Archive for the ‘blogging’ Category

In one (y)ear and out the other

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

And just to let you know: I shall refrain from posting an end of year round-up.

I will however, make some predictions for this time next year – in case I am doing a round-up post then.

–  We will all be a year older (On the other hand, considering the alternatives….)

–  I will still feel knackered

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still feel three times as knackered (or more)

–  The kids will still be engaged in their ongoing competition for attention / psychological guerilla war / life-or-death struggle for access to their mothers’ lap

–  Junior Aust will have lost interest in Harry Potter and will instead be telling me the plot of some other complicated book.

–  The house will still be a tip.

–  UK Universities willl still be under financial pressure

–  The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms.

–  I will still be pondering whether it is time to jack in blogging.

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still be mystified as to why I bother blogging at all.

–  The Homeopaths will still be talking utter transcendental raving nonsense.

[a classic recent example is here, which I think should really have the same title as the present post, given the author’s utter imperviousness to reason and reality]

–  So will the rest of the Alternative Medicine Fraternity (be talking nonsense, that is).

–  They will still have the enthusiastic support of Prince Charles, and of various medical grandees who suffer from “knight starvation”, or who crave HRH’s patronage

–  They will still get lots of laughably credulous media coverage, especially in the People’s Medical Journal

Now, I would usually add to this list

“-  I will still be pondering my next series of lectures”

But given what is happening in the Universities, and what is likely to happen this coming year, I’m not at all so sure about that as I would have been even a year ago. One of my best friends and scientific colleagues, who does his own experiments and busily cranks out three papers a year, is taking voluntary early retirement next year.

He is 59.

Several other scientists I know in their mid to late 50s at other Universities have also bailed out. Most of them still had active research programmes and laboratories. One, I hear, has taken a part-time job as a lab technician. Another is teaching physiology in a medical school in Trinidad. Another is writing a book about fishing and working as a fishing guide.

Where that leaves those of us still aboard the Titanic, I mean “in the Universities”, is anyone’s guess.

I guess we will see.

Anyway, in the meantime, and ignoring the dark clouds on the horizon, I thought I should follow the always-excellent Dr Grumble and declare:

“The same procedure as EVERY year!”

Und ein fröhliches neues Jahr!

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

November 10, 2010

Dr Aust, in common with many far better known bloggers, is delighted to host the following, written by scientific libel hero Simon Singh.


“This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at:

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at    ….”

Simon Singh


Some more background – [Dr Aust speaking again]:

As long-time readers (survivors?) of this blog will know, Simon Singh’s defence of the libel claim against him by the British Chiropractic Association eventually ended in a victory for free speech. However, free speech in similar cases remains insecure while the underlying structural problems with the English libel law remain.

From the Judgement of the Court of Appeal in the BCA vs. Singh libel case (via Jack of Kent).

[On matters of libel and scientific controversy]

“We would respectfully 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.”” [para. 34, emphasis added]

Now, it may appear clear from this passage where their Lordships’ view lies. Note though, that this is a suggestion, albeit a strongish one (“adopt”). It is not a law. It is not a part of the judgement that is binding on judges hearing further libel cases.

If you doubt for a moment how dangerous it can still be to speak out on matters of scientific and medical controversy, read this. Or this.

(For more medical-technical coverage of the Wilmshurst case, you could start here – links to further information at the bottom – or on Aubrey Blumsohn’s excellent blog.)

If this appals you – as it does me – then now is your chance to do something about it.

Sign the petition, and encourage others to do so.

The recent Science is Vital campaign shows that issue-based campaigns can move politicians to action.

The more people that sign the libel reform petition, the more the politicians will take notice.

So please sign.

Do it now.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”

– generally attributed to American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978)


PS – 11th Nov: No sooner had all these libel reform posts gone up yesterday, then we went from the depressing to the depressing AND ridiculous with the “boob job cream” libel story: read more here.

You. Couldn’t. Make. It. Up.

Unless you have a product to sell, of course…

It’s three years of Spleen – anyone still out there?

September 22, 2010

In which Dr Aust is vaguely astonished he has kept going this long – and asks readers if they’d like to tell him who is (still) reading.

Amazingly, it is exactly three years today since Dr Aust’s Spleen went live, and three years and a day since the first major post, titled

“Patrick Holfords friend and mentors – but who are they exactly?”

