Friday 19 June 2009

Congratulations Bunny/Nathaniel!

I must definitely keep up with the news more often. An old friend from Cornwall, who I knew as Bunny but is now also known as Nathaniel Burton-Bradford, has done some cool enough work to have his pictures displayed and linked to on Universe Today! I only found out because I decided to do some proper work writing about Herschel and M51 on the forum.

Credit: Nathaniel's photostream. Do check out the rest! I've met Frodo the dog. He's very excitable.

The above is the one in the article; there are more of Herschel and other craft in 3D, and many other interesting pictures besides. I wish 3D glasses worked for me, but since they do for other people, I shall be inclusive even if it means excluding myself - haha, was that good enough, political correctness? Just kidding. I'm really pleased.

I can't resist adding this one, which is called "22 degree halo". I have no idea what the "22 degree" bit means - but perhaps we'll be enlightened in Oxford on Sunday! I do, however, remember these haloes turning up a lot in Cornwall. Many years before, during the winter of 2000/01, I'd been living in Warrington, near Manchester, where I was desperately cold. I remember the feeling of the metal mattress springs sucking the heat from my body. I'd put all my clothes on over my pyjamas, wrap the duvet around me like a coccoon, and put my towel and coat on top of it, but still I shivered. The fire gave me a blinding headache within minutes of being switched on (I'm sure it had a certificate for carbon monoxide safety, but everything did regardless of what state it was in). The canal froze so hard that someone chucked bottles and a rock the size of my head on it one morning and the ice wasn't even cracked. In short, I was a lot colder in Warrington than I ever was in Cornwall - but it was Cornwall where I saw those haloes.

Credit: Nathaniel's photostream.

They appeared around streetlights and car headlights in the early morning, as I walked to school in the dark, often before 7am. They looked to me like ring galaxies. They were golden around streetlamps, white or rainbow coloured around cars. And sometimes they'd appear around my bedside light as soon as I'd switched it on - and in its reflection in the mirror. They were beautiful, shimmering with bright colours, and I'd miss them as the sun came up and they faded.

Infinity found me a site to explain that they were light polarization, caused by ice crystals in the air. These crystals are hexagonal and reflect or refract light in a way that water droplets do not. It's interesting that there was ice in the air in warm Cornwall, but not cold Warrington. Anyway, the light effects were cool, and it's great to have an excuse to show them to you even by this roundabout route!

Obsessed? Me?


Sunday 14 June 2009

Ooooh, had enough suing, eh?

I haven't been covering the Simon Singh case very coherently, especially not the most recent post, because I was too busy howling with laughter to dissect it properly. This time, I won't even try. Just check out Phil's noticeboard pointing towards the general direction of Crispian Jago. I'm going to be up all night trying to reword the Black Knight scene now . . .

By the way, if you're still thinking about coming to Oxford, it's not too late. I meant to book the accommodation today, but will do so tomorrow - so you've missed your chance for being sure of staying where I am! Today I spent playing games on . . . ahem, I mean resurrecting and bringing back into use my beloved laptop, and creating far too many Galaxy Zoo puzzles. My favourite is this crossword. Use both and to create your own! I used these in the classroom and they were surprisingly popular.

Yes, it's one of those seasons. (Can't even say "months".) I really will write something good at some point. Oh yes - to make up for it - one more joke for you. From Wongo the Sane on the Galaxy Zoo Forum . . .
And so, Noah asked all the animals to go forth and multiply, and thus they did, apart from the poor adders whom, according to their nature, could not multiply but only add. But the story does not end there.

For Noah, seeing the adders non-compliant with his rulings, and taking it as disobedience, said once and again to the adders to go forth and multiply, and each time the answer came back negative.

And so, on the third time of asking, Noah, for he was verily ticked off at that point, did lock them in the wood shed until they were successful.

And, lo, the next morning thousands of tiny adders came streaming forth from the woodshed.

There, said Noah, that wasn't that hard now, was it? Why were you not able to do it before?

Well, said the adders, we have told you the problem before. However, once we got into the woodshed the problem was solved. We just used logs...

Wednesday 10 June 2009

If you don't like craneflies, screaming hysterically won't get them out of your room - only draw attention to you.

Sorry, but I really couldn't resist that headline. I am cracking up laughing at the Bad Astronomer's latest post - "Chiropocalypse". Drop this blog right now and go and read it.

Back? Laughing too?

Good, let's have a cup of tea.

