Archive for Daily Mail

Responding to the Mail

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 24, 2014 by telescoper

What was that quotation by Oscar Wilde, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us aren’t reading the Daily Mail“? Last week that particular element of the gutter press took the opportunity to display its aptitude for racism and sexism in a snide piece about the appearance of two female (shock!) and non-white (horror!) scientists on Newsnight. It’s not really a surprise that the Daily Mail would publish such a scummy article, but it’s still depressing to see how the minds of some people work.

For the record I’ll say that I only know one of the scientists concerned personally (Hiranya Peiris of University College, London). Speaking as a cosmologist, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that if someone from the press had phoned me up and asked me to suggest an expert to invite onto a television show to explain the BICEP2 results then Hiranya would have been right at the top of my list – because  she’s a brilliant scientist (in exactly the relevant area) and a gifted communicator to boot. Is it really so hard to grasp the idea that a brilliant scientist can be female? Or born in Sri Lanka?

Anyway, University College was quick to criticize the Daily Fail in an open letter from Professor David Price, Vice-Provost for Research. Meanwhile a flurry of enraged emails was going around the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society (of which I am a member) that led to a collective response being issued on Friday.

Here follows the RAS statement on the matter which I reproduce here in full, apart from the link to the offensive Daily Mail “article” which I have removed because I don’t want them to profit from traffic sent by this blog.

The statement was written by RAS President David Southwood and RAS Press Officer Robert Massey who are to be congratulated for their measured yet forceful riposte. The last two paragraphs are particularly good.

I’m glad the task of responding to the Daily Mail wasn’t left to me. I would have been far less diplomatic.


The Council and President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) have offered unequivocal support to astronomers Dr Hiranya Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. An article in the Daily Mail suggested that they were selected to appear on an episode of theBBC Newsnight programme on the basis of their ethnic background, nationality and gender.

The two astronomers discussed results from the BICEP-2 experiment announced earlier this week, which offered evidence of gravitational waves in the early universe and for a rapid expansion of the cosmos (known as inflation) shortly after the Big Bang. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance and was rightly covered by news media all over the world.

Dr Peiris is a world-leading cosmologist now based at University College London (UCL), with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton. In 2012 she received the RAS Fowler Award in recognition of her immense contribution to her field at an early stage of her research career.

Dr Aderin-Pocock has a background in space engineering and science communication and is now co-presenter of theBBC’s The Sky at Night, a role which demands the ability to convey complex ideas to the public at large.

Both scientists are thus exceptionally well qualified to discuss the BICEP-2 results and were natural choices for the Newsnight piece.

In the Daily Mail article, columnist ‘Ephraim Hardcastle’ (the nom de plume of Peter Mackay) not only ignored their expertise entirely but incorrectly suggested that the BICEP-2 team consisted only of white, male, American astronomers.

Astronomy world-wide has long ceased to be a closed male world and the backgrounds of astronomers have long been culturally diverse. Specifically in Britain, women now make up 27% of UK university lecturers in astronomy [see e.g. the pdfRAS Demographic Survey (2011)] and lead space- and ground-based research projects alike.

RAS President Prof. David Southwood commented: “Astronomy did not begin in Western Europe and has always been an international science. Today researchers from many nations and many cultures routinely work together to achieve shared goals. In the UK, our field is enriched by some of the most talented people from all over the world who choose to join teams in this country.

“It is deeply regrettable that the Daily Mail column chose to overlook the scientific achievements of the BICEP-2 team and the expertise of Hiranya and Maggie and instead concentrate on their skin colour and gender. The implied and deplorable message  that astronomy is the exclusive business of people who are white and male  completely ignores the successful efforts made by the RAS and other scientific bodies to create an environment where science can be done by those best suited to do it, irrespective of background culture, nationality or gender.”

PC and the PCC (by PC)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 21, 2010 by telescoper

Another bit of news to emerge last week was the decision by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) not to censure the Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir for the truly odious article she wrote after the death of Stephen Gately. Even by the standards of the Daily Mail, this piece was so horrendous that it led to a Twitter storm and provoked no less than 25,000 complaints from the public in addition to a direct complaint from Stephen’s partner, Andrew Cowles. I even blogged about it here.

The PCC, however, decided not to uphold these complaints. I can’t say that I’m at all surprised at their decision and not surprised either that it has also led to many expressions of outrage via Twitter and elsewhere. In among all the noise there have also been some thoughtful blog posts giving more reasoned discussions of the outcome. If you’re interested, I recommend Unspeak,  The Free Speech Blog and Enemies of Reason for a range of different takes on the affair. I’m sure you will all have your own views on whether the PCC was right or wrong to let Jan Moir off the hook. My own opinion – for what it’s worth – is that they were partly right and partly wrong.

