Archive for the ‘science’ Category

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.

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.

Kneed in the Nutts – or shot in the foot?

November 8, 2009

In which Dr Aust has a think about risk, and wishes politicians would stop trying to have it both ways.

The big science story in the UK these past couple of week has been the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The blogosphere has been aflame with commentary. My favourite comment so far, which most readers here will probably have read already, is David Colquhoun’s brilliantly pithy summing up over at the BMJ:

“Remember George W Bush? For him it was simple. If a scientist told him an inconvenient truth, the messenger was fired, and someone more compliant got the job. In every area from global warming to the existence of weapons of mass destruction he chose to base policy on fantasy and wishful thinking. It seems that the UK home secretary, Alan Johnson, has something in common with Bush. When the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said something he didn’t like, its chairman, David Nutt, got fired….”

British Medical Journal online

Alan Johnson and other members of the Government, notably including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have tried to spin the story as Prof Nutt “stepping into the political arena”. Governments, they argue, have to consider things “in the round”, in Gordon Brown’s phrase (i.e. there is more to it than just the evidence the scientists have sifted, assessed, and synthesised).

Alan Johnson put it like this:

“As for [Prof Nutt’s] comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy… it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.”

Now, the assertion that this statistical comparison is “a political rather than a scientific point” is a rather politician-ly piece of rhetoric. First off, the comparison he is referring to was published in an article in a scientific journal. It was only when the newspapers got hold of it, and that it then came to the attention of politicians, that it caused such a furore, with both sides of the House of Commons getting on their hind legs to compete to see who could denounce the “nutty Professor”, and the evils of drug use, in more ringing terms.

One of my favourite medical bloggers, the ruminative and understated hospital consultant Dr Grumble, has also been covering the story. He does not agree with Johnson, and points out that analogies for risks are actually an important way of communicating risk.

“[Alan Johnson] claims, it seems, to have sacked Professor Nutt because he compared the risk of drugs with the risk of riding a horse. He says this is ‘of course’ a political point. Dr Grumble doesn’t agree. Even as a scientist you need a yardstick rather than a figure to put risk on a scale which can be understood. This is particularly true if you need to express levels of risk to politicians or the public. But the concept is useful for scientists too. In the assessment of risk this is not unusual. It was not something that was calculated to embarrass Alan Johnson. It was just an aid to understanding.

Professor Nutt chose horse riding because it happens to be very risky. Dr Grumble knew this. He has seen the consequences. Yet many parents – though maybe not in Alan Johnson’s constituency – might encourage their children to take up horse riding. Few would do the same when it came to drugs. Yet the risk for horse riding is much greater. Both are probably done for some sort of excitement. One is a fulfilling activity the other probably is not. It doesn’t matter. It is just a yardstick.

We need such yardsticks. Parents need to grasp how likely it is for their child to be murdered in comparison to being run over on the road. It’s important. Do we need to invest in looking out for child murderers or slowing the traffic? Those are the issues.

The trouble, of course (!) is the Daily Mail. It is more likely to fill its pages with stories of horrific child murders than car accidents. The Mail is unlikely to report many of the deaths related to alcohol and tobacco. There are just too many. The differential reporting of drug-related deaths in the press is something that David Nutt has pointed out. The likelihood of the press reporting a drug-related death depends on the drug. Some drugs, it seems, are more newsworthy than others. But the consequence is that the public’s perception of risk is warped. It is important to point this out. The public needs to grasp the real risk and not the risk they perceive from reading newspapers. So do politicians.”

Does Alan Johnson keep a gun?

Indeed. Back in Mrs Dr Aust’s days in anaesthesia, the number one question she used to get asked by patients when she met them on the morning of their operation was:

“Am I going to wake up from this doc? Is it dangerous, this anaesthetic?”

Let’s assume the patient was a physically fit person having a routine and fairly brief anaesthetic for an uncomplicated minor surgical procedure. In such cases, one of her preferred replies was:

“Well, if you came here this morning in a car, then you’ve already got away with doing something more dangerous than the anaesthetic I’m going to be giving you.”

She did not quote a numerical risk figure, because the chance that an anxious patient would have taken in a “one in however many thousand” risk figure, and then processed it cognitively, and actually felt reassured, was basically nil.

The analogy, however, with it’s element of risk comparison, did the job nicely.

