Archive for April, 2010

An outbreak of crankiness – UPDATED

April 12, 2010

In which Dr Aust gets a bit irked

As I was idly musing on something or other earlier today, a Tweet directed me to a rather ill-judged (in my view) post on a BBC site by Science Media Centre Director Fiona Fox.

Here is a bit of what Fox wrote:

“I was at City University’s School of Journalism to present the main findings of the Science Media Centre report on the future of science in the media. Not for the first time I sat next to brilliant science reporters who insisted that any old blogger could do what they do and that the blogosphere is teaming with people reporting, investigating and telling truth to power as well as, if not better than, journalism does.

Despite the fact that most of the panel and almost the entire audience were against me, I’m not buying it. I know I always sound like some ancient Luddite in this discussion… but I think there is a difference between journalism and blogging…

Don’t get me wrong, I love blogs – both as writer and reader. My life is hugely enriched by the daily updates from my own favourite bloggers, but they are not engaged in journalism. Most blogs are self-consciously the strongly held views of opinionated people about their chosen topics.

In fact, that’s precisely the beauty of them. In the old days, if the Guardian or Telegraph rejected our rantings, the world would probably never hear them. Now we have created our own medium to get our brilliant insights out there. And of course some blogs may be true, and some may even nod to objectivity and balance, but the blogosphere would be a sadly diminished place if every view expressed had to be balanced, fact-checked, sub-edited and all those other peculiarities of good journalism. In other words, blogs work to a separate set of rules.”

Now, some of what Fiona Fox says about blogs is undoubtedly true, especially their being more opinionated than articles in the mainstream press. But in science terms, I think her defence of the old media against the new lacks credibility. Does anyone really recognise the picture of mainstream reporting that she paints? I would say there are probably half a dozen mainstream media science writers in the UK whose stuff strikes me as worth reading. Most of the other science stories are re-heated press releases, which I (like a lot of scientists) only read so that I can grumble about them. And don’t get me started about the coverage of issues like vaccination, or cancer, in places like the Express or the People’s Medical Journal Daily Mail.

And my friends in the medical blogosphere, like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor, would, I suspect, likely be even more outspoken about mainstream media coverage of healthcare stories bearing approximately zero relationship to reality.

Anyway, in splenetic mood (too much coffee?) I posted the following riposte under Fox’s article :

“To say “blogging is not journalism” is a rather meaningless statement as it depends on what definition of  “journalism” one picks, surely?

A rather important point is that in blogging about science the bloggers are often people who know far more about science than the journalists who cover it. This is one of the reasons why blog coverage of scientific stories is often far more accurate and informed than what appears in the mainstream media.

Indeed it seems to me, from reading the works of the mainstream media science correspondents, that the ones whose copy is generally more accurate are the ones who follow the science blogs. I wonder what that is telling us?

This also has analogies in other areas; the Jack of Kent blog (written by a lawyer) has been the major source for information on the BCA v Simon Singh libel case, and has quite clearly been a major source for the print and broadcast media journalists covering the story.”

As I said, what Fox says is not all off-base. Later in her piece she stresses:

“the… need for journalism to do its job – to select, verify, correct, edit, analyse, balance and all those old-fashioned things that journalists are trained to do.”

And on that, I think, she and I are in total agreement. And if journalists writing about science actually did this, I don’t suppose there would be nearly as much of a Bad Science blogosphere.

And I might get to watch a lot more TV.

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UPDATE  April 14th:

One of my fellow Bad Science bloggers, that indefatigable nonsense-sleuth Gimpy,  directs my attention to the National Union of Journalists’ rather stirring Code of Conduct.

Gimpy, who has more reason than most to feel that journalists have “lifted” his efforts without attribution,  comments:

“I think most of us would agree that this, if applied, would solve many of modern journalism’s reputational difficulties.”

We are struggling, though, to think of exactly which journalists we have come across whose efforts live up to it. Of course, that may not be entirely the journalists’ fault, see Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News.

