Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz


Media manipulation from Hillsborough to Leveson

Soho Skeptics


Chris Atkins is probably best known for his documentary film Starsuckers and he told us a bit about how it came to be and some of what’s happened since at the first Soho Skeptics event last week.

Chris pointed out that his talk could probably be summed up by one story that was doing the rounds that day – that of Brian Cox supposedly slamming the BBC for not letting them listen for alien transmissions live on air, lest it conflict with editorial guidelines…

But moving on to the talk for real, we started with documentaries. What is their purpose? They should communicate truths to the audience. Chris cited 3 of his favourites as Fog of War, Man on Wire, and Inside Job. However, he likes to do the opposite; tell the story through lies in order to expose people.

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John Maddox Prize 2012

Comments on this post are now closed – thank you to all civil contributors!
Update 2015: excellent summary of the controversies on this subject at MosaicScience
Update 2017: on the results of the PACE trial of CBT for ME/CFS and errors at SBM

Last night I was lucky to be at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for the annual Sense About Science reception.

I am a member of Voice of Young Science, which is a network set up and supported by SAS that allows young scientists to get involved with pro-science activism. Through this group, we are able to participate in public-facing discourse about science and challenge common misconceptions. This takes the form of supporting campaigns (such as Libel Reform) and contributing to publications. For example, I picked up a copy of Peer Review: the nuts and bolts last night because I joined discussions about its content and aims. Anyone young scientists who’d like to, definitely sign up!

Many of us London-based VOYS members went along last night to show our support for SAS and the RPS, and to find out who won the first John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science. Sir John Maddox was a long-term editor of Nature and helped expand Sense About Science as a charity, supporting and encouraging its work, as well as helping to establish programmes like VOYS.

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Libel Reform update: 3 years on


A couple of years back I attended a Skeptics in the Pub meeting in Holborn at which Dave Gorman and Prof Brian Cox came to support Simon Singh. He had been served a libel threat by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for criticising claims from chiropractors about curing colic in babies and so on. A dangerous claim to make, and, as Simon put it, a “bogus” one.

Fortunately, Simon won his case. Others haven’t been so lucky, and more threats are being issued.

There are many problems with the UK libel laws – lots of background information can be found here at libelreform.org and I’ve written some posts over the years (really rather a lot of posts actually), if you’re interested in past events.

Essentially libel laws are often used to silence fair, necessary and important criticism. People without the money to fight these hideously expensive cases tend to just give up. Individuals are bullied by large corporations, medical debates are stifled, unethical behaviour is hidden.

The libel reform campaign has been set up and run by the three charities, Sense About Science, English Pen and Index on Censorship. Two years ago there was the Big Libel Gig, to fundraise for victims of libel threats.

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Expression Is Not Free

This weekend I journeyed to the centre in the freezing cold to join the Rally for Free Expression opposite the House of Lords. Here’s my flickr set, plus you can see One Law For All’s videos and photos as well (of course, in the one I’m in, I’m making a weird face). Pod Delusion have some excellent highlights in Episode 123.

It was toe-numbingly chilly, but worth it! The turnout was good and the speakers were exceptional.

What for?

Right, there have been some disturbing occurrences in some London universities lately, which I’ve yet to write about, but this is a good time to collate them and look at the (serious) problem at hand.

University College London

First we have UCL. The Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society (ASHS) advertised for their latest pub-based meet-up, which happened to feature a frame from one of the Jesus and Mo comics – appropriately featuring Jesus and Mohammed having a pint together. Aww.

Following what seems to have been one complaint from an angry person to the UCL students’ Union, the UCLU for some reason decided it was appropriate to tell the ASHS to remove the image so that this person, and others, would not be offended.

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Burzynski II

Sorry for the unimaginative title, but I get the feeling number 2 won’t be the last and at least this makes it easily searchable.

In this post, I want to talk about people’s online behaviour regarding this issue, think about it a bit and hopefully get others to do the same. It’s not a sciencey one (lots of links at the end for that, though), but I hope people will read it nonetheless.

I would say that the general acceptance of alternative medicine by the general public (and indeed the NHS, having walked past the ‘Hospital for Integrated Medicine’, formerly the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, again the other day) creates a dangerous accepting background for these kinds of situations and media coverage of them (the BBC as well), and is a huge contributing factor in people’s choices. So that’s where raising awareness of the dangers and lack of evidence behind alt med as a whole comes in.

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I think it’s time for me to say something on this subject. It is after all very closely related to my current… vocation (if one can call it that, being a PhD student still!) and impacting directly on some of my friends.

One of those friends is my co-host of our long-neglected podcast, Super Duper Woo-Fighting Duo (With Capes)! – Rhys Morgan.

Edit: even BoingBoing is on it this evening!


Feel free to scroll down to ‘The Threats‘ and ‘Some Interesting Correspondence‘ sections if you know all this…

The subject is one Stanislaw Burzynski, based in Houston, Texas. He offers an experimental treatment (though to call it that is probably a bit generous) to cancer patients called “Antineoplaston Therapy”. These antineoplastons are claimed to be peptides (bits of protein – though they’re generally not, technically – see comment 11 for more) found in urine. When a difference between cancer patients’ and healthy individuals’ urine peptide profile was found, an assumption was made that cancer sufferers were lacking these protein chunks and therefore replacing them should be an effective cure. A list of his patents and publications can be found here. This NYT article is extensive and demonstrates the shocking wealth accumulated:

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Wooseum to Museum?

The saga of alternative medicine coverage in the Science Museum, London: an update!


My colleague (well, ex-colleague now he’s gone and emigrated!) Alex Davenport wrote a post for my blog describing an exhibit up in the Art and Science of Medicine section of the Science Museum that he’d taken issue with.

For good reason; it was full of advertising for alt med practitioners, a complete lack of scientific examination of beliefs and traditions of alt med types they’d chosen to present – but simply reiterating the beliefs and often presenting them ambiguously in a way that could easily be misinterpreted as promotion or at least uncertainty about their efficacy.

Simon Singh had resigned from the museum’s board of trustees partly due to this exhibit – fighting a lawsuit brought by the British Chiropractic Association at the time; it’s difficult to defend your stance of calling out baseless alt med claims as ‘bogus’ when the Science Museum is giving them time and you’re apparently supporting that!!

As a result of Alex’s post, the museum issued a response.

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