Monday 22 February 2010

Singh BCA Appeal 23rd Feb 2010

Before you read my cobbled together thoughts on the Singh BCA Appeal at the High Courts today, you really ought to read a more sensible account than my childish paraphrasing. I recommend Jack of Kent's Good Day in Court or Padraig Reidy’s piece for Index of Censorship.

So from my law illiterate viewpoint, things looked a little like this:

The courtroom itself was jam-packed as Jack of Kent busied himself setting out extra folding chairs for the Simon Singh Massive. As the crowd hushed and the clerk of the court asked us to rise, I was a little disappointed that they didn't blow some dry ice and play the Rocky theme tune as the three judges (Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley), appeared from the wings to take their seats.

I’m not sure who won the toss, but Adrienne Page QC opened the batting for Team Singh. The judges seemed a little perplexed with her decision to open with her fallback position of defending the case from a point of fact rather than fair comment, even though she later gave very credible arguments as to why indeed the article was comment and not fact.

Page QC also seemed to do a pretty neat job of defining “happily” as in “happily promotes bogus treatment” to mean something along the lines of “without worry” as opposed to “knowingly”, and the Judges seemed pretty accepting of that definition

Things seemed to go pretty well, Simon’s QC seemed to raise all of the pertinent points and the three old boys at the front whilst probing did not seem especially unfavourable to her case. It became much easier to judge the state of the wicket when the opposition came in to bat after lunch.

Lord Chief Justice started off the afternoon by stating the he was buggered if he knew why the BCA didn’t just accept the Guardian’s right to reply instead of arsing around with a dumbass libel case that will end up costing some poor bastard a shitload of cash. At which point I would have given my football rattle a good spin, had I been allowed to bring it.

Lord Justice Sedley then went on to ask the BCA’s QC if she would find the following statement libellous:

“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 these treatments.”

Of course Lord Justice Sedley had omitted the word “bogus” and was fishing to see if the BCA’s QC would still claim the statement libellous without the word, thus pin pointing the exact word of the libel.

Spotting the trap the BCA’s QC responded with: “Er, um. Er, ah, mmm, uh”, before cleverly plucking: “I think it would be more important to focus on the actual words used by Dr Singh” from her arse.

This would have been a fair rebuttal if later on in her case she didn’t consistently try and bolster her interpretation of the meaning of Dr Singh’s original text by using example “what if” substitutions. For example, what if Dr Singh had said, “Knowingly promotes bogus treatments” instead of “Happily promotes bogus treatments”. Or why did Dr Singh not say “not a jot of reliable evidence” instead of “not a jot of evidence”.

The BCA’s QC also had a good go at trying to prove that the comment was “fact” rather than “comment”, by taking the opening sentences one at a time and claiming each one was a statement of fact rather than a comment. However, it seemed to me like the Judges were having none of it.

The BCA’s QC then had a go at claiming that he term “bogus” meant “deliberately dishonest”. This time Lord Chief Justice challenged this definition by stating that Dr Singh himself qualifies his use of the word “bogus” in his following paragraph:

“I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions."

Lord Chief Justice put it to the BCA’s QC that this paragraph clearly defines bogus as meaning ineffective as a result examining the evidence with Professor Ernst rather than being deliberately dishonest.

Lord Justice Sedley kept the mood quite jovial by injecting a few comedy one-liners and he even accidently said “homeopathy” at one point instead of “chiropractic”. Oh how we laughed.

Anyway, as a court virgin I don’t pretend to be able to read the thoughts and intentions of the three senior appeal Judges, but from a supporter of science, reason and critical thinking, it certainly sounded pretty positive to me.

Lord Chief Justice finished off by saying that they would all go away and have a little think about it and then write up a nice report (I believe in 6-8 weeks).

Sunday 21 February 2010

Not the Reform of English Libel Law

As we all know, The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, has ordered a comprehensive review of England's much-criticised libel laws.

I’m rather hoping for a scene reminiscent of Constable Savage’s appearance before the Superintendent.

STRAW: Come in, shut the door.


STRAW: Now then, English Libel Law, I want to talk to you about some of the libel cases that you've been bringing lately. I think that perhaps you're stifling freedom of expression.

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Which libel cases did you mean then, sir?