So I don’t think Johnson’s points about Nutt’s analogy stand up. As Dr Grumble alludes to, the point Nutt was really making was that people have views of the risks associated with different activities – and especially the use of different drugs – which bear no relation to the real risks, and that this is unhelpful in making sensible policy.

Professors, politicians and the real world – just who is out of touch?

Which in turn suggest another of the implications directed at Nutt by Johnson and others in the political arena is incorrect; the idea that Nutt and other “ivory tower academics” do not understand that real world decisions – like those taken by politicians – have to factor in things other than simply the scientific case.

This idea, that there is more to political decisions than simply the facts, reminds me of a famous story about “risk perception”. The version that I know appears in Michael O’Donnell’s book Medicine’s Strangest Cases, and concerns the Swedes and the Lapland satellite evacuation.

The story was that a satellite in a decaying orbit was predicted to crash-land in an remote area of Lapland that was virtually unpopulated save for a few nomadic reindeer-herders. The Swedish Govt. offered to helicopter airlift the reindeer herders out of the area, at significant cost to the Swedish taxpayer.

Hermann Bondi, a famous British mathematician and – funnily enough – Government science adviser, who heard the story, crunched the numbers and confirmed that the probability of any reindeer herder who stayed put having the satellite land on them was several orders of magnitude less than the chance they would be killed in a helicopter crash on a routine helicopter flight.

So the Swedish Govt’s decision was daft.

Well, that depends.

Purely on the statistics, it was a wholly illogical decision. But Bondi pointed out that the Swedish Govt had undoubtedly factored in that if they didn’t offer to evacuate people, and the satellite then landed on someone and killed them, then the headlines would scream

“Heartless and negligent Govt leaves reindeer herders to die”.

While if the chopper crashed, the headline would be

“Tragic helicopter crash kills herders”

– and the Govt. would be off the hook.

So Governments weigh more than just the basic facts. But is Professor Nutt really out of touch with these realities of decision-making in Government when it comes to drug policy, as the politicians have implied?

Well, some idea of the Prof’s thinking can be gleaned from the published version of his recent lecture. This is, in fact, precisely the lecture, delivered to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, that caused the recent flare-up that led to Nutt’s sacking. The full version of the lecture can be read here.

Here is an extract:

Drug policy

Formulating policy in relation to drugs is obviously
quite a difficult thing to do. I comment on it, as I
always have, from the perspective of a psychiatrist
who is interested in drugs and drugs and the brain.
In many ways, that’s how the Advisory Council on
the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) covers it. We have a
range of expertise on the Council; we’re very strong
in terms of chemistry and pharmacology, and
psychology; and we have a definite knowledge,
interest and responsibility to look at social harms as
well. We provide one arm of the policy formulating
perspective. In addition, there are a number of other
agencies, organisations and individuals who
contribute to policy formation…

There are also international partners – we
have signed up to international treaties – which
determine that, in essence, the UK follows United
Nations policy on drugs. This can be quite a tough
constraining influence on how countries regulate

Then, of course, there are other factors feeding into
political decisions about drugs: what the general
public thinks (or is thought to think); and then there’s
the media….

(colour added for emphasis)

The full article is well worth a read. It is one of the more accessible and intelligent explorations of the issues in drug policy that I have read, and certainly far more informative than anything you will read in even the broadsheet newspapers in the UK. The main theme explored is whether drug classification, and the attendant penalties for illegal use, should be linked to the actual harm caused by use of the drug, and the ways this harm can be assessed. What comes across in it is that Nutt is in no way “naive” about the political process that goes into the decisions of drug classification. What he largely argues for is more sophisticated approaches to educating the public about the relative riskiness of different activities, both legal and illegal.

Advisers and “advisers”

What about the final argument – that politicians should have advisers that speak only in private, and who in public never disagree with the Government line?

Are politicians entitled to expect advisers to keep quiet?

The answer, I would say, is that it depends on the type of adviser. There are advisers, and advisers.

Most relevantly, some advisers are civil servants, paid by the public purse, including some “personal” advisers.

Others, like Prof Nutt, are independent experts.

Much of the discussion on the Nutt case in the newspapers and in parliament has failed to make this distinction clear. And as David Colquhoun, among others, has noted, Alan Johnson has led the way in promoting this confusion.

