Archive for The Guardian

Cross Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on August 21, 2011 by telescoper

I was out all day yesterday – of which more, perhaps, anon – but, as I usually do when I get an early train, I bought copy of the Saturday Guardian so that I could do the Prize Crossword during the journey.
When I settled into my seat and opened the paper I found quite a nice Araucaria puzzle which I completed in about 30 minutes. However, I noticed that the usual name and address bit for prize entries was missing and then it dawned on me that the number (25405) didn’t tally. Then the true enormity of the situation dawned on me – The Grauniad had erroneously printed Friday’s puzzle again in the Saturday newspaper. That’s the second time in as many weeks that the Guardian has messed up the crossword. After the last debacle you’d think they would have been a bit more careful.

Curiously the state of the Guardian’s crosswords preyed on my mind all day and developed into a full-blown mid-life crisis worthy of Reggie Perrin. I had a dawning realisation that so many of the things I do every day I do not because I enjoy them particularly but because they have become habits. The Guardian crossword is just one example. I started doing it over 20 years ago, and have won the prize seven or eight times over the years, but actually there have been very few in recent years that I enjoyed very much.

Part of the reason for this is that I started doing the excellent Azed puzzle in the Observer set by Jonathan Crowther. The Azed clues are not only extremely clever but also unfailingly sound in both grammar and syntax. The chance to submit your own clues to the monthly competition makes you realise how difficult it is to be both artful and rigorous. It’s a bit like how playing snooker on a full size table – which is impossibly difficult – leads you to appreciate even more the immense skill of the professional player. The other side of this is, of course, that it tends to raise your awareness of defects in other puzzles.

The Guardian’s puzzles have never been as strict as Azed, or others who follow in the steps of the great Ximenes, which is fair enough because they simply offer a different challenge. Araucaria, for example, remains popular because of his wonderful sense of humour – he’s one of the few setters who can make me laugh out loud – but the liberties he takes in some of his clues are enough to make me cringe. Unfortunately, the latest generation of setters include many who offer poorly constructed clues without the entertainment value to compensate. Frankly, I find most of them tedious. What I’m saying is that I’ve become a crossword snob.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, after realising the Guardian’s error yesterday I decided to experiment by (for the first time in my life) buying the Independent. Lo and behold, not just a very nice crossword indeed by Nestor but also a slightly trickier one in the supplement called Inquisitor.

So I’ve decided it’s time to stop buying the Saturday Guardian and switch to the Independent. The actual Guardian newspaper is a mess on Saturday’s anyway, lots of tedious supplements I never read, and there’s a big overlap in content with the Sunday Observer, not surprisingly given that they’re produced by the same people. The Independent is a neat tabloid format and I found the content refreshingly different from the Guardian. It’s quite a lot cheaper too. I may still have a go at the Guardian crossword occasionally – they’re all available free on the web – but I’m not going to buy the paper any more.

“Out with the old, in with the new” is the idea. There are a few other things I could apply that to, come to think of it…

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The Two Deserts

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 28, 2011 by telescoper

An interesting choice for Poem of the Week in the Grauniad today is this, Two Deserts, by Coventry Patmore.

Not greatly moved with awe am I
To learn that we may spy
Five thousand firmaments beyond our own.
The best that’s known
Of the heavenly bodies does them credit small.
View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.
So, judging from these two,
As we must do,
The Universe, outside our living Earth,
Was all conceiv’d in the Creator’s mirth,
Forecasting at the time Man’s spirit deep,
To make dirt cheap.
Put by the Telescope!
Better without it man may see,
Stretch’d awful in the hush’d midnight,
The ghost of his eternity.
Give me the nobler glass that swells to the eye
The things which near us lie,
Till Science rapturously hails,
In the minutest water-drop,
A torment of innumerable tails.
These at the least do live.
But rather give
A mind not much to pry
Beyond our royal-fair estate
Betwixt these deserts blank of small and great.
Wonder and beauty our own courtiers are,
Pressing to catch our gaze,
And out of obvious ways
Ne’er wandering far.

I think this is quite an interesting composition because of its fluid structure and variable metre, although I think the language is a bit contrived in places. Or is it just dated? However, as a scientist, I can’t really agree with the sentiments it expresses (which are also found in abundance elsewhere in 19th Century poetry, such in Walt Whitman’s When I heard the learn’d astronomer).

As the accompanying piece in the Guardian puts it,

Patmore hymns imaginative perception of local realities at the expense of scientific discovery: the reverse position is today’s default.