If you read the PCC announcement you will see that the complaints were made under three clauses of their code: 1 (which stipulates that articles must distinguish fact from conjecture), 5 (that reporting should be handled sensitively at a time of grief) and 12 (that articles must avoid pejorative references to an individual’s sexual orientation).

The overriding issue is, of course,  the freedom of the press. I quote

The price of freedom of expression is that often commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.

In other words, the price we have to pay for freedom of speech is that we have to allow people to say things we don’t like. I agree.

However, the PCC is a body formed by the press in order to regulate the press. This is tacit acceptance that freedom of speech has its limits. We  all know that there are things we shouldn’t say even though we have the right to say them. In private life our outbursts are controlled by social conventions or by guidelines issued by our employers governing conduct in the workplace. Political Correctness is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes, but its primary aim is, in my opinion, laudable – to be aware of the possibly pejorative interpretation of certain words and avoid using them in a way that could cause offence. The PCC plays a similar role for the press.  Conscious of the harm that can be caused by extremely prejudicial articles, the press has subjected itself to voluntary regulation.

I think that’s a good thing, in principle. The alternative would be official censorship and the further intrusion of the criminal law into matters of individual expression. However, self-regulation must not be mere window-dressing. Any organization can publish codes of conduct and the like, but unless they are applied rigorously and in good faith they are nothing other than exercises in hypocrisy.

It’s clear that the PCC found much of Moir’s article extremely distasteful but did not feel that she had offended sufficiently in respect of any of the clauses to warrant censure. I think they were right on Clause 1 – the piece was clearly identifiable as comment rather than fact – and I’m not sure about Clause 5. I’m convinced, however, that they got it wrong with respect to Clause 12. You can make your own mind up, of course, but if that is their decision in this case I’d like to know what sort of article they would censure.

In particular, the adjudication on Clause 12 states

While many complainants considered that there was an underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay, it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article. The columnist had not used pejorative synonyms for the word “homosexual” at any point.

The Commission made clear that this part of the Code was not designed to prevent discussion of certain lifestyles or broad issues relating to race, religion or sexuality. There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals, and the Code was designed to constrain the latter rather than the former.

Jan Moir’s article mocked Stephen Gately’s relationship with his partner as “unnatural”, implied that all gay relationships are tainted with sleaze, and suggested that gay people are all promiscuous drug-users. However, a panel of (presumably heterosexual) press pundits decided that it was not sufficiently homophobic to warrant censure, since they didn’t actually call Stephen Gately a faggot. I wonder what might have happened if a young black pop singer had died suddenly and Jan Moir had written an article suggesting that all black people were promiscuous drug-users living unnatural and debauched lives?

This is why I’m not surprised at the PCC conclusion. Guidelines and codes of conduct are just words. They only actually mean anything if they are enforced, and when it’s a matter of sexual orientation they rarely are. The PCC has given carte blanche to Jan Moir’s bigotry but since 99% of what’s in the Daily Mail is horrendous anyway, nothing much has changed.

What is more interesting, I think, is that this episode contains fascinating glimpses of the future. This morning I bought my regular Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Like all print media, newspapers are struggling to survive in a period of rapid technological change. The Observer has this week been re-launched, in a condensed form, because it is losing money hand-over-fist. Digital media, social networking and blogs are taking over from traditional formats as ways of communicating news and opinion about current events. Newspapers are dying, and the PCC will die with them. I doubt if it will be mourned.

The point is that although the press regularly make noises about freedom of speech, the freedoms most newspapers really care about are the freedom to make money and the freedom to promote the political views of the barons that control them. There are exceptions of course. I’m sure some journalists are motivated by democratics ideals and a desire for public good, atlhough I doubt if many of them work for the Daily Mail.  But the traditional press is in any case losing its grip. News websites may continue to exist, but the ability of large media conglomerates to control what we can read about is vanishing. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The New Media  sector has only minimal regulation and is consequently more diverse than the popular press. It’s anarchistic, I suppose, but is accessible and  democratic as a result. I don’t see any way that the blogosphere will ever be policed, voluntarily or otherwise. Nor do I think that’s desirable. There are dark corners where horrible creatures lurk. Nasty stuff will emerge. However, if somebody publishes something obnoxious it will be greeted with the same sort of reaction as Jan Moir’s article. There’ll be no PCC to hide behind. As the PCC itself made clear

Indeed, the reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard.

Twitter mobs aren’t always pretty, and they don’t always get it right,  but they’re the future. Get used to them.

