Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Skeptical Jaunts

You've probably noticed that Skeptics in the Pub invariably takes place in a city. For us rural oiks living at the end of the world - at least, until we create the Skeptical Nomadic Circus - that means a bit of travelling. We're not the only ones, though: I know people on Twitter whose work shifts clash with their local Skeptic evenings, for example.

My solution to both is to take a couple of days off work when you can, and travel to several events taking place in quick succession! You can find a list of all Skeptics in the Pub events on the bottom right of Simon Perry's website. Train tickets are cheap if booked well in advance, and you don't have to stay at an expensive hotel - youth hostels are fine in my experience, and more often than not a nice skeptic will happily put you up. You could of course combine all this with any Galaxy Zoo meet-up or other science events. And visit all these various places you've been planning to visit for years, and throw in the odd museum or restaurant or whatever takes your fancy. I actually love this. I enjoy travelling alone, which gives me immense space and freedom, and it really doesn't work out that expensive. It also allows me to compare one Skeptics with another and see which ones I like best, as well as meet a great many excellent people.

Anyway, I've just got back from one of those jaunts. The first event was Talkfest, which was much talked about on Twitter including at the time. There was a large screen behind the panel, onto which all talkfest tweets appeared (transcript here) - some witty, some snide, some interesting. Excellent and fresher-than-this summaries are at Noodlemaz and Jon Butterworth's blogs - update: I have to add this brilliant and thought-provoking reaction from Stephen Curry. It also included very interesting cakes - chocolate, pink and green, with glittery icing! I hope our toilets don't get too sparkly. The chocolate ones were delicious, the pink decidedly odd. It was lovely to catch up with some Twitterers and meet others I'd only exchanged 140-character sentences with! It was a free event, and we were all issued with badges which gave our real names, our Twitter names and our workplaces. My workplace did not make much sense - I might put "Cardiff Skeptics" or "Galaxy Zoo" next time. I had a laugh with the girls about how we weren't supposed to be looking at each other's chests all the time. We were also asked, in the online form, to put our favourite blog; I put Jack of Kent, whose taking-apart of Gillian McKeith's latest weirdness and delicious dissection of Hackney Council's clumsy abuse of libel law I very strongly urge you to read - though that did not get onto our badges!

The subject was science blogging. The panel began by telling us about their favourite blogs. I was most gratified to note that two or three of the panel specifically mentioned "a great community" or "a civilised atmosphere" as a blog's special asset - it's not only Galaxy Zoo that appreciates that, then!

Alice Bell, the organiser, then opened the questions. These - and the subsequent talk - focussed heavily on "why"s, and little on "what"s and "how"s of blogging, so I think there's scope for another great evening. The first two, sent in by e-mail, were "Why do you blog?" and "What impact does your blogging have and how can you tell?" Profound reasons to blog included wanting to put information out into the public domain, and wanting to engage people with science who would like to be engaged but haven't the privilege to be involved.

We were encouraged not to let anyone tell us our blog was trivial. I was reminded of a wonderful e-mail I had nearly 18 months ago from one of my readers who went to the library and got out books about astronomy, which he'd never have done were it not for my writing. Ed Yong beat me hands down, though, with a story of a priest who left the Church to go and study particle physics!

Jack of Kent asked some delightfully provocative questions. We got to the point where the media came up - how they are often pushed with deadlines and have to make a story quickly, while a blog can admit not having an answer yet. (Now if that was relaxed in the media, science could be represented far better!) He asked: What is impact? Does it in fact drive the media, rather than follow it - that is to say, does the media sometimes follow up something from the blogosphere? There have certainly been cases - such as the Trafigura scandal and Simon Singh versus the BCA! The next question, towards the end of the evening, was even more fun: are science bloggers particularly different from other bloggers? History and law, for instance, should be doing exactly the same as science: constantly checking sources and evidence, as he was inspired to do by science blogs . . . Dr Petra pointed out that the general public doesn't know how peer review works. I didn't know, either, despite a four-year science degree, until the zookeepers were kind enough to explain it on the Galaxy Zoo Blog.