STRAW: Well, for instance this one: ‘Writing a newspaper article that says that there is not a jot of evidence to support the use of chiropractic treatment for childhood ailments’. And neither should ‘Criticising a vitamin pill salesman who claims to cure AIDS’ be an offence.

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Are you sure, sir?

STRAW: Also, there should be no law against: ‘Publishing a book on how terrorism is financed and how to stop it’, or ‘Presenting an eye witness testimony of individuals responsible for crimes against humanity in the Rwandan genocide

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: If you say so, sir...

STRAW: Yes, I do say so, English Libel Law! Didn't they teach you anything at libel school?

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Erm, I'm sorry, sir...

STRAW: Some of these cases are just plain stupid: ‘Slagging off Sheffield Wednesday football club’- Is this some kind of joke?


STRAW: And we have some more here: ‘Writing a novel with a fictional character that happens to share a name with real person, 'revealing the corruption within Scotland Yard by writing a book about Bent Coppers,' and ‘Challenging misconduct in academic research papers by putting forward ideas on why clinical trials on the STARFlex device used to close a hole between the right and left atriums of the heart in order to reduce the incidence of migraine, might be negative' In short, English Libel Laws, you have hindered the free exchange of ideas and are having a chilling effect on legitimate publications.


STRAW: Using English Libel Law.


STRAW: Putting the burden of proof on the defendant.


STRAW: Sit down.


STRAW: Why do you keep ruling in favour of wealthy respondents?

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: To attempt to silence authors.

STRAW: Authors?

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: And science writers sir.

STRAW: I know its attempting to silence science writers, we’ve got one in court this week. He’s appealing against his illiberal ruling on meaning.

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Well - well, there you are, sir.

STRAW: Your illiberal ruling!

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Thank you, sir.

STRAW: Would I be correct in assuming that all your claimants are rich?

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Well, I can't say I've ever noticed, sir.

STRAW: Stand up, English Libel Law! – English Libel Law, you're attempting to crush free speech. It's laws like you that give the courts a bad name. English Pen, Sense about Science and Index of Censorship love to jump on instances like this, and the reputation of the courts can be permanently tarnished. Your costs encourage libel tourism and attempt to silence valid criticism. Do you know American states are passing their own laws to make them exempt from your rulings.


STRAW: There's no room for laws like yours in my courts. I'm transferring you to the treasury.

ENGLISH LIBEL LAW: Thank you very much, sir.

STRAW: Now get out!

Why Prince Charles should STFU

Following the Prince of Wales’ recent bout of gob shite, I posted some thoughts that triggered a few interesting comments.

There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between monarchy and religion, both are clearly happy to rule in the absence of democracy and both, despite being rather archaic principles, are still adored by a substantial number of loyal followers.

In recent UK history we have enjoyed both a fairly benign monarchy in Queen Elizabeth II and a relatively benign religion in the Church of England.

When the Church is quietly presiding over our weddings and carol services, most of us enjoy the sense of occasion, tradition and ceremony it provides. However, when it starts imposing its more irrational beliefs and pious perceived superior morality on modern society, many of us become less tolerant.

The rise of scepticism and the recent popularity of the new atheism is undoubtedly in part a reaction to the more fundamentalist end of the religious spectrum. When the religious are telling their children nice old stories about arks and floods on a Sunday morning, no one really gets too excited, but when they start trying to impose anti scientific creationism in main stream education or seemingly ordinary zoo’s, critical thinking people start getting pissed off.

While the Church of England generally remains a nice cosy bastion of traditional English summer fetes, home made jam, Victoria sponge cakes and cucumber sandwiches, we don’t need to look too far to see the consequences of taking their teachings more literally.

Like the Church of England, the Queen provides a similar cosy sense of traditionalism. Many enjoy the pomp of state occasions and the old dear is very reliable at official openings; she’s always very nicely turned out, and more importantly she doesn’t give us the benefit of her personal wisdom. Bearing in mind her thoughts on homeopathy, this is just as well.

But the public's clear preference for vacant looking emotional bimbo princesses over the current Queen suggests that the Royal Family needs to tread carefully to ensure it remains in public favour. However, Prince Charles’ recent declaration of jihad on the enlightenment suggests that he will perhaps be less good at keeping schtum than mummy.