One correspondent at Dr Grumble’s blog defended Alan Johnson in terms rather similar to those Johnson himself used :

“Prof Nutt was asked to leave because he crossed the boundary between advising the government AND making views against goverment policy public”

Compare Alan Johnson, quoted in the Guardian:

“[Professor Nutt] was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established.”

I was moved to pen something in response, which I will re-post here from Dr Grumble’s blog:

“Nutt is not a Government adviser in the usual sense that an “adviser” is a paid employee, like the Chief Scientific Adviser and other civil servants. Nutt is an academic, paid nothing, and appointed to a statutory body whose job (clearly set out in their terms of reference) is to tell the Govt what the scientific evidence actually says. Not what the government wants to hear. Read David Colquhoun’s spot-on summary in the BMJ.

Alan Johnson sacked Nutt for what he said in an academic lecture whose content was not overtly critical of Govt. Furthermore, since giving the lecture was part of Nutt’s day job (the one he is actually paid to do), what he says in it is in no way part of the Govt’s purview. It is his considered opinion as an expert.

The anomaly is that Johnson is able to sack Nutt from this post. The body should be wholly independent, with the Chair appointed from within the Committee.

If Johnson were then to want to hire a “private office” drug policy adviser who was an “on message” paid yes man, so be it. At least that would be the politicians being honest about what they really wanted.

However, said hypothetical person, if what they advised was contrary to all the expert opinion, might have rather little credibility out in the world of drug policy – a bit like the way Lord Adonis was regarded by virtually all in education when he ran education policy from his role as Tony Blair’s “Education Special Adviser.”

The problem is that the politicians want to be able to say “We are acting directly in accordance with the evidence and expert opinion” precisely when they aren’t. You can hardly blame the independent experts for pointing out when the politicians engage in this kind of routine (for a politician) but rather blatant dishonesty.”

And, in the final analysis, that is what really disappoints me. I have hitherto had a fair amount of respect for Alan Johnson, one of the sadly rare MPs who have any experience of the world beyond the circumscribed horizons of the British political class. He always struck me as fairly unprententious, and not a hypocrite.

Until now.

Because that is what it is – hypocrisy. Which came from both sides of the House of Commons, with the cant, windbaggery, and general posturing for the cameras and the Daily Mail broken only by the pertinent words of the “MP for Science and Evidence”, Dr Evan Harris:

“With every personal attack on David Nutt, and every piece of cod science [Alan Johnson has] produced, the home secretary deepens the crisis of mistrust between scientists and the government.”


Experts, including scientists, can cope with politicians disregarding what they say – partly because it is par for the course.

Disregarding what the experts say, AND telling them they are obligated not to point out that this is what the Government has done – all while the politicians insist smugly that they have “evidence based policies” – is something else.

Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking)

August 29, 2009

Dr Aust has been on the road for a few days, including a trip to Science Online 2009. Call it a sort of slightly working holiday. I started writing the following as an update for the embarrassingly neglected Diary page, but it has now grown to such length that I thought I would give it a post of its own.

So a bit of boring diary travelogue follows, finishing with some ponderings about the conference. If you are just interested in the last bit, skip down to “Anyway – that’s enough diary“.

Thursday 20th.

Slightly frantic morning trying to tie up a few things at work, then off to the station after lunch to catch a train to Oxford to see Dr Aust’s mother. Arrive at 5 pm off hot and crowded train. The walk from Oxford station up to the Aust parents’ part of North Oxford can be done by various routes, but my favourite one, especially for late afternoons and early evenings in Summer, has always been the Oxford canal towpath. When Dr Aust was a teenager in Oxford, an awful lot of years ago, the family garden actually had the canal at the bottom of it. Here the next door neighbour would fish and escape his family, the Aust family dog would occasionally fall in and have to be rescued, and one of our more eccentric neighbours would swim in the Summer, braving assorted waterborne diseases (Mrs Dr Aust would probably have mentioned Leptospirosis).

Anyway, two canal towpath sights never fail to make Dr Aust feel that he is really home – because in some odd way Oxford does still feels like home, even though Dr Aust has not been a permanent resident for nearly 30 years now.

