He Blinded Me With Science

The story so far:

In January 2004, in an astonishing display of common sense the government downgraded cannabis to a class C drug. This didn’t play well in the shires and in January 2009 it was reclassified as Class B. Last week, Professor David Nutt, head of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said what every rational person knows – that the reclassification was a political decision which completely ignored the scientific evidence. He was sacked by the Home Secretary. Over the weekend two other members of the council resigned in protest.

This has lead to a lot of discussion of the relationship between scientific evidence and government policy. Today the Daily Mail (who else?) published one of the most ill-informed articles on the subject that it would be possible to write. It’s written by that most highly respected of science writers, A N Wilson. In the future, this article will no doubt be used as the basis of introductory level courses on the philosophy of science where students will compete to find the largest number of logical fallacies in the piece.

Let’s pick off some of the easier targets.

But [Professor Nutt] was not content simply to give advice, of course. What he appeared to want to do was to dictate to the Government, and when it refused to acknowledge his infallibility, Professor Nutt started to break ranks and to denounce the country’s law on drugs.

That’s putting a more than slightly biased slant on events, of course. Professor Nutt was employed for his expertise on drugs. He can’t be expected to change his opinions to fit in with government policy. Science doesn’t work like that.

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

Oh no! Those troublesome scientists with their “unimaginative” empirical facts. If only they had a bit more imagination so that they could make up facts that better fitted the policies that the government want to implement.

Try saying that ecstasy is safe in the sink estates of our big cities, where police, social workers and teachers work to improve the lives of young people at the bottom of the heap.

Ah, yes. But nowhere has Professor Nutt suggested that ecstasy is safe. He is saying that it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. That doesn’t mean it’s safe. This is a blatant misrepresentation of his views.

If you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who’ve died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill – and you could conclude from this that smoking and drinking are more dangerous than ecstasy.

Well, yes. No-one is likely to disagree with this. But saying this in the middle of the article strongly implies that this is how Professor Nutt and his colleagues reached their conclusions. And that, of course, won’t be the case at all. This shows, at least, a terrible lack of knowledge of the scientific method or, perhaps, a shameful attempt to misrepresent the amount of work that will have gone into Professor Nutt’s research.

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Ok, now we’re really on dodgy ground. This is getting dangerously close to saying that all scientists are one experiment away from becoming Dr. Mengele. It’s like Wilson has never heard of Godwin’s Law. Originally, the online version of this article had a picture of Hitler next to these paragraphs. This has been removed in the last hour or so.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Mail is sending out mixed messages here. Surely a comparison to the Nazis is showing some kind of grudging respect to the scientists.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Isn’t it astonishing that the Mail is still banging on about this? Wakefield was wrong. And his deeply flawed study would had been given no publicity at all if it wasn’t for papers like the Mail jumping on the bandwagon without doing the smallest amount of research on the story.

And to every one who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

See? That’s Wilson’s idea of a scientific experiment. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He needs (in fact most journalists who write about science in the popular press need) a course in the scientific method and basic statistics. It should be law that you can’t write about science until you’ve read and understood Bad Science.

I’m glad to see that Wilson is getting pulled apart in the comments. But people reading the paper won’t see the comments. The Mail needs to publish a retraction. And Wilson needs to be stopped from writing about things he knows nothing about.

Darwin, Humanism and Science

Darwin Humanism Science
Darwin Humanism Science

Yesterday I was at the British Humanist Association’s one day conference, Darwin, Humanism and Science, at the Conway Hall. I confess that I was really going to see Richard Dawkins speak, but actually I got a whole day of fascinating speakers.

Following a brief introduction by Polly Toynbee, Dawkins was the first speaker. His talk was based around the final words from The Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Dawkins dissected these words and showed how they are a powerful and succinct summary of Darwin’s ideas. It was a very interesting talk and serves as a good precursor to Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which will be published later this year.

Following Dawkins, Professor Charles Susanne talked about how the teaching of evolution in schools is under attack in various parts of Europe. Many different religious groups (sometimes with the help and support of national governments) are suppressing the teaching of evolution in favour of myths of legends.

Next up was James Williams with a talk entitled “Insidious Creationism”. This was the highlight of the day for me. Williams talked about the amount of creationist literature which is aimed at young children. Many of the images he showed were very funny (the one of Jesus cuddling a baby dinosaur was a particular favourite) but there is, of course, a very serious side to this. He talked about creationist books that were found in school libraries having been donated by parents. He also mentioned Genesis Expo, a creationist museum in Portsmouth which sounds worth a visit – if only to point and laugh.

