Category Archives: Reform

Last Chance to Sign the Petition

Last chance to sign science is vital petition: 1.30pm Wed 13 Oct! http://bit.ly/scivit
Go do it right now! Thanks 🙂

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Science is vital rally

Today I attended the Science is Vital rally in London outside the treasury to encourage Osbourne to rethink his proposals to cut the funding budget for science.
A plethora of scientists and others were there to show their support, and the afternoon was filled with speeches by people such as Dr Evan Harris, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Colin Blakemore, Dr Petra Boynton, and a smattering of comedy sci!
All in all it felt like a very unified afternoon, and manged to get me thinking and hopefully will have raised the media awareness which we so need! I don’t want my future to be compromised by a government I didn’t even vote for, but it currently looks like this will happen.
I can’t write too much as I’m using my iPhone and it’s irritating to type on, but the rest of this post will be quotes from the day from signs I spotted to what people said..!

Science beats living in a cave
Putting on a stained lab coat dr evan Harris ‘i wasn’t a very good doctor and I was worse at doing laundry’
‘screening for applications at Eton are such that they elimate taking in those with the gene for shame and regret’- dr michael brooks. ‘we are living in a scientific age and deserve scientifically literate MPs’
Colin Blakemore pointing out that less than half of 1% of the GDP is actually invested in science.
Dr Petra ‘nurture young scientists’
Cutting the budget will compromise the training and saftey of young social
Scientists. Cuts in this country will have an impact on being able to do collaborative research with poorer countries, limiting both of our growths.
Science saves lives!!!
Ben goldacre donned an anorak and shared these gems: Nerd Power! The notion of a Brain Drain- already loosing brightest minds in academia to higher paying city jobs. “you either use it or you lose it”.

Things we can do to help!
1) sign the petiton http://scienceisvital.org.uk/
2) write to your MP
3) get others to sign the petiton!!!
4) come to the lobby on oct 12th
5) go along on the evening October 26th to the royal institute and make your views known!

Science is vital, come on guys you know this. Science is in everything, and affects us all! Get on it. Stop the stupidity and spread awareness.

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Filed under neuropsychology, Politics, Reform, Sciencey

The Election Worm Told Me To Do It!

So prior to the election I took part in a study at my University being led by Dr. Colin Davis and Professor Amina Memon (from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London) and Professor Jeff Bowers (from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol). Which we were told was looking into memories for real world events such as the political debates. Clearly a very clever ploy by those sneaky scientists.. also known as a ‘deception’.

What happened is we were delegated to one of two lecture rooms, to watch the final live debate as it was streamed from the BBC website, we were watching it with a ‘worm’ on the screen which reflected the views of undecided voters. This worm moved either up towards agree or down towards disagree as the speeches went on. At hilarious moments, like when Gordon Brown smiled and the worm made a short sharp drop to ‘dislike’.. we all lol’ed. After the debate had finished we had to answer questions about the ‘worm’ and were informed it was in fact fake, that it wasn’t a ‘real worm’ showing undecided voters but was a manipulation of the experiment. We had to say how much we agreed with the worm, how much it might have influenced us, and who we now intended to vote for etc.

What a great fun experiment you may think, a nice simple clean design of two groups (I assume on was a control group) and two questionnaires pre and post debate, combined with a clever use of technology to manipulate a fake worm to play across the screen LIVE in time with the debate. And then we got this email a little while after (but before election Thursday)…

“Thought you might be interested to know that the experiment that you participated in last week was successful — that is, we were able to exert a strong influence on who you thought won the debate, and even on your choice of preferred prime minister. The majority of participants were unaware of our manipulation. We’re currently writing up the results, so  don’t want to say too much more, but you can check my website in the future to find out more:
http://www.pc.rhul.ac.uk/staff/c.davis/.
I also want to make absolutely sure that everyone who participated is aware that the “worm” you saw was  manipulated by us and had no relationship to any undecided voters. Our results suggest that the “worm” is potentially quite dangerous for democracy!”
From Dr. Colin Davies.

So…. let me get this right…. what they are saying is that in their experiment they successfully falsely manipulated the political views of many of those who participated with the use of the ‘worm’?