Getting back to Fiona Fox’s comments at the meeting – as she herself admits on the BBC site, they prompted quite a lot of disagreement from her audience and from the actual journalists present. You can find an excellent write-up on the blog A Life of Pi here, and another extended summary here.  Life of Pi blogger Harriet Vickers asks the pertinent question:

“Rather than trying to draw distinct line between who can and can’t claim to be a journalist, isn’t it better to focus on who practices journalistic values?”

Which brings us nicely back to Gimpy’s link to the NUJ’s Code of Conduct. The Code that one only wishes the people who write “Health and Lifestyle” stories for the mid-market tabloids would read. Repeatedly.

Anyway, to avoid going round in circles all day, the general take from most of the bloggers, and seemingly quite a few of the paid science journalists, is that there is no really meaningful distinction between what journalists do and what bloggers do, and that the argument is thus futile.  In this view, it comes down to whether what you write is good science writing – in which, as writer/blogger Ed Yong articulates here, accuracy,  truth and independence play a major part – or bad science writing.

Works for me.

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PS   Fiona Fox has her own blog, On Science and the Media. The latest entry there actually deals with the argument about mainstream science reporting, describing, inter alia, Fox’s being on a panel with Ben Goldacre. As you will see from the first comment, Ben and Fiona do not agree.

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Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk – UPDATED

April 7, 2010

In which Dr Aust embraces a small bit of activism, though without rising from a sitting position.

As some readers will know, following the damning (and admirably well reasoned) House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report on Homeopathy, long-time Pro-Unreality campaigner David Tredinnick MP (noted, inter alia, for claiming his astrology CDs on expenses as “research materials”) put down an Early Day Motion. Said Early Day Motion, EDM 908, asks MPs to support the idea that local Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) – the main “gatekeepers” in the National Health Service of what treatments are acceptable – should continue to be able to contract for homeopathy services.

This EDM has attained a certain amount of fame online, with Ben Goldacre and other Bad Science and/or Pro-Rationality types (e.g. Professor David Colquhoun) noting that it gives you a quick way to tell if your MP really understands the concept of scientific evidence. Or as Ben more pithily puts it:

“Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”

Obviously at election time these issues come to have more of a significance – especially given the oft-expressed sentiment, which I have heard from quite a few of my friends and colleagues, that the main UK parties are so indistinguishable on many issues that it is hard to see any point which way you vote. This is especially noticeable on healthcare, as anyone who follows UK medical blogs like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor will know. I think I personally expressed this not so long ago as it being  “hard to get a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on their attitude to the NHS” (particularly their mystifying enthusiasm for more private sector involvement in UK healthcare, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Times Science Editor Mark Henderson wrote an interesting opinion piece a few days ago in which he argued that one could and should distinguish, regardless of political affiliation, MPs that were generally “pro-science”. The obvious implication would be that this might give one a reason to vote for a particular candidate, or at least to quiz all the candidates in one’s constituency on their position on scientific issues.

Now, when I looked at the list of signatories to Tredinnick’s EDM 908 I was rather disappointed to see my own MP, who is generally pretty sane on most things, on the list. So I sat down to write them a letter explaining my unhappiness. I should say that I have written to said MP a few times before, the issues that prompted me being:

– the attempt in late 2006 by some religious groups to blizzard schools with pro-“Intelligent Design” literature

– the May 2008  House of Commons vote on stem cell research (and time limits for termination of pregnancy)

–  the BCA v Singh case and more generally the campaign for libel reform.

So it seemed like about time for my annual letter to the MP. Anyway, here is what I penned and sent off last night.

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Dear xxxxxxx

As one of your constituents I was disappointed to see that you had signed David Tredinnick MP’s EDM 908 on NHS support for homeopathy.