I think that it was during the Q&A following these talks that we had the only nutter question of the day. Well, it wasn’t really a question. Someone a few rows behind me stood up and tried to use evolution as evidence that homosexuality was wrong. There was stunned silence from the hall and the moderator moved swiftly on to the next question.

Following lunch, we had the most scientific lecture of the day. Johan De Smedt talked about we may well have evolved brains which find it counter-intuitive to accept evolution as a fact. Then Michael Schmidt-Salomon talked about fighting the idea that evolution leads to a lack of morals. He ended by showing us a rather bizarre video called “Children of Evolution” – Darwin reinvented as a rock star!

After a coffee break we had what was, to me at least, one of the most surprising talks. I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Hindism was slightly more rational than other religions. Babu Gogineni soon put me straight. He told us about an Indian university that had started a department of astrology (and cut back the study of chemistry and physics to pay for it). His talk was full of interesting (but worrying) anecdotes of religious stupidity in India.

The final speaker of the day was AC Grayling. Whilst many of the day’s speakers had mentioned this year’s Darwinian anniversaries, Grayling took as his theme the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s influential lecture The Two Cultures. Grayling suggested that the gap between the two cultures (art and science) is now wider that it was fifty years ago and that we need to do what we can to bring the two together.

It was a very interesting day. I’m grateful to the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society for organising it. I’ll certainly be looking out for similar events in the future.

All of the talks were filmed. I hope that means that they’ll appear on the BHA web site at some point in the future.

There were a few twitterers there. You might be interested to read what they said during the day. James O’Malley has also blogged the event.

Defending Homeopathy (Or Not)

Neal’s Yard Remedies are purveyors of the finest magic water. Water that remembers magic ingredients that have been dissolved into it and diluted until no memory of the ingredients can possibly remain. Yes, they sell homeopathic treatments.

Someone in their PR department decided it was a good idea to get involved in the Guardian’s “You Ask, They Answer” feature. In this feature, readers post questions and the organisation under the spotlight posts the answers.

Except this week it didn’t quite work our that way.

The article was published on the Guardian web site at about noon yesterday. And the questions soon came flooding in. Questions like:

Do you see no problem with trying to be ‘ethical’ while at the same time selling snake oil for a living?


Please could you explain what level of evidence of efficacy you require before stocking any product?


Does your part in the MMR scare make you feel guilty?

You know, the obvious kinds of questions that reasonable people who like to ask woo-mongers. For almost twenty-four hours the questions kept coming in. Ben Goldacre would have been proud of the Guardian’s readership.

After a while people started wondering when the answers would be forthcoming and the web site editor popped up occasionally to assure them that they would be arriving very shortly.

Then about an hour ago, this comment was posted:

have just had a chat with NYR.

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.

So yes, as several people have pointed out, this has become something of ‘You Ask’, rather than a ‘You Ask, They Answer’. I’m still hoping NYR will reconsider.

When faced with the opportunity to answer some of their sternest critics and to produce evidence of the efficacy of their products, Neal’s Yard Remedies bottled it. They decided that it was better to just run away and hide.

I hope that the Guardian will run with this story. I’d love it if as many people as possible knew that Neal’s Yard Remedies were unable to produce answers to the questions that any sane person would need answers to before buying stuff from them.

And yes, I know already the kind of comments I’ll get if the friends of homeopathy get wind of this article. “But it cured my mother’s cancer”, “science doesn’t know everything”, “you can’t be sure until you try it”. All nonsense of course. Homeopathy does not and cannot work.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

Update: A nice follow-up about why this is a PR disaster for the company.

Simon Singh vs The British Chiropractic Association

The respected science writer, Simon Singh, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association because he dared to write an article (that link is to a copy – the original has been removed from the Guardian web site) which said this:

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The BCA didn’t agree with this description and went to court. Jack of Kent has some interesting detail (and opinions) on the case. The judge has, unfortunately, ruled in favour of the BCA.

There are two important principles at stake here. Both of which are subjects that I’m very interested in.

Firstly there’s the idea that people like Singh should, of course, be free to expose bogus scientific nonsense wherever they find it. Chiropractice is one branch of “alternative medicine” which has worryingly high levels acceptance amongst the general population. Most people don’t seem to realise that it has no scientific basis. Articles like Singh’s, exposing the unscientific basis for such practices, can only be a good thing. It’s a shame (though not, of course, at all surprising) that the BCA have put their concern for their members’ income above the well-being of society.

And that leads me to the second principle – the UK’s ridiculous libel laws. In a case like this where it’s a (figuratively) small person against a large organisation, the large organisation always wins. Partly because they an pay for better lawyers, partly because the small person is likely to be scared of the punitive damages that can be awarded, but largely because UK law reverses the burden of proof in a defamation case – the defendent has to prove their innocence rather than the accusor having to prove the defendent’s guilt.

