The Skeptic.
Join host Andy Wilson for this live-streamed April Fool's Day edition of the skeptical-themed panel show InKredulous. This event, which was streamed live on 1st April 2021, is now available for catch up on the SitP Online YouTube channel.
In case you missed it, and we've seen the viewing figures so we know you did, you can now catch up with the pilot for Cambridge Skeptics Live on our YouTube channel.
Cambridge Skeptics is a not-for-profit community organisation run by volunteers. To support our online presence during the pandemic, we are currently looking for:
  • Blog / Newsletter Contributors
  • Social Media Posters
  • Online Events Co-ordinators
Please get in touch if you'd like to get involved.

We are a coalition of UK-based Skeptics groups. Formed as the COVID-19 pandemic brought our country to a standstill, we are working to deliver high-quality online events focusing on Science, reason, and critical thinking. Every Thursday at 7 pm BST, you will find us presenting live-streamed talks, all for free – you don’t even need to create an account. Simply open up Take a look at our events, past and future, we’re sure you’ll see a lot of content you will find interesting.
The Good Thinking Society is a nonprofit organisation promoting scientific scepticism established by Simon Singh in September 2012. ​The society aims to raise awareness of and fund sceptical projects. The goal of the society is 'to encourage curiosity and promote rational thinking'. In partnership with its advisory board the organisation has run several successful campaigns promoting public awareness of such issues. To find out more about The Good Thinking Society, please visit

The Cambridge Humanist Group is a welcoming and diverse community of atheists and secularists. We are committed to good company and a good life without religion. We stand up for the right of non-believers to be free from imposition by religious views and organisations. We run Sunday coffee mornings at CB2 Bistro, hold a pub social at a central Cambridge venue on most 1st Thursdays of the month, hold discussions and various social events throughout the year.

The Cambridge Alehouse Philosophers are a group of people who enjoy talking about ideas, and who are philosophically inclined or would like to find out more about philosophy. Once per month, one of our members will prepare a short talk for the evening and discussions will start to spin off from that; we also have organised debates; otherwise, we simply meet up for a sociable chat. Everyone is welcome, we have absolute beginners to philosophy as well as people who been involved in the subject for some time.

The effective altruism community is a global community of people who care deeply about the world, make benefiting others a significant part of their lives, and use evidence and reason to figure out how best to do so. In Cambridge, our local effective altruism community runs plenty of events each week, including lectures, workshops, discussion groups, socials and trips away.
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