Now, one has to beware of writing “blog landmark” posts, as they obviously:

(i) do not carry information of any great import except to you, the blogger;  and therefore

(ii) almost inevitably make you seem a self-important arse.  (I’m a University lecturer. What did you expect?)

Given this, I have avoided posting any others of this type since the first anniversary celebration. The second anniversary came and went a year ago, as did the 100,000th page load some time over this Summer, and also the 111,000th and the 111,111th. As a middle-aged cricket fan I was almost moved to comment on one or both of those last two, but inertia (rather than modesty) got the better of me.

Anyway, in the three years of the blog’s life, posts have appeared sporadically, but a count of ninety-three averages to somewhere between two and three a month – which probably exceeds what I would have predicted I would manage over the long haul. (I notice it was thirty posts in the first year of operation, so the yearly posting frequency has not changed). This Summer, though, things have been very slow, for which apologies.

Thanks for Commenting. Really.

There have also been 1600-odd (printable) comments on the blog – especially pleasing since I enjoy comments threads much more than actual blogs. Similarly, I find that these days I like the discussions and “unconference” bits of conferences more than the actual set-piece speeches. So I guess I am by nature a conversationalist rather than an essayist. Though perhaps a “monologue-within-conversation-alist” is closer to the truth.

[Alternatively, it might be that my attention span and ability to focus are shot to hell from too many nightly hours of frantic clicking round De Interwebz, like that nice Dr Greenfield keeps warning about.]

Still on the conversation theme, I am one of those people (apparently rare in the blogosphere) who tend to actually read all the way down long comments threads, at least if the topic is something I’m interested in. Perhaps this explains why I don’t actually blog so much. Anyway, even taking the view that several hundred of those 1600+ comments on the blog will have been written by me (!), it is still gratifying to see how many people have come by to comment over the three years. Blogging is, to my way of thinking, in large part a cyberspace conversation initiated by the post itself; so without the comments the whole thing would lose much of its point. This is a live issue at the moment, as talk in the blogosphere is that commenting on blogs generally is down, with some people attributing this to the “conversations” moving over to Twitter. I reckon there is some truth to this, which makes me all the more delighted that threads here still have comments and discussion.

There has also, of course, been a ton of spam, which outnumbers real comments about ten to one. Though thankfully the filters catch most of it.

Now, inevitably with time one does tend to get a bit stale as a blogger – or other sort of writer. I even spotted Gimpy opining the other day over at his Posterous site that perhaps bloggers ought to be compulsorily shut down after a certain number of posts.

“Maybe a solution is to have some sort of Logan’s Run style time limit on bloggers. After 5 years or 500 posts bloggers should retire….or be retired?”

..though of course he was saying this as a solution to the perceived problem of bloggers becoming too popular. Which is unlikely to be a problem here.

One approach to combat the staleness is to try to change things a bit every now and again. So for instance, a few months past the first anniversary I tried a Diary page (modelled fairly consciously on David Colquhoun’s one) which I updated sporadically for a year before I ran out of steam around last Christmas.

Or one could try to alter the subject matter a bit. In the first anniversary post I wrote:

“When I started [blogging] I did think I would try and blend science explaining in with the snarking, but I have the feeling that over the last six months or so snarking has become rather dominant. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, because explaining science is my day job, it is less attractive as an off-duty blog-hobby.”

I think the preponderance of snark over science has probably been maintained through years two and three – though looking over the posts, the ones that have tended to be most read were often the ones with the most scientific explanation-type content. So perhaps more science exposition would be a possibility.

Let’s hear from you. De-lurk!

And that last sentence brings me back to commenters. And to readers.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where there was an extended discussion of science and the internet, including blogging. The subject of what audience one was writing for got an airing. One very well known science blogger offered the opinion that one of the best things he had ever done was to have an annual “delurk”  or Open Thread – basically one where he asked his readers to tell him something about themselves, so that he could get an idea of who his audience were.

So – over to you. Who are you (no real names, of course, unless you want to leave them – I mean things like profession and level of science education, if any), and why do you read the blog? And are there any things you would like more of, or less of? More science? Or less? Less pseudoscience and alternative medicine? More academic life? Did you like the currently-in-abeyance Diary?

Anyway, while I am thinking about what I could do in the way of renewal, all comments (as ever) gratefully received. Especially if  you are a reader-but-not-commenter-til-now.

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.


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.


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.