Archive for the ‘ruling idiocies’ Category

Satire is dead. Have a burger.

November 12, 2010

One of my satirical and musical heroes, the great Tom Lehrer, was famously quoted as saying that political satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am having something of a similar moment today.

This time last week I was reading in the British Medical Journal that 17% – around a sixth – of the colossal US spend on healthcare was accounted for by diseases resulting from obesity. [Original report here – pay to read full version]

Obesity is also, of course, a major source of health problems, and health expenditure, in the UK.

And you do not have to watch Jamie Oliver’s TV shows to understand that changes in our diet, and the inexorable rise of high-calorie convenience foods, play a role in this.

But Fear Not – our new Government Has A Plan.

It must, indeed, be a cunning and subtle one.

For how else to explain that the people who are going to be “helping” with the Govt’s new anti-obesity public health strategy are apparently to be McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo.

I am delighted that these major retail concerns, who sell such excellent, nutritious, refreshing and health-giving food and beverage products, are to put their undoubted expertise to use in making as much money selling us processed food as they possibly can helping us eat a healthier diet.

Alternatively, you might consider the following words:

“fox” “chicken coop” “in charge of”

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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.

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“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:

http://www.libelreform.org/sign

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 http://www.libelreform.org/sign.    ….”

Simon Singh

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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)

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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…

More Jenkins Junk

July 7, 2010

In which Dr Aust ponders whether Simon Jenkins makes it up as he goes along

The other day I was listening to Simon Jenkins on the weekly Guardian science podcast, discussing his latest predictable tirade against the scientists, and the “Spoofjenks” reaction to it (my own little contribution is below/here).

In the podcast conversation with the Guardian’s Alok Jha (it starts at about 22 min 45 sec in, and goes on until 31:15 or so), Jenkins seemed to be backtracking somewhat on his latest article. As I heard it he was arguing that:

(i) what he had said was all very mild;

(ii) all he really wanted to say was that science could not expect to be shielded from the UK public sector cuts;

(iii) scientists “don’t know how to ask for money properly” (by which I think he means they overstate the importance, and likely benefit, of their work)

Hmm.

I don’t buy it, really.

First, I’m not sure that calling the President of the Royal Society (or things that the latter had said) “shameless” and “two-faced” is all that mild. And Jenkins’ central point (as he tells it) that he was merely commenting on scientists wanting to be protected from the public sector cuts seems rather disingenuous, given the well-worn nature of Jenkins’ theme (“pointy-headed scientific experts and why I distrust them”, if I may shorthand it that way)

Anyway, there were a couple of stand-out moments in the conversation (at least for me).

One was when Alok Jha offered, as an illustration of the way in which science projects can yield unexpected benefits, the example of CERN and the World Wide Web. Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was a contractor at CERN, and later a Fellow, when he came up with the ideas that launched the WWW. Now, this is not a justification of CERN, but it certainly is an illustration of what most scientists believe, namely that you can’t really predict with any accuracy where key advances will come from.

As far as I could tell, Jenkins’ response to this was to say that he doesn’t believe it. He did, to be fair,  say some slightly less stupid things too. One was to suggest that the internet was an outgrowth of defence research. There is a fair amount of truth in this, as networking computers in remote locations together was certainly driven forward by projects like ARPANET. This later morphed into network projects involving Univerities and scientific institutions, like the BITNET system I was using to send e-mail in the late 80s and early 90s.

Jenkins’ other gambit was to say:

“Well, if the CERN people hadn’t done it, someone else would have”.

This latter is, of course, likely true of all human discoveries; but to offer that as a reason not to fund science and scientists strikes me as spectacularly stupid. Someone has to discover things. It hardly seems desperately controversial (not to me, anyway) to say that having some of your brightest people work at being “professional discoverers” is a good way to do it. What hard evidence there is available seems to bear this out.

It is also, I think, a good idea to have your professional discoverers work in a system where they talk to one another and disseminate, by publishing, what they have found, so that anyone else can make use of it. Many a human discovery has been made, and then lost or forgotten, and then had to be re-discovered. The scientific literature system now makes this a bit less likely.

What really struck me about this exchange was that Jenkins clearly didn’t know the slightest thing about what Berners-Lee had actually done, or even (slightly more surprising to me) the difference between the earlier computer networks and the WWW. Apart from Berners-Lee’s role being rather well known, anyone – e.g. anyone who writes recurring columns denouncing scientists for being a bunch of smug parasites – can go and read about it on Wikipedia under “History of the Internet”

Come back Homer Simpson – we need you as a well-paid columnist

However, the real “D’oh!” moment came when Jenkins started talking about what he saw as research that justified its costs, and research that didn’t. He contrasted research into Alzheimer’s Disease (which he said he thought led to real tangible advances in understanding the brain) with research into cancer, which he seemed to regard as a bottomless pit into which money was poured for no results.