Whilst this is good for them (pat yourselves on your scholarly jumper clad backs) as it supported their hypotheses, I have been left a little mildly concerned.

I want to know if that worm was in fact biased towards any particular leader (not that it apparently matters given the election result!) but if it was say biased positively towards Nick Clegg for instance (which I think it was, seemed to go towards agree more often with his points) AND they then were able to find results that apparently suggest this bias was influential over peoples beliefs about who they might vote for compared with their prior assumptions (I think..) doesn’t that mean that this experiement potentially changed peoples views… towards someone they weren’t planning on voting for, BEFORE election day!?

I suppose to make this fair, if we had watched the debate at home this would have happened arguably if we’d been seeing a ‘real’ worm, but the fact that the ‘worm’ we saw was manipulated by the experimenters and was potentially biased makes me a little suspicious all in all. At least a real worm reflects a group view right? WRONG. Some of those undecided voters being shown amounted to a grand total of only 8 people in some cases. I’m still not sure if the experiment was more or less influential than a real worm might have been. The experimenters just assumed after that the manipulation would be forgotten after we found out it was false, but what if it wasn’t forgotten?

There were some obvious draw backs to this experiement which I hope the experimenters will include in their report when they submit it for publication, such as..

1. When the internet feed for iPlayer went down, the worm continued to track across the screen (indicating it wasn’t part of the actual live feed from the BBC).

2. The worm often reacted before a leader had begun talking, indicating some sort of delay in our feed and the worms reaction. Not very believable. Most of the televised worms were multiple, in that there are 3 on a screen each a different colour reflecting the individual parties, the worm in the experiment was singular and white.

3. A large amount of equpiment used to create the worm on screen was visiable under the table, and the man they had working the laptop is a quite well known lecturer in the Media Arts department of the university… suspicious much?

4. Also there seemed to be a number of students present in the experiment who weren’t even registered to vote, either through not being british citizens or for other reasons, this surely would affect the overall impact of the opinions/views collected?

5. No one when deciding who to vote for will base that purely on a ‘worm’ on a screen, in this modern age there are ever increasing areas available to promote political influence over us, not just TV.

6. When asked after if anyone suspected the worm was a fake many people raised their hands, these bloody idiots then said ‘yes’ when they were asked, ‘even though you thought it was fake did it have an influence over your opinion when watching the debate?’. WTF. Morons.

So discounting the idiots from the sample, those who figured out the false worm, those who weren’t even going to vote/can’t vote and other’s who probably didn’t give a fuck and were only there cause they paid subjects £20 each to participate I think you’re left with a very small sample able to give a true representation of the influence of ‘the worm’. Surely a worm is no more influential to an undecided voter than the opinion of their Dad, or best friend, or the man in the shop who comes to buy a coffee and says he won’t vote lib dem cause they’re all a bit ‘hello, sailor’.. (a true fucking story, of another dickhead who didn’t deserve a vote!).

But my point being worms, friends, newspapers, families, twitter feeds and facing fuckbook, they are all just as bad in term of their potentially biased influence over your opinion. But these are all sources of information and if you didn’t know who to vote for then why not turn to the opinions of others through what ever medium you have available? Ultimatly though these sources should only be guidelines for YOUR own choice, which should have been based on what is most important to YOU as an individual living in this country. What choice was best for YOUR future, not your mates, or your mums. YOURS.

This is all the worms fault.

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Vote for science, but how?

Where do the main political parties stand on science?

Well it’s tough to tell… here’s some of what I  have ctrl C’ed ctrl V’ed from their manifestos.

Let’s start with good ol’ Labour. Their section titled ‘Investing in science and research

Begins hopefully with a sentence that might as well have been written by a five year old ‘Britain is among the best places in the world to do science’. Sorry? To “DO Science”, as in “when I am a grown up I’m want to do science”? Right. Carry on please..

We are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review. To help us do better in turning research outputs into innovation’… Ring fenced? This can’t be positive. What ring, what are you hoping to keep fenced in, science monsters created from hybrid monkeysheepig embryos?