Somebody very sensible wrote to The Independent, or something like that (I can't remember now), to chastise them for giving Nick Griffin of the BNP the publicity he was after. 2 seats in the European parliament is certainly something to groan and roll our eyes at, and an invitation to say: "Well done MPs. That's what you get for making us pay for repairing your lovers' dryrot and whinging on about how you are only getting six times as much as someone on your celebrated minimum wage, who is lying awake at night wondering how to pay for their kids' childcare while they're punching checkouts against their will." But screaming our heads off won't get rid of fascism, only encourage it. There's nothing more satisfying than knowing you've really frightened and annoyed your opposition. How much is he actually going to achieve? Don't take any notice of him and he won't get so far.

Similarly, the British Chiropractice Association might learn a lesson or two. They have now gone bananas! Witch hunt? Er, who started the witch hunt? You, I think, mate. Somebody points out that you have incorrectly claimed that there is "evidence" that young children's non-spinal ailments can be treated by your profession, and instead of stumping up this evidence like any mature person (let alone doctor or scientist) wouldn't find hard, you have a little tantrum and sue him. Naturally quite a few people are not on your side about this, so now you advise your workers to remove all information about chiropractice altogether, so that any customers thinking of going to you will be even less informed than before. This seems to be a continuation of your girly little "I'm-not-speaking-to-you" stance when the original article appeared - you were invited to write a rebuttal and turned it down!

I didn't even know the difference between chiropractice and chiropody when this started. The scrutinisation, complaints and negative publicity you're getting through your own childish behaviour is bound to set you back far more than Simon Singh's words that hurt you so deeply. Indeed, I do hope your legal fees and lost custom will cost you an awful lot more than you'd gain from any payout you'd get from Simon. In the meantime, I wonder who would actually benefit from that payout? Your practitioners? A spot of research? Hmmmmm. The top executives, I don't doubt. Not that I'm quite interested enough to delve in and find out. I'm too busy laughing, and I doubt you'd tell me.

Well, perhaps I'm being a little unfair. The BCA does seem to be attempting to protect its "doctors", and this makes extremely funny reading. Oooooh, and what a surprise - this is NOT to be discussed with patients! I wonder who naughtily released it?

In the meantime, Sense About Science's campaign is going well! We have a special button now; please click to add your name, and you can download it here:

free debate

It's not being ignored, either! As you see below, three politicians - one from each "major" party (pre-European-elections major, anyway) - have signed a statement in our support:
Original page here.

Now, I've nothing new or more informed than anyone else to say on the subject, but I can't resist writing up a few interesting views I've seen written. I've seen a few people remark that this is "scientists seeking to be above the law", and that they'd rather have signed to say that our libel laws are an embarrassment, rather than to protect scientists especially. I can understand this. I don't believe scientists generally seek to be above the law, but they can't be the only unfair victims of this sort of thing. However, as soon as someone is given an exemption to a rule, everyone else will want that exemption too. So I hope this is a good way to start chipping at a block generally - and the wording of the statement of support is encouraging on that front too.

On Jack of Kent's excellent blog, which I'm now following, someone has written an open e-mail to the BCA, detailing pretty much what I've written above about ignorance turning into . Scroll down past all those names to the comments! Jack of Kent (who turned out to my surprise and amusement to be David Allen Green) also details why, no matter how much money they get if they win the case, it's not going to help them in the long run. "A whole range of key opinion-formers are now hostile to the British Chiropractic Association and about chiropractic generally," he writes, then: ". . . [i]t . . . turns an almost-unknown professional body into a notorious bogeyman for scientists and journalists - both here and elsewhere. For the British Chiropractic Association is now a proxy for international dislike of the English libel laws . . ." Also, any complaints - for example to do with advertising accuracy - made against them will now certainly get a very interested public hearing!

Someone in my family said, "Will they care, as long as they get a massive payout?" I don't know. In any case it's certainly put their future on a more interesting course than it would have been otherwise.

Simon Singh himself is a great inspiration to us all. I'm particularly impressed by his statement to the many people who wish to contribute to a legal fund for him that, with three bestsellers out, although he will be poorer if he loses, "my wife and I will be able to cope" - and therefore could there please be a general fund to help Sense About Science and/or the next journalist this happens to. His statement is very thoughtful.

I began reading Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" recently, and my favourite bit so far has been the school pupils who wrote in delightedly about their science teachers who would teach them real science once minute and unproven nonsense about "energy flow" the next, due to this new "Brain Gym" phenomenon in schools. (He has an amusing little blog entry on the subject too.) Can I say it often enough? The solution to all these kinds of things is better mainstream science education. Stop viewing science as somewhere between a lot of boring incomprehensible maths and unquestionable magic, and make it something wonderful and reachable to all.

