This blog is an archive of my recent science writing, including "Political Science", my monthly column in Tribune. The title is a reference to Jorge Luis Borges.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


In case you hadn't noticed, I don't post much on this site any more. I now blog here.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Libel laws: a pain in the back(side)

Published in Tribune, 9 April 2010

Two years in court and £200,000 later, science writer Simon Singh has won the right to assert that an article he wrote in The Guardian’s comment section was indeed comment. After perhaps another two years, we might finally know whether we can repeat the handful of contentious sentences about chiropractic that landed him in this mess in the first place.

But unless there is an unexpected change of heart in government, it will take a lot longer than that to reverse the massive injustice perpetrated each time a scientific controversy gets decided in the libel courts.

On May 19 2008, Singh, co-author of Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial wrote an article in The Guardian to mark chiropractic awareness week. He argued that the practice – which involves manipulating the spine to treat a whole host of medical conditions – was “bogus”. He also – and this is why he is in trouble now – said uncharitable things about the British Chiropractic Association.

What things he said I’m not going to risk repeating: the BCA is suing for libel, and no less than the Lord Chief Justice has stated that it is “unlikely that anyone would dare repeat the opinions expressed by Dr Singh for fear of a writ”.

That’s not the kind of legal advice to ignore.

The association demanded a full retraction, which Singh refused to give, and turned down an opportunity for a right to reply in the paper. Instead, the BCA began legal action for libel against Singh personally – not against the newspaper.

Singh claims that he was making a “fair comment” about the BCA and chiropractic, a legal defence which basically asserts that the statement was a legitimate and justifiable opinion. The BCA argued that Singh’s article amounted to a statement of fact – and that he should therefore have to prove it.

Singh’s position as an individual facing the skewed English libel courts was difficult enough, but to make things worse, the preliminary hearing over whether Singh could present a defence of fair comment was presided over by Mr Justice Eady, widely seen in media circles as a “hanging judge” on such cases.

Eady ruled in the chiropractors’ favour – which meant that any defence in court would have to rely on proving that the BCA were actively dishonest: even if he were to prove they were reckless, ignorant, incompetent or stupid, that would not be enough to see off the case. Apart from being an impossible burden of proof, it would have meant Singh had to prove in court a much more serious allegation than he claims he made in the first place.

Last Thursday’s judgement from the Court of Appeal, a welcome piece of sanity on April Fools’ Day, overturned Eady’s arguments.

The relationship between facts and inferences in science, the court ruled, is a matter which is “legitimately contested”, and that therefore Singh’s defence that he was expressing a legitimate opinion about the BCA was permissible.

That something so obvious needed two years of legal wrangling to settle is rather worrying. One wonders how many more years it might take to come to the equally obvious conclusion that the facts themselves are also a matter of legitimate debate in science. (That’s what experiments are for.) But before we get there, Singh still needs to clear his name – incredibly, the past two years have not been spent deciding whether or not he libelled the BCA, they have been wasted determining what defence he can use when this case eventually gets heard.

Tempting as it is to attack Eady – and the Court of Appeal’s judgement makes for a devastating indictment of his judgement (both in the legal and colloquial senses of the word) – the real issue here is the state of libel law in this country, which is widely used to bully and to stifle, rather than to defend and to protect. Pointing out that the BCA chose to sue Singh directly, and not the newspaper which published his words, the judgement notes that “the unhappy impression has been created that this is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics”.

Regardless of the BCA’s motivations in the case (and not having £200,000 to spare, I don’t want to risk guessing what they might be), the outcome of using libel laws to determine what opinions are and are not permissible on matters of science and medicine is deeply worrying. It pushes science towards being less open when it needs to be more so.

What if the scientists who discovered that thalidomide caused birth defects had thought twice before releasing their theories in case they were sued by the manufacturers? What if Rachel Carson had held back from publishing Silent Spring in case the pesticide companies objected to what she said about DDT? What if the tobacco companies had silenced the authors of the British Doctors’ Study, which proved the link between smoking and cancer?