Singh is now hoping to appeal the verdict. But that’s a risky business as he could lose again. Last night there was a public meeting of his supporters in London (here’s a good write-up by the New Humanist magazine). I was unable to be at the meeting, but there are two important principles at stake here, so I’ll be giving this cause all the support I can.

The “Controversy” That Won’t Die

The controversy over the MMR vaccine should be dead. I mean, really, no-one who reads around the subject can be in any doubt that Wakefield’s study was flawed and he massively overstated his findings. However the British press got hold of the story and now refuses to let go.

A good example is Jeni Barnett’s recent piece on the London radio station LBC. In it she promotes the same tired old nonsense (dangerous old nonsense) about MMR being linked to autism. Ben Goldacre picked up on this and posted about it on his Bad Science blog. His article included the audio from the programme. His readers had some fun dissecting the piece.

Yesterday Ben was contacted by LBC’s lawyers asking him to remove the audio from his site. He has done so, but has also put out a call for a lawyer who could help him fight the case. Ben has removed the audio (but it’s currently available on WikiLeaks).

It’s appalling that the media are still repeating this discredited nonsense. But it’s worse that they are attempting to cover their tracks and prevent people from seeing just how misinformed they are. It’s also instructive to read Jeni Barnett’s two blog posts [both since removed] where she sounds, to me, very much like a creationist arguing that we should “teach the controversy”. If you’re feeling particularly brave you could also read the comments from her listeners and despair at the number of them who still seem to believe Wakefield’s nonsense and see any attempt to refute his ideas as the medical profession trying to stifle legitimate debate.

MMR is safe. Wakefield was wrong. The only people who don’t realise that is people who insist on getting their information about science from people who are not scientists.

Michael Reiss: Creationist

Following last weeks entry about the media and MMR I have another post brewing which goes into more detail about the central message of Ben Goldacre’s excellent book. That central message is that you usually can’t trust science and health stories in the press because they are usually written by people who don’t understand the story that they are writing. Most journalists seem to have only the shakiest of understanding of anything other than the most basic of scientific principles.

Another good example is the case of Michael Reiss. He gave a largely sensible speech saying that science teachers should be more willing and better prepared to discuss (and counter) creationism in the classroom. In journalists’ heads this became “Royal Society Bigwig Supports Teaching Creationism” and before you know it, he’s been hounded out of his job.

I thought that the Reiss story had run its course, but journalists were determined to have one last attempt to prove exactly how little they understood. And I’m embarassed to admit that it comes from the Observer – a paper I’d like to credit with higher than average intelligence.

The picture about comes from the web site version of this article by Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel prizewinner. The article itself is eminently sensible. It talks about how there really is a huge philosophical difference between religion and science and how people of a religious nature must, by definition, believe things on faith alone which would, on the surface, seem to make it difficult for them to flourish in a scientifc career.

But the most brilliant piece of journalism is in the standfirst – that little piece of text underneath the title which is intended to draw the reader into the article. As you’ll see from the image above (which I’ve taken because I fully expect it to change when someone realises how stupid they look), it says:

Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don’t have the intellectual integrity to teach science

“Creationists such as the Rev Reiss”! Michael Reiss may have many faults. He may not have been the best choice as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. He may believe a few crazy things (he’s an ordained minister – that’s part of the job). But he is not a creationist.

He was campaigning for science teachers to be given better training in order to counter creationist claims in the classroom. And now, three weeks later, a national newspaper is calling him a creationist.

I hope the person who wrote that standfirst is suitably embarrassed.

Update: In the discussion on this article, the nonsensical standfirst has been mentioned. Some people have tried to defend it by pointing out that, as a theist, Reiss must believe that god created the universe even if he followed scientific processes rather than the fairy stories in Genesis. And that therefore, at some level, it’s reasonable to describe him as a creationist.

I say that if you’re allowed to redefine common words like that, then there’s no point at all in holding a conversation.

The Media on MMR

This makes me very angry.

Yesterday the NHS Information Centre released data showing that take-up of the MMR vaccination was lower than it should be. The national level has stalled at 85%, whereas it really needs to be at 95% in order to achieve “herd immunity” – an unflattering term which simply means that immunity is at a level where it’s impossible for the infection to take hold in the community. A decade ago, this figure stood at 92% and was rising.