I’m not sure that last statement is true, for most people, but in any case I’d argue that the more we discover through scientific means the more there is to inspire artists, as long as they have their imaginative eyes open…

Although you probably associate Patmore’s point view with poets of the romantic tradition, such as Wordsworth (whose poetry I admire enormously), I think it’s a misguided assertion that science ignores “the imaginative eye”.  I don’t think it does. Science is full of imagination, it’s just of a form different from that found in the arts. Science and the arts offer complementary ways of imagining. They’re neither incompatible with each other nor is one superior to the other.

And, as I’ve mentioned before there’s more to life than the tedious arts-versus-science rants beloved of certain academics. I can’t think of a clearer expression of the supreme importance of simply living than this, from a poem by William Wordsworth I posted just a few days ago:

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.



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Please help Simon

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 28, 2010 by telescoper

jenkins460

This is Simon. He is 67 years old. Simon has had a tough time of it recently. He really needs your help. This is Simon’s story.

Simon was quite bright as a small child, but things started to go wrong for him  early on in life. He was bullied at public school by a vicious gang of “nerds” who forced him to look at their calculations. Later, a terrifying incident with a pipette in a chemistry lesson left him emotionally scarred. He started to have paranoid delusions and  nightmares about Men in White Coats. More recently  he began to suffer hallucinations involving Mammoths. He suspects all scientists are after his money. His behaviour is obsessive. Every gadget fills him with terror.  His actions are bizarre and unpredictable. He is no longer able to cope with everyday life and needs constant supervision.

Fortunately, Simon has a generous and loving friend called Alan (who edits a national newspaper).  Alan noticed that Simon had severe problems and decided to care for him. Alan provided sheltered accommodation for Simon and created a job, so Simon could earn a basic living doing simple tasks, such as writing a column in The Guardian.

Sadly, however, things have recently started to go wrong. Simon’s behaviour has deteriorated even further. He has become increasingly incoherent. He is unable to write his column without repeating himself over and over again. Worse, he sometimes gets out of the padded cell secure unit office Alan has provided for him, wandering about the premises foaming at the mouth and raving about the Large Hadron Collider. This is embarrassing Alan and the other people he works with. Simon has also recently been found sticking pins in a wax effigy of Lord Rees.

To make matters worse, Alan’s business has started to fail. He is losing money and can no longer afford to pay for Simon’s upkeep. Alan has become depressed by his newspaper’s falling circulation and the stress of having to cope with looking after Simon. He is desperate for help.

Without your assistance, the future looks bleak for both Simon and Alan.  Please send your contributions to Alan’s Personal Assistant:

Poppy Cock,
The Guardian,
Kings Place
90 York Way
London
N1 9GU

Please mark your envelope Get this Nutter off my Hands Appeal and make your cheques out to The Margaret Thatcher Home for the Bewildered (Maximum Security Divison). If you can’t afford to send money, any other gifts would be appreciated, especially crayons and colouring-in books (but not if they are about science).

Thank you for your help. Have a nice day. Unless you’re a scientist.

PS. You may find updates on the progress of this appeal on Twitter (look for #SpoofJenks).

Related Posts

  • William Waldegrave challenges journalists to explain Simon Jenkins to the general public
  • Martin Rees to blame for England’s World Cup exit, says Simon Jenkins
  • Brian Cox ate my Hamster
  • Nature Blog #SpoofJenks posts
  • Scientists Experiment with Simon Jenkins (at the Guardian website)

Singh Along

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on August 4, 2009 by telescoper

One of the nice things about the blog interface at  WordPress  is the way it flags up posts from other blogs that might be related to those on your own site. A good example is an item at a site which is quite new to me called Cubik’s Rube. This particular one alerted me to an update about the Simon Singh libel action which I’ve blogged about before, in a post that generated a great deal of debate and discussion.

If you recall, Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA)  for damages after he labelled some of their treatments bogus in an article written in The Guardian. The newspaper settled and withdrew the piece from its website but Singh decided to fight the action. At a pre-trial hearing the judge ruled that his use of the word bogus would be interpreted as meaning that the therapies being offered by the BCA were not only worthless, but that the BCA  knew they were worthless. To win his case Singh would have to prove both these claims were true. Simon Singh claimed he never intended that meaning and vowed to appeal. That was the situation in June 2009, at the time of my previous post.

Things moved on a bit while I was away last week. In an order sealed on 30 July 2009 the Court of Appeal has refused Singh leave to appeal, thus piling the pressure even further on him to settle the action and restricting his options even further. For a clearer explanation of the legal issues involved than I could ever manage, see the article by famous legal blogger Jack of Kent.

One side issue is worth mentioning, however, which is that it is apparently unclear from a legal point of view whether the BCA has standing to sue for defamation at all since it is a corporation without shareholders. It seems strange that such a basic issue would be unresolved. Surely there must be relevant precedents?