There is a widespread and mistaken view that science is definite and unimpeachable, and that only “bad” science is subject to controversy and dispute. Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is full of argument, sometimes surprisingly vicious and personal.

But the correct institution for ruling on those disputes is not the court of appeal. It is the court of peer-reviewed science. Like the legal system, it isn’t beyond getting things wrong sometimes – but unlike English libel law, it isn’t an absolute travesty.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hardcore sceptics land no punches on hard core science

Published in Tribune, 12 February 2010

If you weren’t paying too much attention, the past few months might have convinced you that the sceptics are right and global warming is a myth. If so, congratulations – you have joined the illustrious company of Nigel Lawson, Jeremy Clarkson and Sarah Palin.

More worryingly, you have also joined an increasingly large minority of the British public that doubts the science – a group which, if we are to believe ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, now includes most Tory MPs.

All of which is rather unfortunate, given that the deniers haven’t actually won the argument over anything of substance. What they have done rather more successfully is to frame the debate in a way which makes them look more reasonable than they are and which makes the scientists look less reliable than they are.

In the 1980s, anti-tax campaigners in the United States managed to redefine talk about inheritance tax so that the levy became known as “death tax”. In the 1990s, Labour succeeded in changing the language of debate on the public finances so that spending became “investment”. Today, the Conservatives are trying to create a narrative of a “broken Britain” out of individual cases of youth crime.

There’s nothing rare or even particularly sinister about this and it’s a standard debating technique. But it can create the impression that an argument has been won before any evidence is even aired. In the case of political campaigns, it’s part of the arsenal of techniques used to persuade people and, infuriating as it might sometimes be, it’s not going to go away.

In the case of climate science, it’s a bigger deal, as the discourse is being manipulated to imply that there is serious doubt about climate change – which there is not. The result is not just to undermine climate science and to fool intelligent people into supporting the sceptics: it also undermines public understanding of science more broadly. Whether through ignorance or malice, the sceptics are dishonest to the core, yet they have managed to redefine the terms of the debate to make their dishonesty mainstream.

Global warming, it hardly seems necessary to say, is not like inheritance tax. Its existence cannot be legislated in or out of existence because we happen to like or dislike the idea. What is being framed here is not a debate between supporting or opposing a political proposal, but a debate between accepting or denying the broadly accepted scientific consensus.

Deniers like to throw about claims of scientific incompetence, of dogmatism and of corruption each time they uncover the slightest flaw in the research. “Don’t listen to those charlatans”, they say, “they might claim to be good scientists, but they’re not.” In fact, it is the sceptics who completely misunderstand the nature of science

Over the years, identifying exactly what makes science tick has been a big question for the small band of people who are interested in the philosophy of science. (Yes, we do exist.) And while no one has ever quite managed to pin it down in all its complexity, the Hungarian-born philosopher Imre Lakatos came up with one of the more persuasive models of how science works.

In his view, a research programme in any given field has a “hard core” of basic theories and a diffuse set of secondary theories and supporting evidence which he called the “protective belt”. Science, he argued, progresses mainly by dealing with problems raised with the supporting material, which is discarded or modified along the way as necessary. But unless something quite radical is discovered, you do not tear everything up and start again: the hard core remains as the protective belt takes a beating and, in time, usually recovers, with new theories and better data to replace the duds.

The bread and butter of science is therefore to test, refine and modify our knowledge of supporting theories. Revolutionary geniuses such as Einstein or Newton are not typical of how science works – the overwhelmingly vast majority of research is to refine old theories, not to question our fundamental assumptions.

So what would Lakatos say about climate change? I am pretty sure he would see the sceptics for what they are: a ragtag army of conspiracy theorists, right-wing extremists, corporate patsies and Ayn Rand worshippers. More importantly, he would see that the few punches they have landed are no reason to question a scientific consensus which remains fundamentally sound: the hardcore deniers haven’t laid a finger on the hard core of science, no matter what they claim.

In other words, publicly chipping away at the edges of climate science as the sceptics are doing might help change the public narrative in their favour, but it does nothing at all to change the science. That, not “bad science”, not blinkered dogmatism and not corruption is why the avalanche of fury that has been unleashed since the University of East Anglia email server was hacked has not moved mainstream scientific opinion one jot.