The effective, focused and cohesive criticism we have seen against less benign religious behaviour suggest a potential similar reaction against a less benign monarchy. A backlash that the monarchy might struggle to survive.

Oh and just in case this post seems contrary to my frequent support for free speech, I have no desire to legislate against Charlie being able to speak his brains, just musing on the cost.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Carl Sagan Pop-Science

The main purpose of this blogpost, is simply a quick message to everyone who has requested one of my Carl Sagan posters. There will be only a single small print run to produce the posters, and the printer is waiting for the final deadline of 8th March before production so he knows how many to produce. I’ll endeavour to get them sent off as soon as possible after this date.

Friday 19 February 2010

Prince Charles Declares a War on the Non-Stupid

The Prince of Wales has never been a man to embrace critical thinking, whether he’s chatting to an aspidistra or promoting his ineffective homeopathic tinctures, he prefers a more nonsensical approach.

“I was once accused of being an ignorant bigoted pillock who takes advantage of his privileged position to spread misinformation”, he told a conference of stooges, “I felt proud of that.”

The Prince who was talking at the annual conference of numpties, fuckwits and plonkers, went on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. I am an utter cock with no fucking clue what I’m on about and I have no justification whatsoever for my abuse of my fortuitous platform of perceived authority.”

The Prince continued: “However, it might be time to think again and decide would we not be better off discarding the achievements of modern medicine, casting aside the success of all science & technology, abandoning modern welfare and ethics and returning to the pre-enlightened dark ages.”

“We could go back to a world of illiberal morals, vindictive theocratic domination and a joyous plague of superstitions, ignorance and irrationality. Let us dismantle the axis of enlightenment, the schools and universities that spread education, knowledge and understanding and replace them with more arbitrary authority, dogma and myths” urged the Prince who was later sedated and taken home for a nice lie down.

Thursday 18 February 2010

There’s Probably No …

Last years Atheist Bus Campaign was a great success.

After spotting the bright colourful messages on the sides of buses throughout the country and indeed worldwide, many religious people stopped and thought. Even fundamentalist Christians and Muslims were seen looking at the signs and banging their foreheads with the palm of their hand whilst muttering to themselves “What was I thinking?”

When spelled out in clear friendly letters, even the most credulous of believers can suddenly see the irrationality of their previous ways and have been immediately happy to adopt a more enlightened and scientific worldview.

However, the clear thinking society have recently criticised the campaign for being too specific. “There are numerous popular irrational beliefs out there” a spokesperson for the clear thinking society told me earlier today, “The Atheist Bus Campaign has missed a trick by not also highlighting these fallacies”.

In preparation for electronic LCD advertising spaces on buses, the clear thinking society have therefore prepared the following, more generic message.


Wednesday 17 February 2010

The ADR-652 Minefield Clearer

Following teething problem with the ADE-651 bomb detector, alleged by many to be ineffective, Jim McCormick of ATSC is confident in his new mine field clearing military hardware:

Instructions: Simply suspend the extra large dowsing charm over the suspected area and see which way it swings. Bingo, mine detected.

Sunday 14 February 2010

The Parliamentary Select Committee Who Say... "Evidence"

Last night I spent several hours watching the The Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee on homeopathy.


Professor Jayne Lawrence - Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

Robert Wilson - British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers

Paul Bennett - Boots

Tracey Brown - Sense About Science

Dr Ben Goldacre - The Guardian

Dr Peter Fisher - Royal London Homeopathic Hospital

Professor Edzard Ernst - Complementary Medicine Group, Peninsula Medical School

Dr James Thallon - NHS West Kent

Dr Robert Mathie - British Homeopathic Association

As it took me a little while to get through it all, I thought I’d help you out by doing a quick summary via the medium of Python.

Evidence! Evidence! Evidence! Evidence!

ROBERT WILSON: Who are you?

EVAN HARRIS: We are the Parliamentary Science and Technology select committee who say … Evidence

ROBERT WILSON: No! Not the Parliamentary Science and Technology select committee Who Say Evidence!

EVAN HARRIS: The same!

PAUL BENNETT: Who are they?

EVAN HARRIS: We are the scrutinisers of Government Policy: Evidence, Proof, and Efficacy!