One is this kind of view:

Oxford canal scene

The other is sort of summed up by the middle-aged gentleman who overtook Dr Aust, riding a sturdy upright bicycle that looked at least 50 yrs old and had a battered briefcase strapped on the back. The gent in question was wearing a serviceable but far from new dark linen suit, and a blue bicycle helmet, and looked about as much like an Oxford academic as is possible to look without becoming a total caricature – and whilst pressing a mobile phone to one’s ear and wobbling slightly along the towpath.

The point, perhaps, is that Oxford is rather a special enclave.

Now, when Dr Aust was 18 he was in a tearing hurry to leave Oxford. Oxford, he and his friends would regularly agree, was not the real world. We were mostly dreaming of London – Islington, Notting Hill and the King’s Road. Or perhaps of places even further afield.


“Oxford is not the real world”

Quite true.

The difference is that nowadays Dr Aust tends to think that is precisely what is good, and worth preserving, about the place. The Real World can be a bit overrated.

Friday 21st

Another late afternoon train, this time to London, to check into the hotel and thence to the “pre-conference unconference” (whatever that means) on a roof terrace in Farringdon (which belongs to these guys). The setting is rather good, although the random city noise means you have to shout a bit. Luckily (or not, depending on your POV) Dr Aust is an experienced shouter and annoying interrupter. This comes of years of on-the-job training in lectures, tutorials, or large and protracted University committee meetings.

The best things about the conference “Fringe Prequel” are the smallish number of people and the informality, which make for lively discussions. Oh, and the free booze. Get to catch up a bit with BadScience sensei David Colquhoun, and to meet several bloggers who were hitherto only names and emails, such as scourge of misadvertising chiropractors Zeno of the Think Humanism forum, Nature Network science blogger and crystallographer Stephen Curry (“Reciprocal Space”), and shockingly young bad science ubersleuth Gimpy.

Saturday 22nd

Despite my well-documented loathing of early mornings (or mornings at all, come to that), haul myself out of bed at 7.45, only slightly hoarse from last night’s extended talking session, to get to the 9.30 start of Science Online. As an economy measure I have brought my own breakfast, half an almond croissant from my favourite French patisserie.

Deciding to turn up to the first session turns out to be a piece of good fortune – a last-minute change of  timetable has put the “Legal and ethical aspects of blogging” bit, with blog notables Jack of Kent and Dr Petra, first up. Jack’s request not to be podcasted causes a slight stir. About a third of the audience seem to be hiding behind portable or laptop computers, among which MacBooks are particularly well represented. There is definitely a study of some kind to be done about how rates of Mac use vary across different scientific user groups. Jack gives a nice (if slightly scary) introduction to the possible legal consequences of blogging. Am gratified to find that my strictures a while back about not getting on the wrong side of courts in open cases and risking committing Contempt of Court were probably a sensible note of caution.

It is a hot day, and the after-coffee session on “Online Communication by Institutions and Organisations” is a bit airless. However, it is interesting to find out how different organisations – though none of those discussed is a University – handle online science, and particularly blogging. My personal view is that blogging is not an easy fit with “offficial” sites run by large institutions. The bedrock reason is that institutions have a pathological fear of saying something that offends people – and therefore often of saying anything much at all –  and they find the natural anarchism of scientific bloggers to be distinctly indigestion-causing. For more on this theme, you can read my comment here.

Lunch with Jack of Kent, Dr Petra, Gimpy and Frank the Science Punk, who like Gimpy is preposterously young. Actually, compared to me almost everyone at the meeting looks young, especially since David (Colquhoun) sneaked off before the lunch break, pointing out that it was too nice a day to be stuck indoors. One of the conference speakers is Times science editor Mark Henderson, who looks about 25, though I guess he is probably in his early 30s.

A lot of the afternoon is devoted to the question of linking online identities, online platforms for science data exchange, and various other techie stuff. Some bits are interesting, but the XML-speak and repeated use of the word “syntactical” is a bit hard core for an Technophobic Old Fart like Dr Aust.  Retreat to the nearest pub seems a good option, (I shall rather presumptiously cite Crick and Watson as my authority, if you are arguing) where I discover that several of my fellow-bloggers in the Bad Science posse now have book deals. Quite pleasing to think there is that much demand for sceptical thinking – but then, you can never have enough, certainly these days.

A highlight of the pub, apart from Jack of Kent buying me a couple of drinks, was Andy from the Quackometer’s description of his investigations of some of the Quacktronic “black boxes” that people have sold to try and cure people of “electrosensitivity”.