The depressing points people remark on are the niggly little technicalities - for example, that the issue hangs on the use of the word "bogus", whose meaning is seized upon as meaning "deliberately deceitful/harmful". Frankly, I think their refusal to be informative deserves a remark like that, but the point is that Simon now has to prove that that word is not libel, rather than discuss science and evidence and alternative medicine. He doesn't say this precisely, but something like it - it is under the heading "The Recent Disastrous Ruling". He has to prove the accuracy of his statement.

And what really gets me is the guilty-until-proven-innocent method. I think I have gone on, and will no doubt go on, on other occasions about this quite enough, so will leave it there.

In the meantime, I wonder if we could ask the British Chiropractice Association a few questions under the Freedom of Information Act?

Thursday 4 June 2009

Sense About Science

I'm still in a state of aaaaaaargh-ness (no, sadly nothing to do with the Castle Argh), but just a very quick entry here to encourage you all to read this excellent article by the Bad Astronomer. It seems that Simon Singh, a science journalist, dared to criticise the British Chiropractic Association for making unproven claims about their treatment - so they sued him.

Of course, if they had genuine confidence he was wrong, they would have ignored or answered him. However, as they haven't got any scientific evidence, they decided to attack him and try to gag him instead. What a mature response! Even more depressingly, the judge seems to agree with them. The unquestioned might of the corporation versus truth and science. Well, it's rebounded. There is now quite a campaign going, which I've signed. (For "profession" I put "unemployed amateur astronomer". I was tempted to put "starving artist-of-science", but I did feel this was a moment to attempt to be taken seriously.) If you sign, you're stating that libel laws should not come into science - i.e., in this case, businesses which claim to cure ailments have a responsibility to collect evidence to back up their claims, and citizens should not be bullied into silence when they know the claims are unproven.

If Simon Singh is successfully sued, the logical conclusion is that any old flashy corporation could sell poison and claim that it'll make your teeth shine, or your breath smell of roses, or you'll never get a common cold again - and anyone who discovered otherwise could be punished for saying so, and the general public not permitted to know anything.

I used to work in a hospital and every few days there'd be drug companies there, handing out corrosive coffee and leaflets and trying to persuade the doctors to buy their drugs rather than decide what was best for the patient. I have also heard of cases of them offering doctors thousands of pounds not to publish their research on the ill effects of drugs.

C'mon, folks, which matters more, people's health and scientific truth, or some business's money?

(To avoid getting sued myself: like Phil, and indeed like Singh, I am not claiming that all or any chiropracters are deliberately lying about their treatment. But whether the practicioners themselves have faith or not is immaterial: the effects on their patients will be the same.)

As an aside, this paragraph in Phil's article surprised me:
In the US that would be a dumb thing to do, as our libel laws put the burden of proof on the claimant (in this case, the BCA), as things should be. However, the UK is very different: when party A sues party B for libel, it’s up to party B to prove their innocence.
I thought it was worse in America, but perhaps that was just stereotypes creeping in, not to mention hundreds of stories about crazy lawsuits. In any case it sounds rather like the government's attitude to terrorism: the accused is guilty until they can prove themselves innocent - and it's quite all right to detain them, deny them access to a lawyer or even tell them what they're accused of or when they'll be free, and undermine their health and sanity, to prevent them having a chance to prove anything. (As an aside: If you accuse me of having stolen a box of chocolates when I was 13, I can't see any way I could prove that I didn't!)

It reminded me of a comment made about another recent article by Phil, on the subject of mass rapings of small girls. Somebody pointed out that it's traditional language for people to "admit" to having been raped, as if the victims are somehow guilty. That article too is worth a read, by the way.

I've gone off on a tangent, and am not sure now whether this post is about the respect for truth and the nasty consequences of a lack of this, or about the fashion for aggression and blame towards the victim or accused person, rather than the one who started the aggression or accusations. I guess they're all rather tied up together. In the meantime - back to work, and thanks to Pamela and Arfon for squishing lots of bugs on our forum and improving the place a LOT since a week ago!

Update: On the subject of the English libel laws, and for Singh's very restrained and well-thought-out take on what is happening, this is excellent. How embarrassing to learn that a learned lawyer considers that English libel laws are so badly out of sync with the rest of the world, and their automatic support of the accuser makes them so easy to get money out of whoever you like with little effort. I.e.:
As the lawyer David Allen Green wrote in New Scientist: "Once the claimant has established they have a reputation in England, and that there is a defamatory statement, they have an automatic right to bring legal proceedings without having to show any damage has been suffered. It then falls to the unfortunate defendant to prove before the court, often at considerable expense, that the statement was defensible. This is the notorious "reverse burden of proof" which, for many, discredits English libel law."