Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

Anyway:

“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*

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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.”

Cretaceous mud slinging

August 5, 2009

In which we ponder whether extinct prehistoric reptiles can sue for libel in the English courts. After all, everybody else can.

Via Frank the Science Punk’s mini-blog, I have just read this shocking story about the well-known dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex:

T rex offended

T. rex “mostly ate babies”

(see also the original story in the Independent by noted science journalist Steve “lofty medics” Connor)

Frank suggests that T. rex is clearly in urgent need of a PR agency.

I have a slightly different suggestion.

Since the allegation that T. rex ate babies is clearly injurious to the dinosaur’s reputation, T. rex should engage a good reputation management law firm – a couple of options are  here and here, the latter lot being Matthias Rath’s libel lawyers of choice, though there are plenty of other options too – and file a libel suit in the English courts with all haste.

With any luck, the case will be heard by an eminent legal mind, and this shameful slander upon the reputation of one of our best loved prehistoric carnivores can be shown for the premeditated attempt at (Cretaceous) mud-slinging that it is.

A spokesman for the popular dinosaur and family favourite assured Dr Aust that “sales of T. rex soft toys and other branded merchandise have not been damaged” and that “movie tie-ins are not in danger”, but also said that the dinosaur was “looking into” the question of defending its reputation, if necessary through legal action. Reading a prepared statement, the spokesman added:

“With rights come responsibility and scientists must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous”

T. rex itself was unavailable for comment.

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PS  The paper from which the Independent story derives is in a paleontology journal called Lethaia. The abstract of the paper is here, and here is some background on the debate about what T. rex might have eaten.  I shall look forward to seeing  in due course if blogger and Nature “fossils editor” Henry Gee has anything to say about the “T. rex was a babykiller” story.

Beware the spinal trap – with added amateur legal musing (updated four and a half times)

July 30, 2009

Having written some long-ish comments about it in a thread on something else, I have “promoted” them here, a bit altered, as an excuse for being the last blogger to reprint the “decaffeinated” version of Simon Singh’s now legendary article about chiropractic. So if you read my comments threads you’ve probably seen all this already. Apologies.

free debate

As ever, Dr Aust is a bit slow on the uptake, so it will surprise no-one that I am practically the last blogger in the known universe to reprint the redacted version of Simon Singh’s Zeitgeist-catching  article on Chiropractic. This version is lacking any mention of “legal entities” and is thus unlikely to stimulate parasympathetic muscarinic drive to the salivary glands of any “reputation management” lawyers. (Note the relapse into physiology – hangover from the day job).

This version, which hundreds of bloggers have re-printed worldwide in the last day or two, is de-libel-ized. But does that mean it is defanged?

Well, read for yourself:

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Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

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Now, my correspondent Svetlana has taken great umbrage at the reprinting of Singh’s article without the contentious phrases, an action she characterized as cowardice. She has also contended, as has American medical blogger Orac, that printing the article in this “bowdlerized” form is tantamount to seeming to accept Eady’s, and thus the BCA’s, interpretation of how people would read Singh’s words. This, remember, was that they are readable as Singh accusing the BCA of making deliberately false claims – a meaning, to repeat yet again, that Singh has always stated clearly he did not intend, or feel the article or any part of it conveyed.

Anyway, I don’t really agree with Svetlana. My rather simple minded assumption was that Sense About Science  are just trying to raise awareness – of the case, of what was actually said, and of the way in which English defamation law “acts” on such matters.

Personally I would have liked to have seen the Guardian re-publishing this de-libel-ized version. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.

In any case, anyone who reads the article now and then wonders:

“Uh-huh. And what was this supposed libel, then?”

can find out easily enough, e.g. by reading Jack of Kent’s blog, or Jack’s discussion of Judge Eady’s ruling, or even my own analysis of the case from last August.

But take care not to be found in contempt…

There is, of course, also a practical reason not to re-print it with the words in. The case is still before the court, with the watchers currently waiting to see if Singh is granted leave to appeal Sir David’s ruling.

As I understand the law (which is imperfectly, IANAL, see various caveats passim), while the case is active, and especially post Mr Justice E’s ruling on the defamatory meaning (as he sees it) of the debated words, Singh (or anyone else in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) cannot re-publish the article in its original form without committing frank contempt of court. As well of course, as repeating the alleged defamation.

