Friday, 9 April 2010

Nine Days' Woo Report, brought to you by the Blogosphere

As I expect you know by now, Simon Singh won his appeal. This is terrific news for the scientific, journalistic, medical and any communicating bodies, who have not only given Simon their staunch support for nearly two years, but have been awaiting the outcome on tenterhooks about what it means for their professions.

It sounds like the judges made it clear that they are in favour of libel reform. Perhaps, in future, it will be less dangerous to reveal that a new drug may have some side effects your colleagues don't want the world to know about; that some bigshot actually did put millions into funding some dodgy enterprise; or that there is actually no real evidence to support the miraculous claims being made by self-styled health practictioners . . . because, as Richard Dawkins expressed so beautifully months ago, Simon's case has been a landmark.

It can't have been easy for Simon. He's lost out 2 years of his life. He hasn't been able to do any more writing for the Guardian or even start any more great science books - so, in effect, he has been silenced even while he fights. I've only ever had the faintest taste of a legalese attack and it is just as stressful as he says. But he's not giving up, because he is - and this is rare - in a position not to do so. At the moment, most writers do simply because defending yourself is more than they can afford. What is even sillier is that, on the grounds that a website or a few books might be read in Britain, people in totally different countries can pop along here to sue each other. And for that reason, there are laws being passed in America to protect their own citizens from us, and the National Enquirer have blocked us. Try and go there from anywhere in Britain! Not that it sounds like earth-shattering news that everyone needs to know, like science is; but how embarrassing can you get?

You can read a lot more at a court analysis, a guest post and an open letter at Jack of Kent; a wonderful article at Thinking is Real . . . and so many more, but my personal favourite is this succinct tweet from VizTopTips: "QUACKS: If you are happily promoting bogus treatments, keep the whole thing quiet by suing people. No-one will notice."

The BCA's press release gave me and several others quite some amusement. If I remember rightly, they complained about the "happily promotes bogus treatments" but Judge Eady didn't "agree" with them, he actually took it a lot further than they'd ever even thought of, didn't he? "The Guardian subsequently offered a right of reply but this fell short of our expectations, not least of which because the original libel would have remained uncorrected." In other words, this was because they couldn't reply convincingly - as their "plethora of evidence" demonstrated. "The BCA has followed its legal advice throughout this case." Oh, are they libelling their poor hardworking lawyers now? Or perhaps their lawyers gave them advice which would earn themselves the most money, rather than the most sensible route . . . ? "The motivation for this action was always to clear our good name, particularly in respect of the implication that we acted dishonestly." Simon himself has said he doesn't consider the BCA to be dishonest - and yet their refusal to produce anything that convincingly says the opposite must have given an awful lot of people that idea, far more than would have thought it simply by reading the article. (Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" is very careful to distinguish between nuttiness and actual lying, for example in the case of nutritionists who claim on telly that each glass of fruit juice adds 6 months to one's life.) "It never was, and it is still not our intention, to curb freedom of speech, whether in the field of scientific research or elsewhere, although sadly we recognise that this is how it has been portrayed by Dr. Singh and his supporters”. Well, since intentions don't seem to come into it, how about the entire world of scientific research and elsewhere sue you folks for doing it in practice then? "Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged." I wonder who is the most responsible for that.

A commenter on Jack's open letter proposed that the BCA are less bothered about the consequences of their silly action than the importance of seeing Simon punished. That reminded me of a remark by one of Bismarck's contemporaries, which I read about in Hannah Pakula's "An Uncommon Woman": "He would always repay a pinprick with a knife thrust." Bismarck was a master of reinterpretation and of grand scale punishment for the least little annoyances. If the BCA really want to look like proper doctors, perhaps they should behave like real ones who put up with daily nutty accusations of forced vaccination, misdiagnosis, failure to be on call 24/7, failure to save 94-year-old cancer victims so complete incompetence, etc. etc. etc.

Now, before I get sued (so could someone please save a copy of this page in order for it to multiply across the blogosphere later), on to more amusing woonecdotes.

Check out this petition to save the London Homeopathic Hospital. I am Tara Rara Boomteay. To this day I am not sure if it is real or not, or if they are going to count the spoof votes.

Have you been watching Wonders of the Solar System? There is still a day or two left on iplayer to catch up if not - I certainly need to, my family not being into TV and us therefore not having switched over to digital yet. (Our local butcher doesn't understand how we survive. He obviously hasn't met the delights of the Internet.) Anyway, Brian Cox seems to have enchanted millions and annoyed a few with what I doubt very much was "an unfortunate chance remark" about astrology, so the poor little astrologers have got mighty upset. I'm astonished they didn't manage to predict it.

Actually before Jourdemayne's talk began last Thursday, Edd and I had a great conversation in the pub about astrology. I told him I was thinking of winding up the astrologers with a few facts against which to pit their beliefs. For example, let's imagine a future colony based on Mars. It now takes double the time for you to go round the Sun. Does your horoscope still work at different seasons? It can't tally with someone who was born at the same moment as you but is now on Earth.

Or, what about if you go to another galaxy, or even just to a different place in this one? You won't be seeing the same constellations and the stars won't be doing the same things. Which gets the upper hand? What they're doing from the point of view of Earth? Or does a new load of tosh, I mean what astrologers think is serious scientific study dreamed up, and by who?

Or what if you don't know your birth date?

Or what if you're not a human? Why does some supposed influence only apply to humans? Animals and humans are very much alike, DNA-wise. Perhaps the stars should predict when an ant gets stepped on. What about a foetus - why doesn't your "chart" start when you're conceived? Or what if you break it down into when the egg and the sperm that made you were created? That's when you'll get a serious headache, since those wouldn't have been at the same time.

I'd hoped to make Edd laugh; but, unlike me, he is a real scientist and reminded me that the ultimate test isn't how stupid something sounds, even when you break it down logically, but whether or not it works. Of course astrologers will promptly claim it does - but have a look at The 21st Floor to see how easy it is to make it look like that. Oh, and by the way, astrologers, I'd still be interested to hear your comments on my scenarios above. "You are only showing your ignorance" is the answer I can confidently expect (and will certainly laugh at), seeing as they do seem to think that Brian Cox needs to be an avid supporter of astrology and to have spoken at astrology conferences before he can be qualified to have an opinion. (However do they deal with defectors?) For anyone reading this who doesn't feel very competent to address such subjects: fear not, the scientific method is remarkably simple, and accessible to all. If you understand the scientific method, you are qualified to say whether or not something is good science.

The Bad Astronomer jumped on this with a hilarious headline, and invited alternatives over Twitter. "'Astrology sucks' - Cox"; "Astrologers not prepared to take Cox lying down", and so on were promptly suggested - you can think up the rest for yourself!

To end on a happy note, check out this wonderful song about Tony the Fish by Tim Minchin, on the subject of the scientific method. That has to be the funniest thing I have seen in a long time, although I am not sure I could prove that under reasonable experimental conditions!

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