Suggesting otherwise is not just a grave misunderstanding of the theories and data of climatology – but a misrepresentation of how science actually works.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A hindsight test for hacks

Published in Tribune, 29 January 2010

Since actually knowing anything about how science works doesn’t seem to be a requirement for pontificating about it in the media, I’m going to play at being an ophthalmologist. The patient is the press and the diagnosis is excellent: it has perfect 20/20 hindsight.

What’s more, there is no need to visit those money-grubbing opticians with their sinister conspiracy to force annual eye tests on us all. Perfect hindsight can be diagnosed at home: it is the inevitable consequence among lazy journalists when scientists are found to have had anything other than 20/20 foresight.

Since it’s now clear that the swine flu pandemic wasn’t a global catastrophe, certain portions of the commentariat are turning on the scientists whose words they hyped less than a year ago, and are now claiming that the whole thing was a scam.

Most people are happy that swine flu hasn’t killed us all. Some journalists, however, appear to see it as a good thing because it makes for an easy article to bash out in a few minutes before going down to the pub.

Make a few accusations of conflicts of interest, insinuate that the scientists knew all along that the pandemic was not going to be a big deal, but nevertheless claimed the contrary, drop in a few mentions of “experts” in scare-quotes and you have the beginnings of a good rant.

Of course, because you don’t really know anything about science and you have 1,200 words to write by lunchtime you’ll have to pad the whole thing out with irrelevant details – so sprinkle about a few mentions of times when expert predictions were too alarmist, like mad cow disease and the millennium bug, while conveniently avoiding cases where they were right, such as AIDS, asbestos and tobacco. Then say that spiv-like Western governments are now trying to flog off their surplus vaccine stocks to the third world. And voila, you have a column, and a good excuse to pop down to the King and Keys for a pint or three of lunch.

That swine flu was hyped up is not really in question – and that much was obvious right from the start (as I pointed out in these very pages on March 9 last year). But the real misunderstanding was not in the risk caused by swine flu, which was correctly and widely stated as being uncertain (but probably relatively low).

Rather, the problem was the widespread and infuriating assumption that scientific claims are definite rather than provisional, combined with a sensationalist tendency to quote the most dramatic projected death tolls rather than the most realistic. Experts may have more facts at their disposal and more training than members of the public, but that does not make them infallible. Scientists deal in predictions – educated guesses – not prophecy. We hear far too much talk of scientific “facts” and not nearly enough about scientific “hypotheses” – something for which scientists are partly to blame, but which the media should be far more responsible in reporting than it is.

So the suggestion that the overreaction to swine flu was to do with conspiracy and fear deliberately whipped up by scientists seems odd, partly because most of the scaremongering was from the media rather than the experts or the Government, and partly because official responses to the outbreak in this country were mostly quite sensible given what was known at the time.
But let’s run with it for a moment. What evidence is there that there was a conspiracy?

There was clearly some excessive language used and there is without doubt an unhappily cosy relationship between parts of the pharmaceutical industry and some leading scientists. But neither of those prove widespread malpractice.

Another way to look at it might be to carry out a thought-experiment: what would have happened during the swine flu outbreak if there were no conspiracy? We can then compare that with what actually happened and maybe draw some conclusions.

My guess is that if there had been no conspiracy, there would have been a good deal of initial confusion and uncertainty as unreliable reports of the disease came out. Then, as the virus spread and our knowledge of it firmed up, contingency plans for bird flu (remember that?) would be put into action. Common sense public health efforts to prevent transmission and contingency plans to mitigate the effect on the economy would have been put into place. Meanwhile, governments would have chivvied pharmaceutical companies to develop and bring to market a vaccine as quickly as possible. That would have been a responsible and sensible approach to follow.

Once the worst had passed, infection rates had fallen and it became clear the disease was not as serious as feared, you might expect Western governments to try to sell their vaccine stocks on to countries where swine flu was still widespread – perhaps in poorer regions with less developed health systems, such as North Africa, south-east Europe and parts of Asia.

Finally, if it became clear that the pandemic had been a bit of a damp squib and that not that many people died, we might expect contrarian newspaper columnists to start claiming that the whole thing was a scam and a conspiracy, and that we should never trust so-called experts ever again.

The eagle-eyed among you may notice that that is exactly what happened.

Friday, December 18, 2009

No Christmas cheer for climate science

Published in Tribune, 18 December 2009

It hasn’t been a very good few weeks for climate science. The Copenhagen summit trundles onwards to certain fudge or failure. A recent Times poll appears to show fewer than half of all Britons even believing that global warming exists, and the storm rages on over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.

The United Nations climate summit is due to conclude after this issue of Tribune goes to press – but, regardless of the eventual outcome, the fact that all the countries have agreed at least in principle to deep cuts in emissions is a start.

The Times poll, too, isn’t quite the disaster it first seems – though the reporting of it raises some serious questions about journalistic integrity. As the excellent new website points out, the raw data from the pollsters shows that the low figure of 41 per cent of people in Britain who believe in climate change, cited with the most prominence in the Times article, was reached only by excluding a further 32 per cent who agreed with the statement “there is a widespread theory that climate change is largely man-made, but this has not yet been conclusively proved”.

Not quite what it seems, then – and to think it’s the climate change deniers who accuse the climate scientists of cherrypicking data and coming up with bogus conclusions.

Indecisiveness by politicians is hardly news, nor is sensationalism from a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper. But the accusations of dishonesty against the researchers at the University of East Anglia are a far bigger story, since they erode the credibility of a previously unimpeachable source.

Yet while the leaked emails aren’t exactly edifying – and they certainly don’t reflect well on the individuals involved – the suggestion that they undermine the whole edifice of climate science is nonsense. The real damage here is in the awful PR, rather than the relatively minor malpractice revealed.

Part of the trouble here isn’t just that the scientists misbehaved. It’s that we have come to hold them to a higher standard than we do everyone else.

Science generally works better when people are honest and open, but if we expect a level of integrity that is unobtainable then we simply set science up for a fall. Researchers are human beings, with all that entails: don’t believe the fairy stories that science is collaborative and free. It is intensely competitive, both for glory and for money – two things that tend to bring out the worst in humans.

Unfortunate or not, it’s the way it is, and while it should inform our judgement of scientific discoveries (some degree of scepticism is always in order, particularly for the preliminary results that so often form the basis of news stories), it shouldn’t throw into doubt the entire edifice of scientific knowledge. Peer review, however imperfect, exists to protect data from being compromised by individuals, an implicit recognition that scientists aren’t perfect.

And why would they be? It’s a matter of historical record that this sort of thing, and worse, has always gone on.

Do we think any less of Isaac Newton’s theories because of his relentless bullying of the astronomer John Flamsteed? Newton went as far as publishing an early draft of a book by Flamsteed without permission or even attribution, leaving the astronomer to go around buying and destroying the offending tomes. Newton may well have been a complete turd, but I don’t hear gravity sceptics claiming his laws of motion are bogus as a result.

Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA and won a Nobel Prize in part based on data discovered by a rival team of researchers at another university – whom they then denigrated in the paper revealing their results. Watson went on to offend women, gays, blacks and fat people in a series of outbursts that would make the Duke of Edinburgh proud. Is Watson a bastard? Unquestionably. But again, where are the DNA sceptics, insisting that all of genetics is undermined as a result?

Of course, the difference is that there isn’t a multi-billion dollar global industry whose profits rely on fooling people into believing gravity and DNA are hoaxes. Maybe that’s the real scandal.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How a tabloid sledgehammer smashed Professor Nutt

Published in Tribune, 20 November 2009

It’s three weeks now since the Home Secretary chewed up and spat out David Nutt, erstwhile chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The man was guilty of that most post-modern of offences, being too honest in a system which puts a premium on hypocrisy.