There was quite some discussion about the media - what it can and can't offer, how being edited is exceptionally helpful (and how blog comments are also helpful), and whether bloggers would benefit from media experience. David Waldock asked why science is not represented in "engagement" sections of newspapers, i.e. the agony aunt columns. There was then the question: Who would you trust to pay a science blogger? Dr Petra told us how much of her time blogging can take. Once you have enough readers, you find yourself using more and more of your personal time in obtaining references, answering questions - she would like it to be part of her job; but departments - including one she used to work in - can be openly hostile about their members having blogs. Going to conferences should be free, but she usually has to pay for childcare. There are PhD students who feel a duty to engage with the public and who end up cramming their writing at 1am. (I'm writing this at 2.30 a.m., but that's because I was tired earlier and didn't get round to it.) Dr Evan Harris disagreed that that is what scientists should spend their time doing - some may be great communicators, but others may be far better at research or teaching. Fair enough!

I spent the next day wandering around London. I met a Twitter friend for lunch, who is going to end up being interviewed on the Young Astronomers website hopefully soon - she used to work in zero gravity! Besides that, I went to the British Museum - an absolute must, I don't remember ever having gone before and it's mind-blowing. I'm going to have to go again, several more times, as I could never see let alone absorb the whole thing in one day. (That's one great thing about free museums - you can keep going back!)

So I followed it up with the Wellcome Collection which was decidedly weird. They're currently doing an exhibition on skin. I went up to a gallery which included the various things Henry Wellcome collected in his life, which - the sign said - included Japanese sex toys and Napoleon Bonaparte's toothbrush. Obviously I went off looking for both of these and was unable to contain my laughter at the little note that stood in the place of the latter: "Napoleon Bonaparte's toothbrush has been lent to a Dutch museum. We apologise for any inconvenience."

Sir Wellcome must have been a very eccentric and fascinating man - he did a great deal for medicine and seems to have collected all kinds of paraphernalia, which I hope his house was big enough to contain. But that paraphernalia also included, for example, a torture chair. Its seat was three blades, pointing upwards, as was its footrest. Its wood was lovingly decorated. I go cold thinking about it. (This is what I think of torture, if you're interested.)

Later in London, I saw seven rickshaws - I hadn't seen one of them outside Tintin and the Blue Lotus. I also did a bit of plane-watching. It always strikes me how slowly the low-flying ones seem to move across the sky. As if it takes several seconds for them to cover their own length - like a bicycle moving very, very slowly. Do they really move that slow, or is it a trick of our eyes? It suddenly occurred to me that if I compared them with something still, I could work it out. The ideal opportunity for this came with a particularly low-flying plane disappearing behind a wall. From its nose appearing to touch the brick to its tail took, I think, just over 1 second. I kept thinking of first contact, second contact and so on during a solar eclipse. The less ideal part of this opportunity was the fact that this occurred while I was crossing a road, but it was only a bicycle that nearly ran me over. Now I must find out how long a plane is, and watch several more (yes, from a safe place, I promise).

The second event of my travels was seeing Simon Singh speak at the Hay Festival in Bristol. I'd hoped to meet Hayley Stevens there, but something came up and she couldn't make it. I attempted (and failed, I fear) to cheer her up with texted reports, such as that Brian Cox's double works in the Old Vic theatre. It was lovely to meet Chutzpah84, anyway. I arrived early, not knowing how long it would take to get from the youth hostel to there, and bemused the bar staff by ordering coffee and later tea. I went and sat down in what I hoped was an unobtrusive spot, only to be warned that that was the book-signing table and someone might come and ask for my autograph any minute now! I was tempted, but just managed to resist. Simon himself then came past, and stopped right in front of me when a voice from a long way off cried "SIMON!" I got a chance to say a quick hello before someone rushed to him, threw his arms around him and said "I haven't seen you since you won!" I was delighted to be wearing my Keep Libel Laws out of Science T-shirt.

I think, though am not sure, that it was Simon's friend who introduced him on stage. This chap began by asking us if there were any of us who were not familiar with Simon's tussle with the BCA. Nobody raised a hand, which, as he joked, allowed us to get on with things faster! As he said, lots of people know what a great speaker Simon is, "but few people realise what a nice guy. The thing that's happened to him today that made him happiest is that he saw a seagull . . . . catching a mouse."