This particular branch of Quackorama always reminds me of late 19th and early 20th century quack Albert Abrams and his ERA machine (nice old picture and more info here). Abrams was revealed as a flagrant charlatan more than eighty years ago, but his quackery lives on today as “Radionics” (and here). It is, you will be surprised to hear (err…not) popular with some of the homeopaths.

So a successful meeting – as ever, mainly for the informal chat with people who you previously had either heard of, or read a comment by, or possibly corresponded with. Apart from those I have already mentioned, I got to say Hi to Euan Lawson of the excellent Northern Doctor blog. And I also met, as one does, some people completely new to me, like postdoc and science blogger “Dr Jim”, and TV presenter Greg Foot. another of the disturbingly youthful brigade. While Greg is not the first person I have met who has his/hers own Wikipedia entry, I’m pretty sure he is the first I’ve met who has his own “Showreel” on Youtube. Greg and Frank the Sciencepunk have just been given the job of “re-booting” the government “Engage Kids with Science” site Science? So what? (or SSW for short), as you can discover (and offer your own suggestions about how they should do it) here.

In order to save my liver from further damage I finally do a runner at about 6 pm, heading for Paddington station and a packed train back to Oxford. And England look to have a lock on the Final Test, failing improbably Australian comebacks.

All in all, a most excellent and useful day.

Sunday 23rd

A recuperative day of doing nothing in Oxford. Stroll across Port Meadow for a pre-lunchtime beer in the garden of the Perch at Binsey. This used to be one of my favourite weekend lunchtime pubs, but has now morphed into a sit-down restaurant. Thankfully you can still sip a beverage in the garden, and then amble back across the meadow, past the grazing horses and cows, hordes of stroppy geese, and small boat sailors. My mother tells me she took up sailing for a couple of years at University in the late 50s “because when I told the ladies’ moral tutor that I got my keep-fit exercise by jiving, she clearly thought that was most unsuitable”. I knew my mother had been into trad jazz and jiving, but not that she had been a sailor. It just shows how you can still be finding out new things about people after knowing them all your life.

Spend the later afternoon wrestling with my mother’s ancient computer. A decade or so back I taught myself how to build and fix computers, mainly because when the lab was “between grants” there was no money to buy new ones. Unfortunately, just as I got reasonably proficient at it, the price of new machines fell to the point where there was no saving in building from bits. This is fairly typical of Dr Aust’s money-saving or money-making brain-waves.  Sadly, the computer resists most of my attempts at spring cleaning; the antivirus programme won’t update because they’ve released a new version but that won’t install because the Operating System is too old a version, and it won’t update properly because Microsoft’s website says it’s a pirate copy and the shop we bought the machine from has gone out of business years ago…. *sigh*.

On the bright side, I can listen to Australian wickets falling while I fight my losing battle with the dratted computer. And finally….England have won The Ashes! Rapidly compile mental list of all my Australian friends who I can email to have a good gloat. They would, after all, do the same for me.

Monday 24th.

Amused to see in The Times (my mother reads the Times – Dr Aust prefers the Guardian) a “heat map” of the London Underground. Several of the lines were shut this weekend for repairs, so that instead of taking the previous year’s route from Green Park (and the Royal Institution) to Paddington Station, Dr Aust had to foot it down to Picadilly and take a sweltering Bakerloo line train. This is revealed by the map as the second hottest line on the system, reaching 30-32 deg C on hot days. It certainly felt every bit of that at 6 pm on Saturday. Perhaps I should blame Global Warming.

Leave Oxford mid-morning, overcast but warm, and head North on the train. It starts raining just before Birmingham, and then gets progressively colder and progressively wetter as we get further North. Arrive home late afternoon in thin drizzle to find puddle stretching halfway across our road. Jr Aust calls this “the lake”. Feel so cold I have to fire up the central heating. Mrs Dr Aust tells me that in her native part of central Europe the temperature has been 25-30 C all of the last week, with no rain, and that house prices there are such that we could sell up here and build an architect-designed mansion there two-and-a-half times the size. Ponder once again why I live in a place whose climate I have grown accustomed to describing to my American friends as “like Seattle, if Seattle didn’t have any Summer”.

Oh well. Only four weeks until the start of the University teaching year. Joy.