They go on to suggest a new ‘University Enterprise Capital Fund’.  And claim that ‘the proceeds of success will flow back into the higher education sector’. Why would proceeds need to ‘flow back’, oh yes, cause they want to cut the HE budget of course. And then there’s Brown going on about reducing the number of Visa’s for international students. Those international students pay like 3x more than UK students, we need their fee money Gordon!  Oh wait, ‘Universities will be encouraged to develop international links and research partnerships’.. is that by using the connections made by accepting international students? They go on to say they will ‘develop a new gateway for the export of NHS intellectual property and cutting-edge services’. Anybody know what that might even mean? An export of NHS intellectual property.. I hope that means export more doctors and nurses from university training into the hospitals where they are needed.

SIGH.

Moving on to the Conservative: who wish to ‘Make Britain the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe’ . They even got ‘Sir James Dyson’ to recommend things based on his review into how to do this. Because who better to tell you what to do than Henry the Hoover’s best friend!

So based on this “vacuous” knowledge they are going to (among other things) ‘encourage the establishment of joint university-business research and development institutes’. I don’t like this idea, business and university research, might that not lead to invested interest for results, and ultimately corruption and bias?

And ‘initiating a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils’. Well okay, but what is this budget, will it be smaller than the previous?

It’s not all sounding dire though, they go on to say they will ‘delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed, because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research’. I personally am not overjoyed about the idea of this framework, and the ‘impact’ proposal, because it’s difficult to know the ‘impact’ of work before you set out.

They also mention the HE budget plans but no clear direction of their views on this are set out. Somehow they want to provide ‘10,000 extra university places this year’, and I’m not sure this is such a good thing. Universities are already oversubscribed, and the smaller town based uni’s will find it hard to accept any more students when they are already short on cash.

The final point they make about research applies to animal welfare! What a contradiction. They will ‘work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research’, whilst still wishing to maintain the UKs standard of research? Sorry folks, but that surely means rigorous and as-ethically-sound-as-possible animal research.. Okay yes, I think animal testing for cosmetics is wrong sure, but not if we’re ever going to cure cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc, we need this work to be done.

Righty enough of the poor ickle monkeys, perhaps that can be a future post?

Let’s move on to the not least equally adorable to monkeys party, the Liberal Democrats. They want to create ‘a dynamic environment for science and innovation’.  So they say ‘Britain’s future depends on a vibrant research base and the ability of innovators to exploit the country’s intellectual capital to generate new home grown high tech industries’. Well that’s lovely. They go on to point out the current problems in the science world ‘despite Government rhetoric, overall public funding of science in real terms is no higher than it was two decades ago’. Yet Labour still maintain the UK is the best place to ‘do science’.

The Lib Dems lso rightly point out that ‘Britain’s Research and Development spend as a proportion of GDP remains near the bottom of the G8. There is no room for complacency.’ So what will they want to do about this? Let’s find out.

At least they are honest when they start with this statement, ‘in the current economic climate it is not possible to commit to growth in spending, but Liberal Democrats recognise the importance of science investment to the recoveryreshaping of the economy’. Well, thank you for not wanting to cut funds at least.

And here are some of their grounded and reasonable suggestions to keep things tickateeboo:

Respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the comprehensive Spending Review process, is not used for other purposes’. Can’t really ask for more, well maybe more money if it’s available! But making sure we get to keep what is allocated is a bonus.

This next proposal I really, really do agree with and like,  to ‘ensure that all state-funded research, including clinical trials, is publicly accessible and that the results are published and subject to peer review.’ Well this should be law, if you can’t google it, it isn’t science.

And for the sake of balance I will state here I do not agree fully with all they say, I am yet to be convinced this would be a good idea: ‘reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors.’ What is a ‘narrow impact factor’ when it’s at home? How can you judge accurately the impact of work before tests have been run? This has potential to impair fields of research that might not seem promising but perhaps will have value later on.

So where does it get good again? Well for me it gets good here, they wish to ‘tackle the gender gap at all levels of scientific study and research to help increase the supply of scientists.’ I hope that happens, we need more men doing psychology and lots more female physicists. I’m sure Prof. Brain Cox can’t be the only pretty physicist one out there, come on girls show the world physics can be sexy in a short skirt as well!