Meanwhile the BCA has issued a conciliatory statement, implying that it would prefer for the case to be settled out of court. This seems a bit surprising given that they would appear to hold all the cards, but the answer probably lies in the appalling public relations gaffe it has made over its presentation of alleged evidence for its therapies.

Challenged (largely by bloggers) to present evidence for the effectiveness of its therapies for certain paediatric conditions (such as asthma, infantile colic and even bed-wetting), the BCA produced a report containing a “plethora” of evidence, dated 17th June 2009. This dossier – cobbled together from 19 research papers, most of which don’t really support their case at all – turns out to have been the epitome of dodginess and over the last few weeks it has been comprehensively dissected, discredited, debunked and demolished all over the blogosphere. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal described its own refutation of the BCA’s claims to be “complete”.

I doubt if the BCA wants to see its credibility further undermined by having its so-called evidence savaged again in open court, which probably explains why they might prefer to settle than carry on the case. Nothing said in court can be subject to the libel laws.

But it’s an amazing blunder by the BCA to have presented such a shaky collection of evidence in the first place. All it has achieved is to make them look like fools.

Anyway, it’s now a peculiar situation. It still looks like Singh can’t win the case unless he can prove the BCA are dishonest rather than merely inept. And the BCA stands to fall even lower in public esteem if it goes to trial. If Singh can afford it he could fight on regardless and hope that if he loses the damages will be bearable. Morally, though, he will have won.

But the really impressive thing to me is the way that expert bloggers have forced the BCA into a corner. I think this is probably a sign of the way science is changing through use of the internet’s ability to communicate complex things so rapidly.

Simon Singh and the “Bogus” Issue

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by telescoper

This is an issue that I’ve been meaning to comment about for some time, but hadn’t done so because I really didn’t have a clear view on what opinion to express! I’ve now decided to chip in precisely for that reason, i.e. because I don’t think the matter is as clear as others appear to think.

The story will be familiar to many readers of the blog, so I’ll only give a quick recap of the salient points. Simon Singh is a popular science writer – a very good one, in fact – who recently  co-authored a book on alternative medicine called Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University. In that book they produced evidence showing that many “alternative” medical therapies including homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractice  were, in fact, useless for the control of many conditions for which they are prescribed by the relevant specialists. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Singh wrote a piece in the Comment pages of the Guardian newspaper in which he specifically criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described these treatments as “bogus” and criticised the  BCA for “happily promoting” them.

The BCA decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. The Guardian removed the article from its web pages and encouraged Singh to settle out of court, offering to pay his legal expenses if he agreed to do so. He refused and decided to defend the libel action in court. At a preliminary hearing in May, the Judge, Mr Justice Eady,  ruled that the wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning.

This ruling – which is currently under appeal – effectively means that Singh has to prove that the BCA are consciously dishonest in order to win the libel case. That looks like a very tall order. He also has to pay the costs of the preliminary hearing, which amount to £23,000. If the matter goes to a full trial then he will be out of pocket to a much greater extent than this: a conservative estimate is that his legal costs alone will exceed £100,000, and there will be damages to pay on top of that.

This has become something of a cause célèbre owing, it is alleged, to the intrusion of the courts into matters of scientific debate. The organization Sense About Science has organized a petition (“to keep libel laws out of science”) which has attracted over 10,000 signatures. The issue that signatories are worried about is that the open cut-and-thrust of rational scientific debate will be stifled if a precedent is set that involves one party taking another to court. As they put it

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The case has also revived calls to reform Britain’s  laws on defamation, which make the defence of a libel action in the UK very difficult from a legal perspective compared to other jurisdictions because, roughly speaking, they place the burden of proof on the defendant not the plaintiff. It is also so expensive to pursue such an action through the courts that the system clearly favours the rich and powerful versus ordinary citizens.

The ruling by Sir David Eady has been singled out for disapproval in the print media and across the blogosphere as an example of how  British law stifles free speech.

So why am I unclear about this? Shouldn’t we keep libel laws out of science? Doesn’t the British law of libel need changing?

Of course I say “yes” to both of those. But it seems to me that the Simon Singh case isn’t really about those questions.

For a start, there is no way that you can regard a Comment article in a national newspaper as the proper place for scientific debate between qualified specialists. Such arguments can and do take place at scientific conferences, seminars and through the pages of learned journals. Simon Singh was not participating in this process when he wrote his article. He was doing something quite different: publicising his book.