Tuesday 25th – Weds 26th.

More rain.   *sigh*


Anyway – that’s enough diary.

So what about the Science Online 2009 conference (hence “SciOnLon”)?

Well, like most conference, I enjoyed bits of it a lot. It is a very rare conference, actually, where you enjoy ALL of it. Even in specialist meetings there are usually bits that match exactly to your own interests and enthusiasms, and other bits that you find plain dull. As I already said, the techie stuff about “science online” left me a bit cold. And the implementations of things on Second Life that were attempted here and there were rather laboured, which leaves me tempted to conclude, as one other blogger did, that “Second Life is Pants”.

However, as a scientist one grows used to the idea that one does not really “get” a lot of the science other scientists do, even in vaguely related areas. But of course, the people doing it do get it. Indeed, one of the attractive features of science, as I think I said in one of the Friday night “Unconference” sessions, is that no matter how weird, unpromising, downright bizarre, or seemingly parochial the topic, there will be at least one somewhat obsessive scientist type out there  who thinks it is the most fascinating thing s/he has ever come across.

Every geek shall find his/her place, if you prefer.

The  example of this that Dr Aust used to use as an example in tutorials is fossilized dinosaur poo – although this probably isn’t the best example, as the subject actually has a long history.  But really, who on earth would think fossilized dinosaur poo would be fascinating?  Of course, apart from telling you about what the dinosaurs ate, it also gives information about the vegetation around at the time the dinosaur lived.  And there are other folk who specialize in fossilized human, er, deposits, and what they can tell you about human diet and health in pre-modern and even pre-historical times. And there are still other folk who specialize in fossilized animal poo, and so on, and so on.

Bill Bryson’s best-selling A Short History of Nearly Everything has a bit of this sense about it, that is, of some the fascination of science being related to its rather esoteric corners, and slightly loopy practitioners.

Anyway, the point of this diversion is to say that there is a point in these geeky talks, and sessions. You may not get it, but someone else will. And if you don’t have clunky Second Life / online conference participation now, then you clearly won’t have more broadly usable systems a few years down the line. So I appreciate that there will be people who want to sit in sessions logging into web portals and muttering about “syntactical hierarchies”.  Even if I don’t.

But I think I would rather that stuff were in a parallel session or a breakout group, rather than as a big chunk of the main lecture strand.

A somewhat related point is that science bloggers clearly do fall into subsets. One subset, obviously,  is the people who are interested in how the online technology works, or who are working on developing it. People who actually blog about their own research are another subset. People who explain research in their general field, but more for the public that for the Geek-o-sphere, are still another subset. And the Bad Science gang (who talk about science, or pseudoscience, but largely not about the science they do professionally) are still a different subset.

Of course, since most (non-group) blogs are above all personal to their writers, one blogger may span several of the above categories. When I started this blog nearly two years ago I actually anticipated writing rather more than I actually have done about “physiological” subjects, since physiology is my professional speciality. But I think some of the water posts are almost the only example of writing on physiology. And there have certainly been a lot more facetious musical ditties than I had ever anticipated.

Anyway, is there a demand for a conference to get all the factions of “science online” together?  I think there still is. Conferences, at best, offer a mix – detailed stuff you are really into the minutiae of, plus some more general stuff where you get a general “catch-up” on what is going on, plus some things you wander along to on a whim. I’m all for variety. And long coffee and lunch breaks.

The conference has, unsurprisingly, spawned a vast array of blogposts and discussions (some links here) – so far the one I am following with most interest is on Stephen Curry’s blog here.

Of course, above all, conferences remain “a gathering of the tribe”, and this was as true of SciOnLon as any other, see above. Stephen Curry writes on his blog:

“It is agreeably ironic that the richest experience for me was meeting… online folk in the flesh.

Meeting [some of the Bad Science] guys and all the other people I chatted to during the conference, and in the pub afterwards, brought home just how much joining in online has enriched my life with new connections. But it still strange to realise that these connections are best savoured in the real world.”

Which echoes precisely my own feelings.

The commenter who captured this best for me, though, was Canadian genome scientist Richard Wintle, in this response to Stephen Curry’s post:

“I love the delicious irony of your observation that it’s better to meet all these online acquaintances in person, at an event about online interaction.

Somewhere in there, there is a moral for the 21st century. Darned if I know what it is though.”