Rather odd, I thought.

Because research into Alzheimer’s has, as yet, had little impact on the actual disease. That’s little as in “essentially none”. As Wikipedia puts it:

“There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; available treatments offer relatively small symptomatic benefit but remain palliative in nature.”

We do know a vast amount more about the underlying pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s, and the biology of Amyloid Precursor Protein, then we did a dozen years ago. But so far this greater knowledge has yielded no noticeable improvements in therapy. The cholinesterase inhibitor drugs that are on the market to treat Alzheimer’s are widely regarded as pretty useless, or close to it (pace Terry Pratchett), the experimental drug therapies have so far been a disappointment, and a commenter at the Guardian podcast page made the Pharma in-joke that:

“Alzheimer’s research has been such a failure that Pharma companies are actually cooperating with each other to try to make progress”

Now, personally I wouldn’t call the research a failure, exactly; as I said, we now know much more, but treatment breakthroughs have not been forthcoming. The same is true for Cystic Fibrosis, for instance. It is also true of Huntington’s Disease and many other neurological and neurodegenerative conditions.

Anyway, the sad reality is that we can do little currently in terms of preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s, and we certainly cannot cure it. The best advice seems to be to take a daily brisk walk, watch your blood pressure and lipid profile, and play chess or Sudoku to keep your brain active.

In contrast, if we talk about cancer, Jenkins’ other example, things are a bit different. You could have a look, for instance, at this.

Or this.

Now, this improvement in cancer survival rates may not be mostly the result of what you think of as lab-based basic research. It may be more about painstaking clinical research to optimize drug regimes, or to refine procedures for surgery or bone-marrow transplant. It may be to do with better diagnostic techniques, like MRI and CT scanning, that allow earlier diagnosis and treatment and hence better outcomes. But of course, all those processes stand on the shoulders of basic research at some stage – and typically at multiple stages.

More importantly for the current discussion, the statistics – the real numbers – show that there are incremental year-on-year improvements in cancer survival. And if you cast the timescale back further, the gains are even more apparent, as you can see for childhood cancer here, from where I took this Figure:

UK survival stats for childhood cancer

Five year survival statistics for children diagnosed with the indicated cancers in the years 1962   to 1996.

So contrast:

Alzheimer’s – no improvement in treatment.

Cancer – year on year improvements. Slow but steady.

But Jenkins likes the first, where he thinks he sees recognisable benefits of research, and not the second.

Now, one can make a more complex argument about “value for the amount of money spent”, of course, and there is certainly a lot more money devoted to cancer research than to dementia research. But still, Jenkins’ comments seem completely… well… uninformed.

[Update: 12th July – Cancer Research UK have just released new figures showing that long term survival after a number of hitherto very deadly cancers has doubled since the 70s. Of course there are still some cancers where survival has not improved, like pancreatic cancer. But I doubt anyone would believe that less research is going to make that better. The figures are here.]

So  – what would you conclude from Jenkins’ use of these examples?

Well, I am left concluding that what he thinks matters is whether scientists talk in terms that “speak”, personally, to Simon Jenkins. Or, one could say, terms which speak to his prejudices.

And I am also left concluding that he pretty much makes this stuff up as he goes along.

(Not his basic boilerplate article railing against science, of course – he seems to recycle that one with gusto. Indeed, if I were really going to spoof him with conviction I guess I should reprint my piece from last week every six weeks or so, with only minor cosmetic alterations).

Be afraid – be very afraid…

Now this “making it up as you go along” is, of course, a long-standing tradition in Britain, both in certain social circles and in comment journalism. So perhaps we should expect nothing else.

The nagging worry is that there might be some people out there who take Jenkins’ views on science, and scientists, seriously. Just last week I heard one worried senior scientist refer not just to Jenkins’ article, but to Jenkins “influential readership”.

The obvious implication was that politicians, top mandarins, the media and other members of the Great and the Good, are where one finds Jenkins’ readers.

And in an era when the Tories have just put an Evangelical Christian with a tendency to invent her own statistics and facts, and a man who believes astrology can help surgeons get better operating results, onto the House of Commons Health Select Committee… …that thought really does worry me.

It worries me quite a bit.

Fifth Column

June 28, 2010

In which Dr Aust does his own little bit for “Spoof Jenkins” day.

You know, there’s so much opinionated waffle on TV and in the papers these days.