The English legal system (and other ones too) takes a very dim view of people “flouting” court decisions. This is not something confined to defamation cases. Were the Guardian, say, or Sense About Science, to try to re-publish the Singh article in its entirety, the result would undoubtedly be immediate legal injunctions to suppress the (re) publication. Further, if the republishing were done by Singh, or with his express or implied approval, this would certainly be taken as “compounding” the alleged libel (making the “damage to reputation” worse by saying it again after the judge had specifically ruled it was libel). This compounding would likely lead – in the event that Singh were ultimately to lose the case – to even higher damages being awarded against him.

However… none of this applies if the article is reprinted without the offending phrases about the original “offended entity”. The comments about chiropractic and chiropractors, and their much-demolished claims for their therapy for childhood ailments, are identical. But there is no defamation. So it seems a rather sensible measure to me.

But it’s backing down…isn’t it?  Can’t we pick a fight?

Again, the more “combative” might feel that there is being unnecessarily craven. After all, there is probably little chance of hordes of bloggers being pursued by the long arm of the libel law in the way that a newspaper probably would be were it to do something likely to be viewed as contempt of court.

Well, yes and no.

I certainly doubt individual bloggers would be pursued, unless they were very prominent and widely read – though as I understand it there would be nothing to stop the court seeking to punish such individuals for contempt. I would also hazard a guess that the more readers a blog has, the more seriously such an action would be viewed by the court. Which means I would be safe.

What I imagine might happen, let’s say if a blog was popular, would be that lawyers for the complainant could seek injunctions against the ISP and/or webhosting company that hosted a blog. These are (typically) companies with financial resources, and thus unenthusiastic about findings of contempt of court against them, or being fined large amounts of money. And the webhost would then take down the post, or even the entire blog.

We have, of course, been here before several times, e.g. with the Society of Homeopaths vs. the Quackometer, or the Quackometer vs. Joseph Chikelue Obi, and several others I could mention if I had more time. The last mentioned case is relevant because it was Netcetera, the Quackometer’s webhosting company, who insisted on taking down the post – necessitating the relocation of the Quackometer to another one, with attendant hiatus. And that was after just an utterly unconvincing threat of legal action – not an actual court ruling and the strong likelihood of being found in contempt of court.

Like it or not, once a court has started looking at the thing and made a ruling, flouting that ruling is not the same as re-publishing something that someone has merely claimed they think is defamatory (and muttered about “legal action”).

In the latter case – see the SoH vs. the Quackometer – by re-printing the piece one is showing solidarity, but also daring the offended person/organisation:

“Are you going to sue me too?”

(or yelling “Spartacus!”, if you prefer).

In the current situation one would be waving two fingers in the face of the judge, the courts and the legal system. Not a wise move. And unnecessary.

Because we are, arguably, past gestures now.  The CAM advocacy gang like to portray Badscience bloggers as a little clique of  like-minded obsessives. Things that can be portrayed as “acts of peevish-ness” can play into their hands. Far more sensible, in my view, to take things forward by mobilizing more and more people in a campaign to try and change the law, so that in future defamation suits will not be brought in such circumstances. And also to do what the bloggers have done – scrutinise the data underlying the disputed claims and show that Singh was speaking the truth about the lack of meaningful evidence for the claims made by the BCA and its members.

Ben Goldacre gives a lovely summary here , complete with Obi Wan Kenobi reference in the title. If you haven’t read Ben’s article, read it now.

It might even make you want to start a blog.

PS   – And if you aren’t one of the 15,000 people who have already signed Singh’s statement, please do that too.

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UPDATE – 31st July am: I see that Orac, who had originally reposted the original “unexpurgated” version of the article, has now changed it to the edited version, apparently at the request of Sense About Science.  Orac writes:

NOTE ADDED AFTER PUBLICATION: At the request of Sense About Science, I have removed the original version. They inform me that by reposting this I am potentially putting Simon Singh at risk for further action.

– which tends to rather bear out what I have written above.

To repeat: the solution lies in a change to the English Law of Libel.

The way in which the current law acts contrary to the public interest can also be seen in this excellent article by Nick Cohen. Cohen asks us to consider what might have happened to any academic who claimed that the financial model used by A.N. Other investment bank were flawed.  Or to take another example, what if there had been an English equivalent of Bernie Madoff, and an academic or journalist had tried to publish something claiming said hypothetical person’s multi-billion investment management business was all built on sand?

