Archive for the ‘The internet’ Category

Podcast plug – Dr Aust live (ish)

September 30, 2010

In which Dr Aust does some heavy breathing into a headset.

A week or so back, thanks to the wonders of internet-based communication technology (aka Skype) I joined the guys from Greater Manchester Skeptics for their podcast Just Skeptics (Episode 12, apparently). It is now out – if you’re interested, you can listen to it here, or here, or even download it (free, of course) from the iTunes store.

You’ll have to excuse the heavy breathing, which I’m embarrassed to say was me. I’d never used a microphone headset before – I’d only installed Skype a day or two earlier – and I think the microphone distance needs adjusting. Or perhaps I’m just a heavy breather.

Anyway, if you do fancy checking it out, you can first hear us talking about “Charity mugging”, the phenomenon whereby you can’t walk twenty metres in a British town centre in the daytime without being accosted by someone trying to sign you up as a charity (direct debit) donor. Until the podcast I hadn’t heard that these “Chuggers” are often out-of-work actors.

We also discuss mad chemists, that hardy stereotype of the man in the white coat with the mad staring eyes. This was inspired by the UK Government’s “Crazy Chemist” anti-drug campaign – the one that got the Royal Society of Chemistry so hot under the collar.

And finally, at 24 minutes in, you can hear me having my “Soapbox” where I poke fun at Alternative Medicine. It’s not terribly original stuff, and will probably be fairly familiar to regular readers, but hopefully you might find some of it amusing.  This segment is followed by a discussion of similar themes, which runs for most of the rest of the podcast. It  concludes with the Richard Feynman reflexology story that you may remember from here.

Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you stick it out all the way through.

PS Listening to the podcast I now notice a couple of minor factual inaccuracies on my part, notably giving the wrong name for something… ah well. Shows that talking off the cuff is not as easy as one might think. Try to spot the slip(s), if you like.

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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.

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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.

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.