Simon gave a quick talk about the book he co-authored with Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment - and the thing that inspired him to write a book about alternative medicine, a BBC program from 2006. He showed us a clip of a lady in China having major open heart surgery - who was conscious. Her eyes were moving and aware, and her arms were covered with acupuncture needles. The claim was that the acupuncture was sufficient anaesthetic. To cut a long story short, after a great deal of investigation it turned out that she had been given a local anaesthetic and a massive cocktail of other drugs - but none of this was even hinted at, which to say the least gives the viewers a rather misleading impression.

The next part of the talk was, of course, on the BCA case - how, at every step, he'd had to consider throwing in the towel, and how the odds are stacked against the writer - but how much support he'd had from the science and blogging communities. He's likely to recover perhaps 80% of his costs; the time which he could have spent writing another book and enjoying himself, he will never get back. He is concerned that for every libel case that makes it to trial, there will be a great many more that never go to trial because the writer caves in and apologises (so as to be out of thousands rather than tens or hundreds of thousands); and for every case like this, there will be dozens more that never get published or even never get written due to self-censorship from the worry. The editor of the BMJ, he tells us, has dozens of articles that should be published and are in the public interest - but which would only invite these crippling lawsuits. His talk was quite short, in order for us to ask him lots of questions. Naturally, a lot of these were about the BCA case!

My question was economic. In the UK, libel cases are 140 times more expensive than they are in the rest of Europe. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see.) This is one major reason - besides very illiberal laws - that it is much worse for a writer to be sued for libel in London than elsewhere, and why the powerful use London as their suing venue whenever they can. But why? What makes them so? And what can we do about that? I'm sure Simon would rather have talked about physics, but he took a lot of trouble to answer my question. For one thing, libel cases have to go to the High Court, and are almost invariably seen by Judge Eady or a jury, rather than a simple tribunal. (That is also why they take so long.) The no-win, no-fee cases mean that the other side bears the cost - although I'm still confused by this; if you lose, you don't have to pay your lawyer, but then how can the winner do so? Someone enlighten me, please. Also, rather like house prices, the wealthy can drive up prices simply by having a lot of money to offer. "Here's a million pounds in advance, go and sue these people." It's hardly a level playing field.

Some of the laws relating to suing are especially archaic. There's an example from at least the Victorian era, if not before (I forget) - the Duke of Brunswick, anyway. A publisher had printed a pamphlet criticising him. Now, libel laws say you have to sue within a year of publication. This Duke was six years too late. However, he sent his manservant to London to obtain a new copy of this pamphlet - and he sued and won, because this method of obtaining it counted as a new publication. It is this tradition which has now had an impact on the Internet: every download of a document, no matter how old, counts as a fresh publication! So now, I suppose, an organisation could be sued for something written 200 years ago.

It was a terrific talk, well worth an uncomfortable next day sitting around on trains and waiting over an hour at Cardiff and over half an hour at Carmarthen in the rain. I bought a copy of Trick or Treatment for Simon to sign, as did several others. He let me buy him a (soft) drink - I told him I felt I owed it to him, as his case may have paved the way for making my life as a science writer easier in the future. His decision to fight, which came at a great cost, was a sacrifice that must have benefitted thousands! Simon's just as nice a chap as the person who introduced him said he was. He urged me to return to teaching. But I'm not going to do that, at least not for some years. I think my niche is getting to people outside schools and, indeed, outside formal education altogether (it is one of my bugbears that people are ordered to stay in education until they're 18, but once they're older than that, it's very difficult and expensive to return). I, and others, wanted to know what book he's going to write next. He doesn't know yet (or if he does, he wants to keep it to himself). But he is going to come and do Cardiff Skeptics for us any time from December onwards!

A wonderful couple of days full of skeptical learning - and my purse did not get stolen this time!

1 comment:

Codenix said...

Hi Alice - thanks for the insight into the Talkfest and Simon's talk. As a fairly recent addition to the blogosphere, I'm very interested in issues pertaining to personal liability and libel-tourism, and as such look forward to hearing Simon talk at TAM Australia, where he is presenting in November.

Are you aware of any sites or online discussions which form a guide for bloggers, particularly us skeptics who tend to wear targets on our backs, on techniques for avoiding litigation and / or claiming 'fair comment' as a defence?

Thanks again,