Secondly, it is true that Simon Singh is a qualified scientist. He has a PhD in particle physics, in fact. But that does not in itself qualify him as competent to pronounce on issues relating to medical practice. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone stating their opinion about things that they’re interested in. It’s just that he doesn’t get a special ticket because he happened to get a science PhD. My point is that his article was not part of the cut-and-thrust of informed scientific debate between experts, merely an individual commenting on something. The fact that he’s a scientist should not give him a blanket exemption from having to obey the laws that apply to others, especially when he is talking about things outside his speciality. It’s also worth stating here that if what he’d said had clearly just been an opinion it would not have been subject to a libel case. The problem is that it appears to be a statement of fact from an authority on the matter.

Third, note that the original book – which is a proper scientific work in which arguments are presented with accompanying evidence – is not the subject of the libel action, just the newspaper article. The BCA is not using the libel laws to suppress or contest scientific evidence.

Now we come to the crux. Does Mr Justice Eady’s ruling really “defy logic” as many commentators have alleged? What does the word “bogus” actually mean? It seems sensible to turn to an authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Doing so, I find that the word “bogus” is actually of American origin. The first usage found in the OED is from 1827 where it appears as a noun, meaning “an apparatus used for making counterfeit coins”. Later on it is found as an adjective, with current meanings

Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham: ‘originally applied to counterfeit coin’ (Webster).

It seems to me that since the preliminary hearing was specifically intended to give a ruling on the meaning of the words that had been used in the allegedly libellous document, Mr Justic Eady actually had no choice at all in deciding that the word meant what it did. Clearly “counterfeit” implies a deliberate misrepresentation. Effectively the ruling means that Singh’s words mean that the BCA are no better than Snake Oil salesmen, a defamatory statement if ever I heard one.

Singh has claimed that this was not what he meant by “bogus” and what he intended was something more like “unproved” but I don’t see how it can be an acceptable defence to claim that one’s words mean what you think and not what everyone else thinks. It didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty and it won’t work for Simon Singh. If I write that “Jones the Dentist is incompetent” then that will be libelous (if untrue) even if I later claim I thought that the word incompetent meant something different to what it everyone else thinks.

Truth is of course an acceptable defence against libel, but the “truth” at issue has now become not whether chiropractice is effective or ineffective (a scientific issue) but whether chiropractioners are consciously fraudulent. I’d be wholeheartedly against trying to settle the first question in the courts, but nobody is trying to suggest that. The second question seems to me one that has to be settled that way.

Now let me say that I don’t know anything at all about chiropractice. I don’t know whether it works or doesn’t work, but it does seem to me that Simon Singh was very unwise to use the word “bogus” and even unwiser still to defend the action after he did.

For me, the only really significant issue in this saga is a general one: the overall matter of freedom of speech. In general, I believe strongly in freedom of speech but because we don’t have a written constitution the right to it is not stated as clearly here in the United Kingdom as it is, for example, in the United States. However, don’t forget that there are defamation laws (including libel) in America too. Among those statements considered defamatory per se under US law are statements “injurious to another in their trade, business, or profession”, which certainly would cover chiropractors. The US system is much less plaintiff-friendly than ours, in that it provides for a wider range of potential defences, and it also largely reverses the burden of proof unless there is an affirmative defence. It does not seem obvious to me, though, that Singh would have any more success in defending his case in America rather than here. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Even in countries like the United States where Freedom of Speech is enshrined as a constitutional right, it is necessary that it should tempered by wider considerations. It should not be legal for someone to damage another person’s reputation and livelihood by making intentionally false and defamatory assertions. Neither should it be possible to abuse and/or threaten another in such a way as to cause harassment or intimidation. There have to be laws covering such things. The real question is how to make them work in a more impartial way than they do now. To argue that one should be exempted simply by declaring oneself to be a scientist seems to me to be dangerously simplistic. The best way to keep the libel laws out of science is to for scientists not to make potentially libelous statements if they don’t possess the evidence to back them up.

I realise that many of you may think that, in not fully supporting Simon Singh, I am being overtly pro-BCA. I certainly don’t intend to be so. I think there’s blame on both sides. I think that the BCA was unnecessarily aggressive in suing him for libel. Given that they did so, though, Singh seems to me to have made an error of judgement in continuing an action he is very unlikely to win. If he continues with the case now his only hope is that he can produce enough evidence in court that damages the BCA that they drop the action. In the long run, what will probably happen is that he loses the case and the BCA wins damages, but suffers a big dent in its reputation for rather heavy-handed tactics. Along the way it might even happen that there is intense scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of chiropractics, and that might do the BCA more harm than good. Bear in mind that anything said in court under oath is privileged can’t be subject to libel actions…