GOLDACRE: Efficacy!

ROBERT WILSON: Those who see them seldom escape regulation!

EVAN HARRIS: The Parliamentary select committee who say Evidence demand evidence to support government policy!

PAUL BENNETT: Parliamentary select committee, we are but simple snake oil salesmen who seek the profit that can be made from the credulous.

EVAN HARRIS: Evidence! Evidence! Evidence! Evidence!


EVAN HARRIS: We shall say 'evidence' again to you if you do not appease us.

ROBERT WILSON: Well, what is it you want?

EVAN HARRIS: We want... unequivocal positive meta-analysis!

[dramatic chord]

ROBERT WILSON: for what?

EVAN HARRIS: Evidence! Evidence!


ROBERT WILSON: Please, please! No more! We have evidence for Arnica.

EVAN HARRIS: You must return here with positive meta-analysis to support that a homeopathic arnica remedy is effective beyond placebo in preventing bruising or we will not approve your homeopathic remedies on the NHS!

ROBERT WILSON: O Parliamentary select committee who say Evidence, you are just and fair, and we will return with evidence for an Arnica remedy.

EVAN HARRIS: One that looks nice.


EVAN HARRIS: And not too expensive.


EVAN HARRIS: Now... go!

Saturday 13 February 2010

Homeopathy and Horse Racing

The day before the 10:23 campaign, I was asked to appear on BBC Radio Solent to discuss the campaign and explain why we were protesting against Boots for selling ineffective homeopathic remedies next to conventional medicines.

As usual the BBC assumed that two opposing arguments must be of equal weight and therefore put me up against a local homeopath. He was a very pleasant chap and put forward all of the arguments that you would expect him to put forward, and I’m sure the same could be said about all of the usual objections and rebuttals that I raised.

After about 15 minutes of discussing the same old arguments, the presenter threw the debate open to the phone lines in order for the listeners to comment and for me and the homeopath to respond to the listener comments. As the call-in audience where self selecting, I fully expected that those people who cared enough to phone in and participate in the debate would be those people who felt strongly about it. And of course the majority of people who feel strongly about it are believers, most disbelievers are presumably suitably disinterested enough to find something more productive to do with their morning.

So I endured 40 minutes of calls with people saying things along the lines of, “Well I took homeopathy and after a period of time my headache/ sore leg / dog got better, so it must work, there is no other possible explanation.”

To be fair to the presenter, he tried his best to redress the balance and reiterated my arguments of, “How do you know it just wouldn’t have got better anyway.”

Listening to the unfaltering faith of these callers, and their complete un-acceptance for any other possible reason for their eventual and gradual improvement put me in mind of a Derren Brown TV Show from a few years ago. I have used this programme before as an analogy in a previous blog, but once again I find it an excellent explanation for the state of mind of the homeopathic praising callers.

Allow me to briefly outline the programme I am referring to before returning to topic.

In a TV show a few years ago called “The System”, Derren Brown presented one lucky punter with a fool proof system for winning on the horses. Prior to the start of 5 consecutive races, Derren gave the fortunate lady the name of the winning horse and then successfully persuaded her to place a shed load of her own money on his predicted winner of the 6th and final race. The horses picked were sometimes outsiders and on occasion seemed to win by pure luck as a previous winning horse fell at the final fence allowing Derren’s predicted nag to romp home. From the perspective of the lucky punter, Derren had given her an unfailing system that correctly and unerringly predicted the winning horse every time. Despite logic stating that this is not possible, she was unable to deny the evidence she had personally witnessed and believed that against all odds he had come up with an incredible method of beating the system.

Of course the way the trick works is to start off with many potential people divide them up into groups and give each group a different prediction for the first race. After the first race, you apologise to all those in the groups who backed a losing horse and concentrate on those in the winning group. Again you divide this group up and ensure you have new groups to cover all of the horses in the second race. Once again you discard the losing groups and continue to split down the remaining participants. If you start off with enough people, there will be someone who just has to get the correct predictions for 5 consecutive races. And without the knowledge of the other people participating, the one lucky winner can see no other explanation for this amazing feat that seems to defy mere coincidence.

By taking a step back and looking at the wider picture, we can of course see the inevitable fortuitous coincidence that, the impacted individual is blinded from.