Godless Uncertainty

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , , , , on November 5, 2009 by telescoper

As usual I’m a bit slow to comment on something that’s been the topic of much twittering and blogging over the past few days. This one is the terrible article by A.N. Wilson in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. I’ve already fumed once at the Mail and didn’t really want to go off the deep end again so soon after that. But here goes anyway. The piece by Wilson is a half-baked pile of shit not worth wasting energy investigating too deeply, but there are a few points I think it might be worth making even if I am a bit late with my rant.

The article is a response to the (justifiable) outcry after the government sacked Professor David Nutt, an independent scientific adviser, for having the temerity to give independent scientific advice. His position was Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and his sin was to have pointed out the ludicrous inconsistency of government policies on drug abuse compared to other harmful activities such as smoking and drinking. The issues have been aired, protests lodged and other members of the Advisory Council have resigned in protest. Except to say I think the government’s position is indefensible I can’t add much here that hasn’t been said.

This is the background to Wilson’s article which is basically a backlash against the backlash. The (verbose) headline states

Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth.

Obviously he’s not afraid of generalisation. All scientists are arrogant; everyone knows it because it says so in the Daily Mail. There’s another irony too. Nutt’s argument was all about the proper way to assess risk arising from drug use, and was appropriately phrased  in language not of certainty but of probability. But the Mail never lets truth get in the way of a good story.

He goes on

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

It’s desperately sad that there are people – even moderately intelligent ones like Wilson – who think that’s what science is like. Unimaginative? Nothing could be further from the truth. It takes a great deal of imagination (and hard work) to come up with a theory. Few scientists have the imagination of an Einstein or a Feynman, but at least most of us recognize the importance of creativity in advancing knowledge.  But even imagination is not enough for a scientist. Once we have a beautiful hypothesis we must then try to subject it to rigorous quantitative testing. Even if we have spent years nurturing it, we have to let it die if it doesn’t fit the data. That takes courage and integrity too.

Imagination. Courage. Integrity. Not qualities ever likely be associated with someone who writes for the Daily Mail.

That’s not to say that scientists are all perfect. We are human. Sometimes the process doesn’t work at all well. Mistakes are made. There is occasional misconduct. Researchers get too wedded to their pet theories. There can be measurement glitches. But the scientific method at least requires its practitioners to approach the subject rationally and objectively, taking into account all relevant factors and eschewing arguments based on sheer prejudice. You can see why Daily Mail writers don’t like scientists. Facts make them uncomfortable.

Wilson goes on to blame science for some of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler:

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

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

Garbage. Hitler knew nothing about science. Had he done so he wouldn’t have driven out a huge proportion of the talented scientists in Germany’s universities and stuffed their departments full of ghoulish dolts who supported his prejudices.

It was only after reading the article that it was pointed out to be that this particularly offensive passage invoked Godwin’s Law: anyone who brings Hitler into an argument has already lost the debate.

Wilson’s piece seems to be a modern-day manifestation of old problem, famously expounded by C.P. Snow in his lecture on Two Cultures. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of people in positions of power and influence, including the media, are entirely illiterate from a scientific point of view. Science is viewed by most people with either incomprehension or suspicion (and sometimes both).

As society becomes more reliant on science and technology, the fewer people there are that seem to understand what science is or how it works. Moronic articles like Wilson’s indicate the depth of the problem.
Who needs scientific literacy when you can get paid a large amount of money for writing sheer drivel?

I’m sure a great many scientists would agree with most of what I’ve said but I’d like to end with a comment that might be a bit more controversial. I do agree to some extent with Wilson, in that I think some scientists insist on claiming things are facts when they don’t have that status at all. I remember being on a TV programme in which a prominent cosmologist said that he thought the Big Bang was as real to him as the fact that the Sun is shining. I think it’s quite irrational to be that certain. Time and time again scientists present their work to the public in a language that suggests unshakeable self-belief. Sometimes they are badgered into doing that by journalists who want to simplify everything to a level they (and the public) can understand. But some don’t need any encouragement. Too many scientists are too comfortable presenting their profession as some sort of priesthood even if they do stop short of playing God.

2006-11-09-1525-20The critical importance of dealing rationally with uncertainty in science, both within itself and in its relationship to society at large, was the principal issue I addressed in From Cosmos to Chaos, a paperback edition of which is about to be published by Oxford University Press..

From the jacket blurb:

Why do so many people think that science is about absolute certainty when, at its core, it is actually dominated by uncertainty?

I’ve blogged before about why I think scientists need to pay much more attention to the role of statistics and probability when they explain what they do to the wider world.

And to anyone who accuses me of using the occasion presented by Wilson’s article to engage in gratuitous marketing, I have only one answer: