Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bad Science and LBC

Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) is someone I first became aware of through his excellent Guardian column, which I used to read when I picked up a copy of the newspaper.

Ben's central belief (explained here more fully) is that newsrooms are effectively run by clueless humanities graduates who wouldn't know how to question the scientific veracity of the nutritional claims on the side of a cereal packet.

Ben decided to take a stand when he realised that uninformed media reporting was actively damaging public debate over important scientific issues.

This had three main effects:

1) The degrading of the reputation of scientists and the practice of science (and it is thanks to science your car works, your cancer is cured and you are reading this blog post. It's not because of religion, or crystals).

2) The growth industry of quacks, alternative healers and pseudo-scientists who spout stuff that sounds right, provide a few of their own case studies and suddenly find themselves on television making fortunes from credulous members of the public.

3) The real danger to individual lives a growing ignorance of science can foster, particularly when making decisions about things like medical care and immunisation.

Unfortunately, whilst science in its purest form can do incredible things, lead to astounding discoveries and regularly changes our lives for the better, it has too often been used as a business tool by those who only wish to see scientific progress if it grows markets and makes profits. When this works together for the benefit of humanity it is a truly wondrous thing.

When it is misappropriated to grow market share, it sucks (read this blog entry on pharmaceutical happy drugs (SSRIs) by a traumatised user). But the swing against the received wisdom of science in recent decades has been horrendous.

All sorts of extraordinary hippy shit has not only been given credence by its media exposure, but it started gaining a toe-hold amongst politicians and academics who gave it the credibility it craves. This week's Private Eye quotes course notes from a University of Westminster undergraduate module on vibrational medicine which reveals students are taught the following "[amethyst] emits high yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbances at all levels of being".

The article is reprinted on the excellent Improbable Science website which is a prime example of scientists belatedly, and at last successfully, taking the fight to the quacks.

So Ben Goldacre decided to draw a line in the sand. Adopting the cunning guise of the very humanities graduates he aims to expose (despite being a practising NHS doctor and one time visiting researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Milan), Ben comes across like an affable, articulate and determinedly bemused debunker of pseudo-science.

He writes well, he speaks engagingly and he has, I think, been at the forefront of the recent willingness in the media to think a lot harder about repeating claims that don't have any peer-reviewed scientific evidence to back them up.

Knowing this makes it easier to understand Ben's reaction to a recent broadcast by Jeni Barnett on the London commercial talk radio station LBC.

I first found out about it in the popbitch weekly email, and I have pasted the relevant section from that weekly email below:

LBC bloke throws toys out of pram

Guardian Bad Science columnist, Dr Ben Goldacre, recently blogged about an LBC show by Jeni Barnett. Unimpressed by what she was saying about MMR, Goldacre posted up the audio of the show so that his readers could judge it for themselves. LBC got the legal heavies on to him about it. The result? A small story became a huge to-do on the web, newspapers picked up on it and hundreds of blogs around the world took up the story, transcribed Barnett's interview, played the audio etc. One of the station's top execs then rang Goldacre to vent, telling him: "You were on my list of people to contact. I was thinking of giving you your own show... but you've RUINED THAT NOW." Needless to say, we're sure Dr Ben must be heart-broken.


To read Ben's perspective on LBC's legal action take a look at this. To read Ben's version of the above exchange click here and go to the bottom of the entry, but in reality it's an unimportant sideshow, so please don't do it until you've read the whole story.

In short, Ben has played a blinder. He is very much the little guy, the gifted amateur with little other than a) a solid reputation b) a total understanding of the facts c) lots of very bright, very tech-savvy, very influential and opinionated followers.

As things stand this is far from over. Dr Ben's latest entry suggests things might escalate. Questions are being asked in The House, you know.


Friday, 6 February 2009

Mucking about in the snow again

Long day. Actually too tedious to get into, other than the fact we got to get in the back of a cop car with the blues and twos flashing. Top speeds in the slush. In Welwyn Garden City. Now that's glamour.

  I had to get out of the car at one stage so Gemma the Top Camera Lady could get some shots from the back seat, so they dropped me off at a Porsche dealership.

I got out of the squad car in the car park in front of this two story glass and steel structure. The police car had blacked out windows so the staff inside couldn't see Gemma or the cops. So all they saw was a police car with sirens blaring coming to a halt in their car park and a man wearing a black longcoat get out of the back seat and come striding towards them.

"I need two of your fastest 911s," I said to the salesman. "It's a matter of national security."

I didn't really, but I felt like I ought to say something, so I explained what was going on.

"Oh," said the salesman, looking disappointed, "I thought you were a customer."

They offered me a coffee. I got the full Porsche dealership experience (Sky News, every single daily paper, a leather banquette and a flirtatious receptionist) without having to shell out for a Porsche.

£30,000 for a new entry level Boxter, if you're interested.

Anyway we got the job done and met up with veteran reporter (hee hee) Marcus Powell and the sat truck in the car park of the Red Lion, Ayot Green.

Marcus n' me
Marcus and his crew filed his report first and went to the pub, whilst I slaved over my script in the truck.

Afterwards I rewarded myself with a pint of ginger beer shandy. Then we had a snowball fight and went home.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Going round Tony Benn's house

Tony Benn is something of a legendary figure in British politics - I don't know how much of his Wikipedia entry is true, but his status as a National Treasure (words often preceded by the phrase "I don't agree with a single one of his policies, but...") is beyond doubt.

We filmed him for a comment on street protests and whether they're causing too much disruption in London. He lives on a main road in a well-to-do part of West London.

The laminated sign on the front door of his 4 story townhouse said, "Please use the downstairs entrance", so we trooped down some dilapidated stairs to be confronted with another laminated sign attached to the door-knocker: "The door is open, please come in".

We knocked and went in (bringing the sign with us), and there was the man himself. I've met Tony Benn before, when he came into the studio to discuss something or other on a BBC Radio 5 live show I was presenting, but to meet someone in the context of their own home (especially a living legend) changes the game entirely.

  Knowing of his privileged upbringing, I expected a tastefully furnished mansion populated by various family members, and staff, including a devoted housekeeper who would spend her time fussing over him and an earnest young man acting as his secretary/PR wallah.

But no, we were welcomed by a sprightly 84 year old, working in what frankly looked like conditions of genteel, and slightly eccentric poverty. The office he directed us into to set up the interview was cold and damp (which he apologised for).

Whilst he was busying himself elsewhere and the cameraman did his lighting, I had a good look round.

One wall of the office was wholly taken up by his own writings and recordings - file after file of the Benn diaries and audio CDs. Below them was a vinyl-tablecloth-covered desk holding two switched-off TVs which were connected to VHS recorders. In the corner of the room was a bookshelf holding a good chunk of leather-bound books, including a few of his own - the backdrop for the interview as "suggested" (ie directed) by him.

On the desk beneath the window was a functioning Amstrad email/phone thing. This appeared to be the most advanced technology in the room - there was no computer present. The shabby mantelpiece had a 25 year old framed commons sketch above it - Margaret Thatcher was at the despatch box and every MP's features had been caricatured.

Alarmingly, on its side, on the mantelpiece itself, was a whole, iced, and clearly ancient cake. It looked like it had been there years, and had various tapes and books packed around it - with what looked like a large decoration from the cake propped up on one of the books. It would be a disservice to the vitality of the place to draw comparisons with the living habits of Steptoe and Miss Havisham, but it is potentially going that way. Still, at the age of 84 you're hardly going to give two hoots are you? And I've been in considerably worse bachelor pads. Men just don't clean up much when left to their own devices.

By far the most impressive part of the whole package was Benn himself. Still intellectually fiery, argumentative and grippingly lucid he answered every question cleverly and persuasively. He wore a lapel microphone for us and another connected to an audio cassette machine. "I hope you don't mind." he said as he pressed record "I'm an archivist." I don't mind my interview being in the Benn archive one bit...

Delightfully uninterested in doing set up shots, he was more than happy to pose for a photo (see below) and we had a chat about my BlackBerry. I showed him my iPod touch, and said he'd probably get on better with an iPhone. He was worried about switching from Orange and having to change his number. I said I was pretty sure it was a painless process nowadays.

We chatted about progress - how when his father was born there were no cars at all, when he was born no television and women still didn't have the vote, when his son was born no computers, when I was born, no mobile phones and when his granddaughter was born - no internet. He was minister for technology in the 60s I think and has a genuine interest in that sort of thing, even if he doesn't quite buy into it himself.

  I have a theory that to continue doing something over a period of time, provided it's done for the right reasons, has a moral value to it, no matter the impact it makes on the world, and I think that is why we celebrate people like Tony Benn (you could put him in the same bracket as John Peel).

He's dedicated his life to politics, and has showed us, by example, the value of sticking to what you believe in.

Even the cameraman was impressed.