I mean, I love reading predictable off-the-cuff grumbling penned by overpaid middle-aged metropolitan arts grads. After all, I‘m one myself. Well, except for being an arts graduate. And metropolitan.  And one can’t be overpaid these days unless one’s on at least £ 200K, like all those whining scientists with their Chelsea townhouses and Porsches.

But let’s not get into that.

Where was I?

Oh yes – columnists, of course.

As I say, I love a good splenetic column. After a four course lunch at the Garrick, finished by a few excellent brandies – sixty year old, naturally, anything good is always old and beautiful, far better than all this new rubbish – there’s nothing that rounds things off better than perusing the thoughts of some well-read chap of my own vintage… …putting a judicious boot into the backside of those jumped-up little technocrats over at the Royal Society.

But this time, Simon Jenkins may – just may – have gone a bit too far.

Not in giving the scientists some stick, of course. Richly deserved. Did you see all that nonsense they pumped out about swine flu?  Utter rubbish – it was no worse that the common cold, naturellement. Just like that ridiculous song and dance they made over foot and mouth. And as for grounding all the planes because some unpronounceable volcano erupted and stuck a bit of ash in the air – quite preposterous. Do you know, I would have missed my cultural tour of the best vineyards of Jerez if Binky – wonderful chap, he’s in banking, I was at Oxford with his brother – hadn’t lent me the company jet to get there.

Anyway, anyone listening to the scientists would think that that “HIV was the cause of AIDS”, or that “vaccines were good things”. And of course, it’s all just about money – they get paid to say that stuff, and they’re just touting for more business. Quite unlike columnists, who are ferociously independent and simply write from a sense of duty. We don’t make a penny. Well, except for trousering the weekly cheque, which frankly is hardly enough to be worth bothering about.

But anyway, Simon has perhaps slightly overdone it, and this time rather a lot of people seem to have noticed. Which is a worry. After all, we don’t want people getting the idea that columnists are behaving like the New Priesthood. It was bad enough the bloody Scientists giving themselves quasi-religious airs – like little Rees, and that tiresome Dawkins chap, and the rest of the Scientific “Bishops”. Who are just like the real C of E, by the way – no sense of history. The useless C of E can’t even look after its own historic buildings, and that ineffectual beardie Archbishop is too busy turning up on Melvyn Bragg’s show with the scientists to do anything useful. They’d rather have new Church Halls for coffee mornings than proper old buildings. The scientists are always moaning about “needing new buildings” too, of course. Did Galileo need a state-of-the-art Mammoth of Research to discover gravity? Of course he didn’t – all he needed was a tower and some balls.

And as to where science ends up if you let the pointy-headed little blighters have their way – well, there was a person who tried to harness technology for state ends, and got all the scientists with their hands out for research grant money to sign up. His name was Adolf Hitler. And he had his Gestapo to go around locking up anyone who disagreed, just like the Catholic Church had the Spanish Inquisition. Which is just like the scientists coming after Simon Jenkins now. I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see a crack Royal Society snatch squad of men in white lab coats bundling poor Simon into a strait-jacket and hauling him off to Porton Down for “compulsory science re-education classes”. After all, they have them for MPs now, so I’m sure columnists will be next.

And that’s why I think Simon has been a touch unwise. He’s simply drawing a little too much attention to us. If he goes on like this, people will start to turn on the columnists.

And, frankly, strictly entre nous, there are too many columnists about these days. A bit like scientists. Or Badgers.

I can see it now. They’ll say:

“For too long these opinionated arts, politics, and economics graduates, with their Notting Hill addresses and children at St Pauls and Westminster school, have been allowed to agitate for a privileged position in the national newspapers and the BBC”.

Then they’ll start saying that we just endlessly re-cycle the same old tired schtick, so that we can dash off a column that gets up peoples’ noses in the two hours between the after-lunch nap and dinner and collect our wages.

I’ve even heard some people asking what it is columnists actually do to help. One or two of the scientists have had the cheek to say that science was at least “trying to move the world forward” and address some of humanity’s pressing problems, like global warming, or famine, or disease.

Which is utter self-serving balderdash, of course. Columnists do their bit, too. Think of the work creation. All those people writing in via the internet – which was probably invented by an arts graduate [Note to Ed – please check] – to complain about Simon. That’s obviously creating wealth, surely? And look at how newspaper sales are rising.

And as for the problems of the wider world, I personally think a lot of it could be solved if we simply had more newspaper columnists. Imagine: a newspaper read by almost no-one in every impoverished sub-Saharan hamlet, complete with highly paid weekly “opinion formers” with Glyndebourne season tickets.

In other words – a columnist in every kraal.

Now there’s a vision to give the world hope.