Supporting Simon Singh

Simon Singh making speech outside Royal Courts of Justice this morning

Last night I attended my second ever Skeptics in the Pub, this time at the Westminster branch which was entitled “Science Libel Survivors – Rally of the Skeptics”, and held the night before Simon Singh’s hearing at the Court of Appeal regarding his case with the British Chiropractic Association. (For those not familiar with Simon’s case, as Simon put it: the Jack of Kent blog is a good place to start… and end!).

As per my previous visit to a Skeptics in the Pub event, this was an entertaining, chilling and educational event and I’d recommend anyone to give it a go. I’ve heard a lot about Simon’s case thanks to the slightly geeky science, news, politics circle that I seem to move in (students), but hearing the tales of those being sued, particularly Peter Wilmshurst, really brought home to me the need for libel reform in this country. I know it is cliche, but it really is throttling the criticism of scientific ideas and their practice, which is no way to do science: a method which thrives on peer-review and having your ideas scrutinised.

Libel Reform supporters with placards outside the court

With that in mind, I decided to get up extra early this morning and trudge down to the Royal Courts of Justice to show my support for Simon Singh and libel reform in general before his hearing today. I also took the opportunity to sign the petition for libel reform, and encourage everyone to do the same, if not for Simon then the next journalist, blogger, scientist or medic who falls foul of someone with a lot more financial backing and has to retract their statement.

In terms of today, it sounds like a success from what I can see from those avidly tweeting the event with the hashtag #SinghBCA, with the judge’s posing some awkward questions for the BCA. The first news article from the hearing is at the Index on Censorship and Jack of Kent is due to blog about today’s hearing any minute, so I will leave it to those who were actually there and are of a legal persuasion to comment on what actually happened.

However, regardless of today’s hearing and the ruling further down the line, that doesn’t stop the ongoing reform campaign being massively significant, so I urge anyone that reads this to make sure they have signed up.

Jack of Kent has just completed his blog post on the day in court.

Homeopathy closer to home

In the last post, I mentioned that the evidence and perception of homeopathy is becoming a “great interest of mine”. I thought I’d better explain why, rather than just leaving it as some ambiguous waffle.

The main reason my interest has suddenly just shot up is that homeopathy has just merged two of my hobbies: grumbling about science and student politics. This has happened in the form of the Birkbeck University Homeopathic Society which formed earlier this year at Birkbeck, where I study, and has been advertised in the lifts for a while now.

Now, I’m aware that the NHS spends around £4million every year on homeopathy, and that is alarming, but somewhat abstracted from me: I wouldn’t choose to do it and by virtue of not having a job, I don’t pay taxes to help support it. However, when it starts to occur in the same building as me, associated with the name of my university and in a place where many of us are practising a real science, with the scientific method, it becomes a lot harder to swallow. Made even worse (or maybe better), by the fact that their website proclaims them to be Middlesex Uni students – so what opportunity the society creates for Birkbeck students in beyond me.

So that is the reason behind my new found interest and I’m definitely going to be doing a bit of digging and maybe even start a little campaign of my own.

For more information on homeopathy, I can’t recommend enough the 10:23 site, particularly here for a quick overview of what the fuss is.

Skeptics in the Pub – London

Ok, so this was nearly a week ago now, but I’ve been busy!

On Monday I had the pleasure of attending my first meeting of the London branch of Skeptics in the Pub. Both me and my friend (female) were pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t just a room full of boring looking middle-aged men as the name (and some of their photos…) might proclaim. Although it is mostly male.

Any how, Monday’s speaker was Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) of The Lay Scientist. He gave a humorous (if not foul-mouthed) account of his work as press officer for the excellent 10:23 campaign (Homeopathy: There’s nothing in it). Homeopathy, its evidence and how widely understood it is are becoming great interests of mine, on the back of reading Ben Goldacre’s book: Bad Science and my previous disdain for how poorly science is generally understood by and communicated to the public.

This meeting was the opposite to all that dumbing down and proved that you can present graphs and real data to the (self-selecting) masses who might not be experts and people are receptive to that. I will certainly be attending the next one.

British Media Coverage of the Christmas Day Bomber

I’d love to write a long critique of the media coverage of this terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam on Christmas Day, but alas, I think it would probably take me the rest of the day and I have an essay to work on. Instead, some short thoughts will have to suffice.

Understandably, the British media are focussing on the perpetrator’s time in the UK, in London to be precise and the changes Britain is making to its airport security. What I don’t understand is the efforts of some (the Telegraph, basically) to appear to lay the blame squarely at UCL’s door.

This shown best in this Telegraph article. At the time of writing, some of the later comments have the right idea, but the article appears to suggest that UCL should monitor the activities of those that attend it. At first pass, that sort of seems reasonable, drawing parallels with a school or other welfare oriented organisation. And then you realise (or don’t in the case of the Telegraph), that isn’t the purpose of Universities. They exist to teach adults advanced concepts without the nannying or fussing of a school.

This sentiment is put perfectly by a comment by Ross Anderson on the above article:

we have neither the skills nor the management structures needed [for monitoring students]. Monitoring troublemakers is the special branch’s job (whatever it’s called this week) just as putting out fires is the fire brigade’s job.