Nutt worked as a scientific adviser within an international framework of drugs control institutions which has no time for scientific advice, and which puts the political expediency of a 1961 treaty above any other issues that might conceivably be relevant. And as cheerleaders for this absurd system, he had to put up with The Sun and the Daily Mail.

Against the triple whammy of international law, tabloid journalists and a coward of a home secretary, the poor man never stood a chance.

The British Government does not control its own drugs policy. The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, the main piece of legislation on the subject, is virtually identical to equivalent laws in almost every country in the world. This is because drugs policy is internationalised like no other issue.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is the main treaty governing drugs policy around the world. It explicitly bans the “cultivation, production, manufacture, extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, delivery on any terms whatsoever, brokerage, dispatch, dispatch in transit, transport, importation and exportation” of numerous drugs (including cannabis) worldwide.

It recommends sanctions against any country that does not.

It also sets out the broad outline of the scheme which in this country puts drugs into class A, B or C.

This – not health, not public opinion, not science – is the real reason why cannabis will never be decriminalised. The treaty is virtually impossible to repeal. With over 180 countries in the world, almost all of them signed up, the legalisation of any of these drugs would require the simultaneous support of about four-fifths of the world’s nations to become a reality. And any country which acted unilaterally without the support of the vast majority of signatories would end up on the wrong end of sanctions.

The elements of drug policy left to the nation state in this system are insignificant in comparison.

The extent to which individuals are criminalised for possession is one area in which governments have nominal control (hence the Netherlands turning a blind eye to cannabis use), as are the penalties drug users and dealers face when caught (hence

Britain’s choice of how, but not whether, to classify cannabis). But the role of national governments in this field is pretty much limited to the enforcement of rigid international regulations.

Given this, Britain’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was never a particularly serious organisation. With an inflexible framework based on rigid and virtually inalterable treaties rather than national laws, the ACMD is not in a position to have any real input into how drugs are treated. Such a position is even built into the ACMD’s title – the assumption that use equals misuse.

But at least it used to inject a little sanity into the application of an insane law.

The ACMD’s role, when it worked properly, was positive, if limited. It was on its recommendation that David Blunkett downgraded cannabis to class C in 2004 – about as close to legalisation that was possible under Britain’s treaty obligations, and a rare moment of relative sanity on the matter.

But since then, the moral panic over drugs has heated up again. One of Gordon Brown’s first acts as Prime Minister was to pacify the media by reclassifying cannabis up again to class B – against the scientific advice of the ACMD – and to refuse the downgrading of ecstasy from class A to class B – again, against scientific advice.

This means that possession of ecstasy in Britain is punishable by up to seven years in prison; cannabis by five.

This is the moral panic David Nutt stood in the way of. When things reach such a fever-pitch of irrationality that it seems normal, even desirable, to lock up otherwise law abiding citizens for up to seven years for doing something which affects no one but themselves, it should hardly surprise us that the tabloids went berserk at a scientist who was just doing his job properly.

And not satisfied with having ousted the professor, The Sun and Daily Mail have now set about attacking his reputation and that of his family. Lowlife reporters from those newspapers have been trawling his children’s Facebook pages in order to find dirt to smear the family with in print.

In a democracy, we have the government and the newspapers we deserve. We also have the scientific advice we deserve.

And if there is one thing this whole story teaches us, it’s that we didn’t deserve David Nutt – a good man traduced for no good reason. Now we’re going to have to make do without him.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Energy: there's no accounting for waste

Published in Tribune, 22 October 2009

Is the government so determined to push through nuclear power stations that it is planning secret subsidies to the industry which will add 10% to household electricity bills? That's the conclusion of the Guardian, which ran a long news article and a highly critical editorial on the subject this Monday.

The truth is a little murkier. The story, while factually accurate, misrepresented the proposal rather badly. Nuclear power understandably triggers weary scepticism in many otherwise apathetic people - the history of the industry is closely bound with international realpolitik, intrigue at home and the warm afterglow of over two thousand nuclear bomb test detonations since 1945.

