Monday 13 July 2009

From a Moon question back to the BCA again

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 1969. Credit: APOD.

Last week a friend asked me why, in the old Apollo pictures of the Moon landings, we can't see any stars. I didn't actually know offhand - not being around during 1969, it's something I've taken for granted rather than gazed at in awe for long lengths of time. (A shame, considering the excitement I could have gone through! I think I would have liked the 1970's, too . . .) So I hadn't really noticed. Nevertheless, I hazarded a guess that the Sun's light was too strong in comparison. If the Moon had an atmosphere, I explained, the light would get scattered and give the Moon a sky. Anyway, I said, I'll get back to you.

Fluffyporcupine from the forum took about 5 seconds to find the precise answer: not what I'd said, but nearly. It's because the photographic film didn't pick them up. The stars were too faint in comparison to the Sun. The astronauts would probably have been able to see them, but their eyes are stronger. Any picture you see with stars in it has had plenty of exposure time. For instance, even though stars are much clearer in real dark skies than under the streetlights we know, pictures such as Wally Pacholka's must have taken several minutes or even hours to take for this effect.

The Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Credit: APOD.

Fluffy had found the question here. That's a site I'll be having a nose around as soon as I can - but I've recently started using Ask an Astronomer and was looking to see if they had something about it that I could point my friend to. They didn't; but they did have a very sad story about some of the nonsense - and horrible things - people have spouted about the Moon landings. Even accusing NASA of deliberately killing astronauts.

"Shocking and awful . . . This is a very upsetting accusation," writes Britt Scharringhausen, one of the Ask an Astronomer volunteers (not someone who ever worked on the Apollo missions, from the looks of things!). But, and please correct me if I'm wrong, I haven't heard anything about NASA suing these people for lying about them.

That hit me all of a sudden while I was reading another excellent Jack of Kent post about the BCA and the Simon Singh case. He makes many very sensible points, but these two, particularly, hit me:

I still know little about - say - osteopathy, reiki or acupuncture, for the simple reason that practitioners of the latter do not seem to threaten to sue people when criticised to the same level.
In essence, Simon Singh's article was critical of the evidence base for certain treatments for children's ailments.

As such, it is my fundamental view that - absent malice - such statements should be published without fear of legal action.

Indeed, my view is that the law should be there to protect such statements not hinder them.

Debate about public health - and public safety and police powers - should be as free as possible.
Simon Singh wrote that the BCA "happily promotes these bogus treatments". By that he meant that they happily promote treatments which have not been proven to work, and they claim that these treatments do work. To me, this is dishonesty. Apparently, to the law, this is benevolent ignorance and they're quite entitled to carry on doing it!

By their own reasoning, the BCA should have been sued for making a silly statement. Seriously, which has the potential to cause more harm? An accusation of promoting bogus treatment? Or a claim that chiropractic will heal toddlers of eczema - which brings along the parents with a patient too young to make his own decisions, who is highly unlikely to be cured and has a chance of being hurt? (I'm sure it's not common for people to get hurt in chiropractic, but it does happen - admittedly this link does rule out toddlers.)

A few weeks ago I was watching the TV - in someone else's house, I might add - and three people were dissing medicine and the MMR vaccine. No mention whatsoever was made of the MMR research being very thoroughly proven wrong. It was all about emotion and suspicion, and people clearly making decisions - and encouraging their audience to make their decisions - by "weighing up" such feelings. "I took my son to have the vaccine, I was really uncomfortable about it, I knew it was wrong, and the light went out of his eyes a few weeks later," this woman said. No, she wasn't Jenny McCarthy, even though she was copying her words. Her son was autistic, and I can well imagine the anger and helplessness and sorrow she would have gone through (it's worrying enough when my cats are ill). Such emotions make you want to blame something. But symptoms of autism develop just around the age when the MMR vaccine is due. "A mother is right to be worried, mothers have to make their own choice about what's best for their own children," was the conclusion. This wasn't an in-depth program which would have to be answered with "the other point of view", either - it was one of those ten-minute snippets (otherwise I would have made some excuse to leave the room).

The major problems with it was that it mentioned no actual facts, let alone statistics; there was no weighing up of what's more important - the whole population's health or that of a single child, or a proven-negligible risk versus a nasty one; and that they were trying to be nice and balanced by giving all the coverage to the scaremongers. Oh, and there were a few scary shots of needles and so on, but doctors, evidently, were faraway wizards who didn't need a voice . . .

But imagine if the medical profession had been the BCA. The implications being made against doctors every few days by normal TV are terrible, if you think about it. Catch the medical profession suing over people airing their worry, though.

One could also say that by the BCA's reasoning, palaeontologists and biologists and other scientists should be able to sue the Creation Museum for making terrible claims about their lives' work. (For me the most ridiculous thing was the idea of war and famine stemming from belief in evolution. Evolution is far more about co-operation and altruism than about war and famine. I might turn the question back on them and ask why the Old Testament God seemed so keen on genocide?) But obviously, unlike the BCA, scientists have better things to do than that!

As an aside, Jack of Kent raised a smile (mine) when he mentioned the police and public safety, too. Since the Ian Tomlinson case, I have learnt that now the police won't allow people to photograph them. I can see their point that the photographs might be used for terrorists to "get him". But that seems rather a low risk compared to people getting injured in demonstrations because of an overzealous police force, and no evidence being allowed to be collected about it.

At least the police haven't sued Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for writing that article, either.

I don't believe that the BCA really care what the public thinks; it looks to me as if they just want the money. They declined the offer to respond to the claim, for a start. And as it's often been pointed out, on more than one blog, the suing has got them a lot of negative publicity. Hopefully at a lot more cost than any compensation they might win . . .

Anaxagoras was imprisoned for hypothesising that the Sun was not a deity but a ball of iron. Well, Marcus Chown says iron and the Open University says stone, but in any case, astronomers believed that the Sun was made of iron until well into the 20th century. Gallileo is now a hero because of his treatment by the Catholic Church. And all the guilt and self-criticism the congregation is asked to repeat again and again in church services is clearly an important part of the worship of Jesus. I wonder if his influence would be so great today if they hadn't cruelly murdered him?

Good scientists want only to do good. But what they do is difficult, and especially with a population fed far more media hype than good education, they're often easy to attack. People make a lot of claims and counter-claims these days, and some are rather hurtful. But the astronomers and astronauts who are hurt by the hateful accusations of faking the Moon landings and killing three men, the doctors who are accused of giving children autism - they are wise and respected for not suing idiots when they shout their whims. They're like parents who know when they need not bother arguing with a child. And they know better than to make these people martyrs.


Jack of Kent said...

Thanks for the kind mentions Alice.

The threat of being sued, or being arrested or prosecuted, can be a rational fear regardless of whether you are confident that you have not actully done anything wrong.

This means that things are left unsaid, which perhaps should be said, because of the risk of legal action or legal coercion.

In many areas, for example business dealings or court cases, there is immunity or "privilege". This is because the law recognises that there is a public interest in candour, even if "defamatory".

I think that this protection should cover discussions about public health and safety, and police powers, because people are just too intimidated from saying potentially useful things, and that is just not appropriate in a free and liberal society.

Best wishes, Jack of Kent

ps I am a fan of your Blog too and I am glad to see my mate Edd posting on this site as well.

Alice said...

Thanks Jack of Kent. I was delighted to see you here. As I'm sure you've noticed, I enjoy reading your blog too. I'm learning a lot from it.

I agree with you - public health is far more important than the BCA's hurt feelings, and the court is no place to settle things like that.

Edd's a great person! And I bet he wouldn't sue me if I said his card tricks were bogus, either.