This is terrible news and many media outlets have commented on it. Here, for example, are the BBC. the Mail and the Express. All of these stories contain a similar explanation for the drop. Here is the Express:

Confidence in the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine fell after
researchers published a 1998 paper in The Lancet medical journal
suggesting a link between MMR and autism.

Uptake of the jab dropped to around 80% after some parents refused to let their children have the vaccine.

This explanation is, of course, being more than a little economical with the truth. It’s true that in 1998 the Lancet published a paper that claimed to link MMR with autism. But papers in the Lancet don’t generally lead to such a hysterical reaction in the general population. This one wouldn’t have done so either if the media hadn’t picked up the story and built it up in such a disgraceful manner.

The point of publishing a paper in an academic journal like the Lancet is for other qualified academics to examine the methods and the results of a study and to draw their own conclusions as to the quality of the research and the reliability of the findings. And in this case, the methods were extremely questionable and the findings were completely untrustworthy.

But that didn’t matter. Andrew Wakefield, who lead the study which the paper was reporting on, held a press conference calling for the suspension of the MMR vaccination and it was this which was reported in the press rather than other doctors’ doubts about the reliability of his research.

Very quickly the MMR/autism link worked its way into the public consciousness and everyone “knew” that responsible parents didn’t give their their children the MMR vaccination. Hence the massive fall in immunisation and a couple of quite scary epidemics of measles in the last few years.

All of which makes it a bit galling to read yesterday’s stories in the press. The same media outlets which drummed up the hysteria in the first place are now reporting on the drop in immunisation. Here’s the BBC:

The study has since been discredited, but confidence has been slow to return in the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

That’s accurate, I suppose, but it hardly makes it clear that the study was discredited almost immediately but that media outlets took years to listen and to drop their anti-MMR campaigns.

The problem seems to be that many of the original news stories were written by journalists who didn’t know anything about how science works. Just because some doctor stands up and says that something is true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. The study needs to be examined closely before pronouncements like this can be made. Andrew Wakefield should not have held that press conference and he’s currently being investigated by the General Medical Council for many mistakes he made in the course of this study.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this story and just how badly people were mislead by the media, I strongly recommend Ben Goldacre‘s recent book Bad Science. The final chapter covers the whole sorry tale in some detail. The rest of the book is well worth reading too.

The moral of the story is: don’t trust science stories that aren’t written by people who understand science.

Darwin Day

Happy Darwin Day everyone.

Today, it’s 199 years since Charles Darwin was born and later this year it will be 149 years since he published The Origin of Species. So this year will only really be a practice for a far bigger celebration next year.

Update: Removed extra 9 from 199. Thanks Murray!

Conservapedia on Dawkins

I’ve written before about Conservapedia, the web site that is using the same software as Wikipedia to build an encyclopedia of the US christian right’s view of the world.

Usually their nonsense is just amusing. But their article on Richard Dawkins has recently verged on libel. They seem determined to promote the opinion that Dawkins is not a professor. On the off-chance that sanity breaks out eventually and they article is cleaned up, here’s an archive of what it currently says:

Richard Dawkins is the holder of a donated “post” at the Museum of Natural History, an institution owned by the University of Oxford. The “post” does not entail “substantial teaching.”

Currently Richard Dawkins claims on his resume the academic authority of a “professor” at the University of Oxford, but his “professorship” is actually described by Oxford as a “post” during which Dawkins enjoys the income pursuant to the donor’s intent. Leading universities do not permit the “buying” of a professorship for someone. The post becomes a “professorship” when a subsequent beneficiary is promoted to the position based on a peer review election process.

The special terms of this gift allowed Richard Dawkins to bypass the peer review promotion process customarily required before receiving the title of “professor”. In other words, the gift establishes an endowment for future professors, but is held initially as a “post” by Dawkins who was apparently never subjected to the full peer review election process specified in the endowment.

As of October 5, 2007, the Oxford University’s Zoology Department lists the status of Richard Dawkins status as “other” rather than as “academic”. Since March 30, 2005, Dawkins’ online resume has stated his academic credential as “Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford,” when in fact Dawkins’ position is at the Museum of Natural History, an institution merely owned by the University of Oxford. The title “professor” is misleading, if not fraudulent, as the position donated for his benefit does not satisfy the Merriam-Webster definition of “professor”: “a faculty member of the highest academic rank at an institution of higher education.”

It’s a shame that these enemies of reason feel they have to resort to such underhand tactics. They can’t argue with Dawkins’ points about religion so they resort to trying to undermine his academic standing.

It’s worth reading the discussion page associated with the article. You’ll see that there are quite a few people arguing on the side of reason, but that the loudest voice denying Dawkins’ title is the owner of the site. And he is the final arbiter of what the page says.