Remember that defamation lawyers in the UK do not term what they do these days “defamation”. Their preferred term is the more soothing (but actually more sinister):

“Reputation Management”.

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UPDATE No 2  – 31st July pm – STOP PRESS: Via Jack of Kent, I just saw that Simon Singh has been refused permission to appeal Sir David Eady’s ruling on meaning.  Permission to appeal had been refused at the initial hearing, and has now been refused by the Court of Appeal.

Simon can apparently still make an “oral renewal” of his petition for permission to appeal before the Court of Appeal.  This is presumably his next step. Beyond that there may be further appeals (all specifically of Mr Justice E’s preliminary ruling on meaning), to the House of Lords (or perhaps the Supreme Court of England and Wales, which I understand takes over formally as the highest English court towards the end of this year, though it will be the same old Law Lords as the “Supreme Justices”).  And  possibly thereafter as far as the European Court of Human Rights, should Singh claim that the ruling on meaning has the effect of violating his right to free speech.

Keep an eye on Jack of Kent’s blog for more information as it emerges.

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UPDATE No 3  –  1st August:

Jack of Kent has now posted a must-read post for all those following the case, in which he briefly sets out Simon’s options. The main one is, of course: quit or persevere?

Jack thinks that permission to appeal (PTA) is unlikely to be granted by the Court of Appeal, even on a further application. This would mean that “persevering” would imply either:

(i) a trial fought on Judge Eady’s interpretation of the contentious words, or

(ii) an appeal ultimately to the European Court of Rights, as happened in (e.g.) the McLibel case.

Neither of these options is exactly attractive, for different reasons – though both have in common that they are likely to be expensive.

The other option is to settle, perhaps with a very limited acknowledgement by Simon that he did not intend the meaning Eady and the BCA put on his words, and is sorry if anyone took them that way (a strategy termed by Jack the “Heresiarch Manoeuvre”, after the blogger who first suggested it) .

Importantly, Jack is soliciting opinion from the blogosphere. What do you think Simon should do? It Though ultimately the decision is Simon’s, it is commonly understood that he and his legal team read the blogs, and your opinion matters to them. So pop on over to Jack of Kent and have your say.

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UPDATE No. 3A

– more on the reasons for the Appeal Court’s decision- or more precisely, the decision handed down in writing by a single Appeal Court Judge who read the Singh team’s submission  – can be found over at Jack of Kent. In a classic piece of impenetrable egal-ese the judge refers to:

“…the length of the applicant’s [ i.e. Simon Singh’s] skeleton”.

Essentially the decision is as Jack had predicted; despite the extended arguments produced by Singh’s legal team (this is the aforementioned “length of the applicant’s skeleton”, i.e. his outline argument) the judge does not find anything of great legal import, or any obvious errors, in Sir David Eady’s ruling on meaning (yes, the words “happily….promotes….bogus” again).

This is as expected, Jack tells us,  since Eady was  asked to rule on the meaning, and such rulings on the meaning of words and phrases are rarely, if ever, reversed by the Court of Appeal.

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UPDATE No. 4 – 17th August

As probably all readers will all know, Simon Singh has decided, as of last Tuesday the 11th, to press on with the case. He has therefore applied, notwithstanding the earlier ruling against him by the Appeal Court Judge, to make an oral submission to the Court of Appeal.

Jack of Kent summarises succinctly:

Simon Soldiers On

Simon Singh has today confirmed that he will ask for an oral re-consideration of his application for Permission To Appeal.

Simon Singh also outlines his current thinking, including a full response to The Heresiarch’s Open Letter.

In practical terms, all this means that there will be a public hearing at the Court of Appeal in London on 14 October 2009.

This oral hearing will deal with whether Simon Singh can have a full appeal hearing against the adverse ruling on meaning.

Did you catch that last bit? The hearing will not, repeat, not, be an actual appeal against Eady’s ruling on meaning. It will be a hearing to argue that Singh should be allowed to contest the ruling on meaning at a subsequent full hearing.

Once again I am inspired to pinch the line:

“Confused?  You will be….”

Thus we are on hold again until mid-October. Though in the meantime Singh’s legal team will doubtless be busy; and there remains a good reason to keep exhorting people to sign the petition.