As a scientist, and the husband of an NHS doctor, I feel strongly that homeopathy has no place in the NHS. As my wife says, when other services – things like health visitors, and home occupational therapy services for people housebound with disabilties – are under threat due to financial shortages, it is indefensible to be spending money on placebo therapies. Even if the actual amount is small, it could be better used elsewhere. Funding homeopathy on the NHS has no place in the era of basing medical treatments on evidence.

Moving to evidence, from a scientific standpoint the EDM, like the evidence the homeopaths gave to the recent Science and Technology Select Committee Hearing on homeopathy, is misleading. In any discussion weighting scientific and medical evidence, the simple NUMBER of published results is not the most important thing. It is the quality of the data – things like the size of the trial (number of patients enrolled) and in particular a trial’s freedom from obvious biases – that counts. Simply totting up the number of trials is a bit like assessing the value of the ideas in a book by asking how many pages it has. The overall verdict on homeopathy is quite clear, and that is that it is no more than a placebo.

Mr Tredinnick does not appear to understand the idea of scientific evidence, and has a long history of bizarre pronouncements on health matters, such as commending astrology and suggesting it is worthy of consideration as a health intervention. His views on the subject of Alternative Medicine are regarded, by every doctor or scientist I have ever discussed them with, as utterly partisan and wholly at odds with the evidence.

The provision of homeopathy is often defended as a matter of “choice”. I should say that I am entirely happy that people CHOOSE to use their own money to visit a homeopath, in the same way that they can choose to join a health club, take a spa break, or patronise a fortune teller. It is clearly their right to do so. But funding such things from the public purse is something else.

Could I ask you to please re-consider whether you wish to support EDM 908.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Aust

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I have so far received the form “received your email” reply from my MP’s office, noting that it is a very busy time so a proper reply may take a while. Given the imminent election they have more of a point than usual. But I will let you know when I hear anything, and add any replies below.

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UPDATE April 9th.

Hurrah! – I am gratified to see that my MP has removed their signature from the EDM.

Though I wouldn’t presume to claim the credit – I suspect s/he was getting admonished (or let us say “informed” )  by sceptical members of his/her own parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, to see the kind of crap that is going on in the NHS as it struggles, under political Diktat, to make cuts whilst simultaneously saying “there will be no cuts”, see here.

And fear not, the Peoples’ Medical Journal knows what is needed in healthcare. This tragic story manages to suggest it is the Tories, while this one suggests hypnotherapy. *sigh*

Off-topic PS: For those interested in the Daily Fail’s tragic-cancer-patient-can’t-get-drug-due-to-Labour-NHS-meanness story alluded to above:

(i) a response from Sir Michael Rawlins of NICE (I can’t quite tell if he is bemused, or angry, or both – though I suspect the latter) ;

(ii) note that the Daily Fail story quotes Karol Sikora. Enough said.

Crystalline stuff – but it’s NOT Woo

April 6, 2010

In  which Dr Aust greets a newbie (ish) to the Sceptical Blogoverse

It is always nice to welcome a new blogger to the Bad Science blogosphere – especially when the blogger is:

(i) A proper scientist (works in a lab, and that stuff)
(ii) Someone you’ve actually met
(iii) Doing a nice job of debunking the Magic Beans Shaking Water Brigade, aka the Homeopaths.

In which context, it is a pleasure to see fellow skeptical drinker “Xtal Dave” now live and blogging on WordPress, having transferred his blog over from his old spot at Posterous.

If you are wondering what this has to do with crystals, as per the title, Dave is an X-ray crystallographer (and a biochemist, but we won’t hold that against him).

Dave is, in fact, the second blogging x-ray crystallographer I know, the first being the excellent Professor Stephen Curry, who blogs at Reciprocal Space.

“Xtal” is a sort of reduced scientists’ shorthand for “Crystal”, if you were wondering.

Anyway, Dave has moved his blog archive, which stretches back to late Autumn, over from Posterous, so do go and check it out.

Stop Press: Simon Singh wins Appeal Court ruling on meaning

April 1, 2010

Wonderful news from the Court of Appeal this morning.