It’s also nice to know Lib Dems would wish to ‘safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics’. Well frankly this should be happening anyway?!

So that’s that. All in all I’m left not sure, wish this election could be based on what each MP standing across the UK was like cause there are many scientifc minded MPs out there who I’d vote for in a heart beat, and it’s a shame this isn’t always full reflected by a parties complete manifesto. Luckily I’m not basing my vote purely on the science stand.

Perhaps I’ll vote for the monkey.

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You’re free to say what you like, but we’ll sue you for libel even if you’re right.

Why the UK libel laws are in serious need of reform.

The Big Libel Gig held in London on 14th March was far more than just a good laugh. It made me realise that anyone of us who, I don’t know, wish to pursue a career maybe in journalism, or science, or politics, or comedy, or public speaking, or even anyone who has a blog, or believes they have the right to freedom of speech, should really know a heck of a lot more about the libel laws in this country and the impact they can have on an individual before we go on to join the ‘real world’. The show was put together by the brilliant mind of comedian Robin Ince to promote the campaign for libel law reform in the UK. It comprised of some of the UK’s top comedians as well as some of the most brilliant minds in science and debate. Some of those present included, Marcus Brigstocke, Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Peter Wilmshurst , Simon Singh, who himself is currently involved in a libel case and Dr Ben Goldacre, who has also had firsthand experience of the libel law in the UK.

Why is there a libel law?

Well in short, the libel law is there to protect the reputation of an individual from an unjustified verbal attack, whilst maintaining the balance between this and the right of freedom of speech. What makes a comment be deemed as defamatory by law is any statement in a publication that could expose an individual to hatred or ridicule, cause them to be shunned, lower that person in the estimation of the minds of any ‘right thinking’ members of society, or disparage them in their line of work.

Evidently this is a very important law,  which has been put in place for the protection of a person or peoples reputation, and I should make it very clear now that the libel reform campaign has no intention at all of abolishing the law. Quite the opposite, they wish to make the system fairer and it is hoped that the campaign will bring about much needed changes to the way the law works in the UK. For example, under the current system it is possible even for people ‘accused of funding terrorism’ to be supported by the law in order to silence those who oppose them. Super injunctions mean that most of these cases are not even able to be made available to the public. There are many other aspects of the law that make its current use and application within the high court’s of the UK laughable in comparison to other countries. To illustrate the impact the current law can have let me outline the case of Simon Singh. It is this case that has really brought the need for reform into the public spotlight, the charity Sense for Science launched the petition for libel reform based on this case, and it was Simon Singh and others like him who were being personally supported by the acts who performed at the Big Libel Gig.

In 2008 journalist and author, Simon Singh published an article in the Guardian about chiropractic treatment, in which he made reference to the British Chiropractic Association. Whilst describing the BCA’s claims about the treatments of some childhood ailments, Singh wrote that ‘even though there is not a jot of evidence  ‘the BCA’ happily promotes bogus treatments’. Simon is now being sued under the libel law by the BCA for expressing his scientific opinion about their claims. It has been decided that this opinion was actually ‘written as a statement of facts’, which therefore would imply that the BCA are being dishonest, even though this was never  Simon Singh’s intention. It is interesting to note that it is Simon who is personally being sued in this case, and not the Guardian who published the article. The repercussions of this case if Singh loses are undoubtedly  highly significant. Richard Dawkins has stated that in this eventuality there would be ‘major implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators to engage in robust criticism of scientific, and pseudoscientific, work’, I would argue that all libel cases in the last few years must have had these same implications and they will continue only to get worse if reform does not occur.

It is not just the case of Simon Singh that is of importance, there are several current libel cases that are in a very similar vein to his, as well as a large amount from the past that have had positive and not so positive outcomes. To find out more about these and more details of the campaign visit the libel reform website at www.libelreform.org.  Here you can find some of the proposed changes that this campaign seeks to implement over time. Below are a selection from the ten main findings of their report along with their suggestions for reform.

  1. In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.

Recommend: Require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity

  1. English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation.

Recommend: Cap damages at £10,000

  1. London has become an international libel tribunal.

Recommend: No case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here

  1. There is no robust public interest defence in libel law.

Recommend: Strengthen the public interest defence

  1. Comment is not free.

Recommend: Expand the definition of fair comment

insurance premiums non-recoverable

  1. The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet.

Recommend: Exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability

Whilst I know this all sounds very complicated and dull the point of the Big Libel Gig itself was to bring together a smorgasbord of talent and opinion, and brains to make the issue more accessible, and that it did. Robin Ince acted like a delightful glue holding the acts together, introducing each with an appropriate amount of admiration and mirth all evening. Understandably some of the comedians tended to focus on issues that skirted around the edge of the actual matter at hand, such as Marcus Brigstoke focusing mainly on the downfall of social communication since the advent of the iPhone. Comparing the relationship with his friends who have iPhones to the same sort of relationship a family member has with a loved one with alzehiemers: ‘they’re physically present, you can still see them and touch them, but yet they are somehow absent’! Shappi Khorsandi later shocked the crowed by announcing she was getting divorced, and she joked that it was because her husband was having an affair with his iPhone! Ed Byrne similarly admitted to knowing little about the details of the issue of libel reform (then again, how many of us can say we completely get it either?) but he did stress that in his opinion it seems wrong that a scientist wasn’t able to give his scientific opinion about something that has little or no evidence without fear of prosecution. Tim Minchin, who is always a crowd pleaser, performed his nine minute beat poem ‘Storm’, which is a beautifully constructed attack on alternative medicine relayed through the medium of song, and I recommend to anyone who’s never heard it to get on YouTube right now! (Well once you’ve done reading).

Simon Singh armed with a PowerPoint presentation involving graphs and figures, came on to discuss briefly his own experiences before revealing the exponential difference in costs of libel cases in the UK compared with other European countries, anywhere up to 140 times more expensive on average! Professor Brian Cox wowed the crowd with deep space photographs of the known universe, whilst reeling of fact after incredible fact that caused mini explosions to go off in our heads as we combined what he was saying with the immensity of the images on the screen in front of us.  Whilst moral support for Simon was raised by a ‘Simon Singh sing a long’, featuring another appearance from Mr Minchin who walked over to the mic, another glass of wine in hand, to utter the word ‘Struth’, as only an Australian can.

The case of Dr Peter Wilmshurst, was also presented as he was interviewed on stage about the impact his ongoing libel case has had on his family and work life. Dr Wilmshurt is being sued in London, by a US company over comments he made to an US journalist working for a US publication about a US trial he was involved in. This form of ‘Libel Tourism’ is also another major issue needing to be resolved. A hard act to follow was Dr Ben Goldacre, there was nothing funny about this act, no sir. As he went on to describe in detail his own libel case in which he and The Guardian were sued by Matthaias Rath, vitamin pill manufacturer based in South Africa. The seriousness of the issue was reaffirmed by Goldacre’s nicely paced delivery, even though he is usually known for his tendency to speak at somewhere close to the speed of light! Whilst the case was dropped after a year the cost of the case was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and only a fraction of that was able to be reclaimed at the end. The cost of winning this case was a mere £170,000! Not only does a case like this cost horrendous amounts of money, but it also has a cost on the lives of those involved.

Dara O’Briain had the pleasure of following this hard hitting message, but being pressed for time as he was the last to perform he gave a speedy but wonderfully funny segment of jokes from his most recent tour. There were some great moments towards the end where he began to get excited about the anticipated laughter just before telling a joke, which reminded me of a small child eager to tell someone a secret! He brought the mood up perfectly, whilst also remembering to reinforce the message for reform.

The fact that so many people turned out to the show was highly encouraging but more needs to be done before these actions are likely to go through. It is up to us to contact our MPs (this can be done through the libel reform site http://www.libelreform.org) and encourage them to join this campaign. With the up and coming election it is even more essential that this issue becomes party wide and is not isolated only to the minority parties. It is time that true freedom of speech was up held.

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