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SELF-PUBLICIST CORNER

Since no self-respecting blogger misses a chance of a bit of “Self-Biggin'”, here are links to the previous Dr Aust coverage of the case, from the beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

Down these mean streets

July 17, 2009

Instead of Bad Science, more ephemera and academic angst. Dr Aust has been missing his meetings. Well, I don’t mean “missing”, more missing, if you see what I mean.

While Dr Aust was away at his conference last week he managed to miss a couple of staff meetings. One of these was a “Principal Investigators Meeting”.

“Principal Investigators”, or “PIs” is what we are now encouraged to call lab heads, or group heads, or “academic staff”.

I don’t much like the term “PI”, which strikes me as a slightly heavy-handed attempt to make us sound like a US University. Having said that, I guess it is slightly useful as a term which differentiates us from the teaching-only academic staff (“investigator”), and “PI” does usefully encompass both lecturers etc. (staff paid from public funds to teach and to do research) and research fellows (paid by public or charity money to do almost exclusively research). But it still grates a bit.

And personally I can’t say or hear “PI” without thinking “Private Investigator”.

Perhaps I should start wearing a trench coat and carrying a loaded water pistol.

Anyway, at this PIs’ Meeting we were to meet our new Line Manager. The Line Manager is somewhat like a Head of Department in the old days, though the Department no longer exists as a geographical entity (the grouping our line manager manages is now split over three, or possibly four, buildings), and now contains some sixty-odd “PIs”.

Now, one of the difficulties with the kind of re-organisations that David Colquhoun is always bemoaning is that they inevitably lead to situations where people do not know the people they are officially being managed by. Or, conversely, the people they are managing. Hence the need for meetings to Meet the New Boss.

Though Dr Aust missed the meeting, he is fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) that he already knows the New Boss from having taught on the same course unit a few years back.

It’s, like, the matrix, dude

Another characteristic of large “matrix management” systems is that one inevitably ends up being “line-managed” by different people for different parts of one’s job.

While this may not seem that odd, and is commonplace in the commercial sector, it does potentially present problems when the different parts of the job all have to occupy the same time, and when many bits of the job (notably research) are “elastic” – as in, they expand to fill any available amount of time.

Academics in UK Universities have classically had three jobs – research, teaching, and University administration. (Nowadays one might add a fourth, public engagement activity. I am still trying to work out if anonymous blogs count for this bit, by the way)

Much of setting workloads in academia involves the trade-off between research on the one hand, and [teaching plus admin] on the other. The notional percentages in this split vary between jobs, and institutions, and perhaps between managerial regimes. Historically the split was very vaguely defined – indeed, when I started twenty-plus years back nothing was said at all, and you were left to get on with it.

Anyway, getting back to the trade-off of research against the other stuff. It is fairly obvious that this trading off (and the setting of tasks) is intrinsically easier and quicker if the person for whom one does these two jobs  – the “line manager” – is the same person.

If the people are different, as is now commonplace, it is more difficult to make the trade:

“I can’t take on X job (teaching on course Y) as well as Z job (admin task) because I will then not have the time to do ABC jobs (research) effectively”.

Not impossible, note – just more difficult, involving more arguing and running backwards and forwards from one line-manager to the other, none of whom may know you and your work very well.

The Spreadsheet has Spoken

Nowadays this sort of discussion also usually involves a very very large Excel spreadsheet.

Sometimes I actually have the feeling that my bosses see me almost entirely as a line of cells in an Excel spreadsheet. Probably with many of the cells coloured red.

Indeed, with the computing power and logic operations now available, I am pretty sure the Excel spreadsheet can identify me automatically as a “possible problem”, without any input from my human bosses being required at all.

Still, at least I don’t work at the neighbouring North of England University whose academic staff were telling me at the conference that they are being threatened with having to re-apply for their own jobs.

So as usual, “tout va au bien”, as Voltaire might have said, “dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”.

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PS – If you hadn’t spotted it, the title of this post is a reference that I have dragged in kicking and screaming from the work of Raymond Chandler, noted writer of classic Private Eye (PI) fiction and creator of the immortal Philip Marlowe.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

— Chandler “The Simple Art of Murder”

Apart from the fact that I have always loved Chandler’s books, the phrase “a disgust for sham” makes me think that Chandler would have been a natural sceptic.