Simon Singh has won his “appeal on meaning”. He will now be allowed to argue, in defence of the libel claim brought against him personally by the British Chiropractic Association, that his remarks were “fair comment”.

Jack of Kent’s Twitter feed is the go-to source for the details. He has given a few selected lines from the judgement, which I will repeat here:

“[Singh’s phrase] “not a jot of evidence”…[is] a statement of opinion, and one backed by reasons”

And:

“[the word] “bogus”…[is] more emphatic than assertive”

– referring, of course, to the much debated b-word;

“Once..”jot” [is perceived]..as a value judgment…[the use of the word] “happily” loses its sting…[giving it a meaning approximating] blithely”

(recall that the main phrase the BCA and Eady J found libellous in Singh’s article was:  “The BCA… happily… promotes bogus treatments”)

The Appeal Justices also commented that the BCA’s bringing and pursuit of the case gave the

“Unhappy impression… [of an] endeavour by BCA to silence one of its critics”

Which, of course, has been the opinion of pretty much everyone, excepting chiropractors and a few other alternative medicine types, right from Day One.

And which, since we are back to talking about “Fair Comment”, gives me an excuse to plug my first extended dissertation on the case, written way back in August 2008.

Back in the Bunker, meanwhile, it appears that the BCA are now considering whether to attempt to appeal today’s ruling on meaning, according to a statement they have issued.

Anyway, we are promised the full ruling on Jack of Kent’s website ASAP.  Since Jack tells us it quotes Milton and George Orwell, I am rather looking forward to it. (Since I started writing this, Index on Censorship have uploaded the PDF version of the whole judgement).

[Update: the full ruling is now online in a more easily readable form here. It is well worth a read. The Justices are clearly men of classical education, as apart from Orwell and Milton, Galileo gets a mention. This is particularly apt as it is a regular gambit of Alt Medicine types to liken themselves to Galileo, a tactic which has been termed “The Galileo Gambit” – see also here.]

One of the final paragraphs of the judgement, paragraph 34, bears specifically on the question of scientific issues in the courts, and is worth re-typing in full:

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34. We would respecfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy. Underwager v Salter 22 Fed 3d 730 (1994):

“Plaintiffs cannot, by simply filing suit and crying “character assassination!”, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. …More papers, more discussion, better data and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us”


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…And I certainly can’t think of many (any?) scientists who would disagree with that.

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APPENDIX: SELF-PUBLICIST CORNER

Since no self-respecting blogger misses a chance of a bit of “Self-Biggin'”, here are links to the full collection of my coverage of the Singh case, right from the beginning:

Back Quack crack attack – it’ s a legal matter baby – detailed amateur legal analysis from August 2008, plus some musing on libel tourism.

It’s Quiet – too quiet – an end-of-2008 round up, wondering what had become of the case and discussing Singh’s proposed defence and the nature of CAM belief.

Truly Much Bogosity – some thoughts on the Eady ruling on meaning of May last year, the much-debated word “bogus”, and the chilling effect of English Libel Law.

Back Crack Quack Attack – the song – sadly as yet unrecorded, though it did gain me the scorn of a rather serious person styling themself “Cochrane Reviewer” over at Science Punk.

BCA say they want scientific debate – bears eschew woods for proper flush toilets and soft toilet paper – Dr Aust’s lower mandible almost dislocates under the jaw-dropping effect of a startling BCA press release in June 2009.

Stop Press – Simon Singh granted leave to appeal Oct 14th 2009 – Dr Aust enjoys the excellent news – with various updates through the day.

BCA v Singh – (unexploded?) literary devices – Dr Aust muses whether Simon Singh might have simply got his paragraphs the wrong way round.  “You stand accused, Mr Singh, of the Reckless and Dangerous Use of Rhetorical Devices– also from last October.

Chiropraktischer Untergang – updated with added Sturm und Drang – A bit of pre-Christmas fun. Dr Aust has a good laugh as someone does the inevitable chiropractic Downfall parody.