This something I totally agree with: why isn’t more blame (or at least scrutiny) being given to both our security services and there American counterparts. I’ve travelled the US recently and they ask for a lot of data before you even get to the airport, so it does beg the question: what are they doing with that information?

Other recent Telegraph articles inciting a backlash against universities are here and here. The first one, and perhaps the most outrageous; accusing UCL of being “complicit” in the attacks is here.

Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of UCL had his say in the THE, a brilliant article which I wish more people would read.

Microsoft does something *well*

Ok, so I bitch about stuff quite a lot on my Twitter. The other day I happened to tweet (not very elegantly) that MS Word for Mac had crashed and taken some work with it…

However, a few hours later I was then contacted via Twitter by @nadyne. She works as a User Experience Researcher for Microsoft. Now whilst it is clearly her job to collect crash reports etc, it is *somewhat* satisfying to think that people are watching your random outbursts on the web and translating them into something useful.

I do fear that I have just played into Microsoft’s current marketing though. Maybe I’ll be saying on some cheesy ad: “I’m a Mac, and Office 2010 was my idea…”. Or not.

The hype that is The X Factor and Jedward

Now, I don’t watch The X Factor, but being on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve obviously heard about this year’s contestants. I did, however, catch this weeks results show.

Now all I’d heard of Lucie Jones was her part in the Katy Perry song at the top of the show (X factor Finalists sing Hot’n’Cold) and I don’t think she should have gone based on that – she did that song brilliantly. Equally, the twins can’t sing but are (relatively) fun to watch.

This post isn’t about that though really – it’s about the way the internet can hype these things. After the show, I changed my Facebook status to “Jedward ftw!”, to see what’d happen. Sure enough I was inundated with replies, most of them incredulous that I could think such a thing. However, over in some Facebook groups, this was occurring on a much greater and more interesting scale. Within a few hours, thousands of people had joined a group called “I hate Simon Cowell for keeping Jedward in!” It is now at over 3300 less than 24 hours later, and this is just one group. What is also surprising is the level of vitriol that Simon Cowell and John and Edward are subjected to on it.

I think this just proves the power of social media (maybe I should be a “Social Media Consultant” whatever that is…), along with the previous 2 notable social media stories: Trafigura/Carter-Ruck and Stephen Gately/Jan Moir.

What got me actually thinking about this over dinner last night was this question though:

Would The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing be as successful without “social media” and/or Web 2.0?

There is of course data from the pre-Facebook, Twitter and MySpace age for shows like Big Brother and I’m a celebrity… so it couldn’t be that hard. Even so, pretty far away from my preferred field of structural biology. Think I’ll leave it to a social scientist somewhere…

UCL reaches 4th in the world!

(First written 8th October 2009)

So the THE World University rankings 2009 were published this morning. It shows UCL (my alma mater) climb yet again to make it the 4th university in the world and moving ahead of Oxford to 2nd in the UK. This is an amazing feat and probably well deserved given the profile of research undertaken there. Certainly in my field (life science), UCL research or an academic from UCL is often quoted in the media – showing both how well respected the research and researchers are thought of.

So in terms of research output, I am quite prepared to believe that UCL is 4th in the world, but to prospective students beware. In my view, UCL is not a world-leader in terms of undergraduate satisfaction. This is borne out by the National Student Satisfaction, shown at UniStats. At least (and again in my field), UCL performs badly at things like assessment and providing good feedback to undergraduates.

That said, especially in 3rd year when doing research projects, there is a feel for being in an amazing research environment and having tutorials with lecturers and academics whose names you recognise from having read and cited their prominent papers in your own essays.

I would say that UCL is a great place to study (and has a great student union) if you are able to work by yourself and are quite self-reliant. If you are looking to have your hand-held a bit more – move along.

Science in the European elections

With all the current talk about the recession and the economic meltdown – to use two of the oft used phrases – it is important to remember that the European elections are about much more than economics.

The MEPs we elect tomorrow will be making policy on a huge number of areas for the next five years and while some of these economic pledges may sounds like a great quick-fix, I think it is important to review all the policies of a party rather than voting on the headline grabbing ones.  The point is demonstrated particularly well by the The Times’ discussion over the Green Party’s scientific manifesto, but I think the point generalises to all parties and all areas of policy.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has a breakdown of all parties’ scientific policies here. Also, VoteMatch is a webiste that can tell you your overall leaning, based on asking you about your thoughts on some policies.

Certainly something to bear in mind before we hit the polls tomorrow.

Scandals ending in "-gate"

I posted this to Twitter the other day, but I am quite bored of the media referring to more or less anything the public might find scandelous as “-gate”. This was spurred on by the most recent spot of  “expensesgate” on the BBC website the other day. Other recent -gate scandals have been “smeargate” culminating in the departure of Damian McBride, “Sachsgate” about the rude phone calls made by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross and “Liegate” (actually at least a funny pun, having the word “ligate” to fall back on) regarding Lewis Hamilton and the F1 lies. Apparently the -gate scandals don’t need to involve central Government any more.

I just think this classic “newsroom joke” is past it now. I had to look up when the Watergate scandal actually was. 1974. This pun (if you can call it that) has been running for 35 years. I also think it has been somewhat cheapened given the original (and best?) involved the departure of the President, compared to some sportman telling porkies to the regulatory body.

Can we end it soon please, journalists of the world?