But, in fact, this new policy is a lot better than what we've got used to, and the Guardian called this one wrong. What at first seems like a subsidy for an unpopular type of power turns out, on closer inspection, to be something rather different: a cut in the implicit subsidy for fossil fuels. While there is legitimate debate about whether the risks of nuclear power outweigh its benefits, fossil fuels unquestionably cause massive environmental damage and human misery.

The government proposal, if implemented, is not to channel money to nuclear power, but to raise the cost of CO2 emissions licenses, which are currently unrealistically cheap. Recession notwithstanding, this is a very good idea.

Every type of energy source has its costs, whether they be for fuel, labour or construction. While explicit subsidies in the UK are currently directed towards renewables (particularly wind turbines) there are actually plenty of other ways in which the price we pay on our electricity bills does not reflect the true cost of generation.

In particular, for fossil fuels there is a glaring mismatch between the full economic cost of resource extraction (digging the coal out of the ground, or pumping the oil or gas), which we do pay up front, and the economic cost of the pollution produced, which we don't.

This is not abstract, nor is it the wishy-washy moral argument of a hand-wringing liberal, nor is it even an argument about saving a pure and pristine environment from smoke and soot.

The cost of pollution is paid for one way or another whatever we do - it's just that we don't recognise this through our energy bills at present. But battered coastal defences, stretched NHS budgets for respiratory diseases, countless deaths of miners (much of our coal is now imported from dangerous mines abroad) and droughts which decimate third-world farming are all external costs of burning coal.

The only question is whether we take these costs fully into account when planning our energy policy. At present we don't - which, as well as harming the environment, will probably end up costing more. The cheapness of fossil fuels is a mirage, a market failure brought about by a system which recognises some costs, but ignores or discounts others.

Seen in this light, a rise in energy bills, with its attendant increase in costs for the poor, seems less unethical - particularly since the brunt of the invisible subsidy to coal generation is at present borne by the disadvantaged anyway. The rich can always pay their way out of a crisis - the poor can't.

Besides, raising the cost of fossil fuels isn't actually about increasing the total spent on power - since the money will have to be spent anyway mitigating coal's environmental and health impacts, this would be little more than a change in accounting practices. That's not to say it is merely a matter of bureaucracy - the way businesses and governments account for profits and costs has a huge impact on what decisions they make. Just ask Northern Rock - an organisation that realised far too late that its apparently profitable business was completely unsustainable.

So the Guardian isn't really correct in saying that this is a bung to the nuclear industry - it's more of a slap for coal. The trouble is, the nuclear industry gets plenty of other hidden subsidies - and this is where I concede that the newspaper does have a point of sorts. If the argument for recognising the full cost involved in coal power is unanswerable, then a similar case can and should be made for nuclear.

The cost of decommissioning old nuclear power plants, for example, still isn't fully accounted for, though even the provisional figures are breathtaking. The Dounreay site on the northern coast of Scotland, for example, is currently being demolished and decontaminated - a process which is projected to take until 2336 -and that's not a typo. (The interim price for the first 30 years of this is close to £2.9bn.)

The cost of potentially disastrous (if vanishingly unlikely) nuclear accidents is not factored in either. And we still don't know what to do with the waste: as I never tire of saying, in six decades of nuclear power generation, humanity has not managed to permanently dispose of any of the high-level waste produced by nuclear power plants in that time. This isn't just a source of concern on safety grounds - it also leaves us in the dark as to the future costs of dealing with the waste.

So the Guardian is both wrong and right. It is wrong that the proposals are a bad idea, and wrong that they are simply a subsidy to nuclear power. But they are right that nuclear power gets far too many hidden bungs. These need to be eliminated just as much as those to coal.

All this talk of economic costs, of raising prices and of level playing fields in a free market might all sound a little Thatcherite for an article in Tribune. But regardless of what political decisions we make about the organisation of the energy industry, whether we want it wholly privately run, wholly public, or somewhere in between, the argument remains the same.

Decisions about our future energy needs really ought to be based on a full assessment of the economic and environmental costs involved - and any subsidies we decide to pay, whether to wind turbines or nuclear reactors, need to be explicit, evidence-based and properly accounted for.