OK, now I can get back on point and you can probably finish the post off for yourselves.

Everyday thousands and thousands of people suffer from ailments such as back pain, headaches, period pains, depression and a whole host of other ailments that get better or worse over time. A group of these people will inevitably take an ineffective remedy and undoubtedly many will benefit from the placebo effect. However, even above and beyond the placebo effect some peoples conditions will inexplicably improve and in some rare cases, serious conditions may against all expectations go into remission.

As long as the homeopaths have enough people playing the system, statistics and probability will ensure that unexpected improvements will be attributed to sham treatments.

This means that as long as homeopathy and other ineffectual pseudo-sciences has a hold on a large number of people, we are guaranteed an unending supply of tedious anecdotes from those convinced that there just has to be something in it no matter what science, logic and evidence say.

Like the lucky horse race winner, the homeopathy supporting callers on the radio show used their instinct and trusted their own narrow view based on their personal experience. But just as a clear perspective of the horse racing trick can only be seen by taking a step back to see the wider picture, to measure the true efficacy of these bogus treatment we must step back from the anecdotes and view the wider and more accurate picture revealed by randomised, double blinded, placebo controlled clinical trials.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Return to Camp Quest UK

You may recall that last summer I sent my two children to Camp Quest UK. I also did a number of TV and radio articles to promote the camp; here is a copy of the Times farcicle from 28th June last year featuring my interview.

[click article to embiggen]

And here’s the full version on the Times website, you may have trouble spotting the difference.

Anyway, I’m pleased to say that we have secured a place on one of the two Camp Quests being run again this summer and India and Peter are both really looking forward to attending again.

Oooh just noticed a picture of Indie on the Camp Quest Home Page in a blue helmet. And book up quick if you want to go, places are selling out fast again.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Winchester SitP: 25th Feb 2010 with Richard Wilson

Sceptics are people who are prepared to ask difficult questions, and point out uncomfortable truths. In societies where freedom of speech is denied, such habits can be seen as subversive, and even dangerous. One of the most famous sceptics in history, the philosopher Socrates, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young” by encouraging Athenians to question accepted wisdom. Even in democratic states, sceptical thinkers can face difficulties. Journalists who expose quackery and corruption may find themselves on the receiving end of crippling libel suits, while scientific advisers are sacked for questioning government policy.

Societies that exclude scepticism become incapable of acknowledging and correcting their mistakes. At the extreme, the consequences can be fatal. In Soviet Russia and Maoist China, millions starved through the imposition of pseudo-scientific agricultural policies that few could question freely. In the modern era, the application of archaic media laws can allow corporate negligence and malpractice to go undiscovered.

Yet while today’s sceptics still face many challenges, modern technology also creates new opportunities for defending and extending the freedoms on which scepticism relies. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, Richard Wilson highlights the relationship between scepticism and freedom of speech, and talks about the tools that modern-day sceptics can use to help preserve it.

The Roebuck Inn, 57 Stockbridge Road, Winchester, SO22 6RP
7:30pm Thursday 25th February 2010

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Friday 5 February 2010

Carl Sagan Poster Now Available

A couple of weeks ago, as a tribute to the great Carl Sagan, I posted a mosaic of scientists forming an image of the man himself.

I had lots of comments and emails asking if it would be possible to get a copy of a poster of the image. I have therefore regenerated the image at a much higher resolution, suitable for making into a poster.

The image is too large to place on the blog, and a smaller version renders the mosaic tiles incompressible. I have therefore made a short video.

I have not created this image with a view to mass producing and selling for profit. Merely as a favour to those who originally inquired if they would be able to get one. I do however need to cover production costs and postage and packaging. I’m guessing this will work out at about $20.00 USD all together.

If you would still like a copy of the poster then email me again at:
With “CARL SAGAN POSTER” in the subject. I’ll send you my PayPal details and let you know the exact price once I’ve been to the Post Office to double check everything.

UPDATE: I am only getting a small one off print run of these posters made up. Therefore I'm adding a closing date for orders of 8th March 2010.

FURTHER UPDATE: Offer now closed, but the image file has been donated to the organisers of Carl Sagan Day, where I believe you may be able to win a poster.