All posts by Mike

Hi, I’m Mike and I live near Reading, where I run Skeptics In The Pub with my partner Susan and our Berkshire Skeptics Society friends. I also occasionally help organise AstroPub, which I started with my friend Jim.

Snooper’s Charter

I have a rare opportunity to congratulate John Redwood, for the good sense he displays in response to renewed calls for the Snooper’s Charter:

The government should not use terrorist incidents to support the idea of more surveillance and restriction on freedom of expression. The authorities have powers to eavesdrop and snoop on those under suspicion, where they have obtained a warrant to do so. There should be no more general powers.

The Open Rights Group has more information this zombie bill here.

Happy Birthday, Albert

Albert Einstein was born 132 years ago today, in Ulm in the then German Empire. He has been a hero of mine since I was a child and my admiration for him, as a physicist, philosopher and humanist, grows with each new quote that I read.

Apparently some religious people try to claim Einstein as one of their own, misrepresenting his views in the process. Certainly this example of quote mining to imply Einstein’s supernatural belief is pretty pathetic.

(It strikes me as ironic that this feeble attempt at an appeal to authority is made in support of the supposed Ultimate Authority).

Make no mistake, Einstein’s views on the existence of God are clear.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

If there are arguments for the existence of God then believers must state those arguments honestly. Attempting to recruit a dead non-believer to the cause does that cause no favours.

At the end of his life Einstein reportedly refused surgery that may have saved him, saying. “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

Skeptics In The Pub comes to Reading

If you live in or around Berkshire and you like your science, you’re going to like this. Next Tuesday, 15th February, we are launching a new monthly event in Reading. I’m very excited.

Skeptics In The Pub is an opportunity for people who are interested in science, scepticism, rationalism and critical thinking to socialise and to discuss matters of interest.

The meetings are free* and open to all, regardless of beliefs. Each month we have a talk from a visiting speaker, followed by a challenging Q&A session and general banter.

This new Reading event is the latest in a growing international network of Skeptics In The Pub groups. The original London group started in 1999 and now claims to be the largest regular pub meeting in the world, with around 200 people attending each month.

If you are not familiar with the term, a skeptic (the American spelling is deliberate) believes we should evaluate claims with the best tools we have; not intuition or ‘common sense’ as those can mislead us; not ideology, as that is often grounded in our own personal prejudices; but with empirical observation and a critical analysis of all the evidence.

I hope to return to this topic in more detail in a later post.

Our guest speakers will cover a very broad range of subjects, possibly including

  • Developments in science
  • Issues in science education, communication and funding
  • The evidence base supporting government policy, for example in such areas as health, the environment and social policy.
  • Issues relating to the law and human rights, particularly free speech.
  • Complementary and alternative medicine
  • Belief in the paranormal
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Religion, religious freedom and religious privilege.
Our first guest is Australian comedian and ‘stand-up mathematician’ Matt Parker.

Did aliens help prehistoric Britons found the ancient Woolworth’s civilization? Matt will look at how seemingly incredible results can actually be meaningless random patterns. Matt Parker is a highly enthusiastic Mathematician whose life goal is to make people more excited about Maths. Using a range of presentations and hands-on activities, he communicates Maths in a very engaging and entertaining way. Matt talks about Mathematics for organisations including the Royal Institution and the BBC and he was the People’s Choice Award in the 2009 national Famelab competition. His favourite number is currently 496.

I’ve seen him perform several times, most recently this past weekend at #QEDcon in Manchester. To my mind he is the very best sort of stand-up; informative, thought-provoking and piss funny.

If you can get to Reading next Tuesday, do come along and get your frontal lobes tickled. 7:30pm at Copa, Kings Road, Reading. Subscribe for news of future meetings here.

* Sort of. We only ask for a small voluntary donation to cover expenses.

Libel Reform mass blog

I have to be very careful who I criticise on this blog. I’m not wealthy and the English libels laws are currently so skewed in favour of rich litigants that, were I to be sued by someone I had offended, I would not be able to defend myself.

Even if I were in the right, even if I were highlighting a major danger to public safety, I could be very swifly silenced. I don’t think that’s right.

I’m not the only one. Simon Singh writes:

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Aussie anti-vaccination group loses charitable status

Oh, this is good.

Of all the peddlers of fraudulent, bogus and dangerous healthcare advice, it’s the anti-vaccinationists that stir me most to anger. Of the anti-vaxxers, few deserve censure more than the AVN and its head, Meryl Dorey.

To the unwary, the Australian Vaccination Network might sound like a responsible establishment promoting public health through immunisation, but in fact they are the opposite. Through their persistent campaigning against the use of vaccines they have reduced the immunisation rates in some areas of Australia to desperately low levels.

Dana McCaffery was just 4 weeks old when she died from pertussis (whopping cough) in March last year. She was far too young to be vaccinated herself and in the North Coast region of New South Wales, the home of the AVN, far too few people around Dana had protective immunity. There is no cure for whopping cough.

If you can, read the account by Dana’s parents. Their fortitude is remarkable.

Even before the baby’s funeral Meryl Dorey was telephoning the Director of Public Health for the NSW North Coast, trying to obtain the private details Dana’s death and disputing the diagnosis.

Within days, the Toni and David McCaffery were confronting the AVN on national television, during which debate Meryl Dorey continued to try to dispute the facts of Dana’s death. As Meryl has previously said, on the subject of measles and whooping cough:

“You didn’t die from it 30 years ago and you’re not going to die from it today”.

(Needless to say, Meryl is no doctor of medicine).

I wonder what Meryl thinks of the 9 infants that have already died in the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California.

So it’s encouraging to read that the Australian authorities are acting to limit the activities of the AVN. Public awareness of the need to vaccinate is growing, through initiatives like this and this. In this pro-vaccination movement, the work of Toni and David McCaffery is a big inspiration.

Many thanks to Phil Plait and Rachael Dunlop for keeping me up to date with the anti-vaxxers’ shenanigans.

A letter to my MP

Dear Mr Redwood

I write again as your constituent to ask for your support in preventing the waste of NHS funds on ineffective treatments.

At a time when we need drastic cuts in Government spending, it is important to ensure that the NHS only funds treatments of proven efficacy. It is, therefore, extremely disappointing to see four Early Day Motions from David Tredinnick calling for support for disproven quackery:

EDM284 [Bma Annual Representative Meeting Motions On Homeopathy]

EDM285 [Effect Of Homeopathic Remedies On Breast Cancer Cells]

EDM286 [Homeopathic Medicines In The Treatment Of Moderate To Severe Depression]

EDM287 [Homeopathy And Chronic Primary Insomnia]

It is not simply the case that homeopathy is unproven; it has been proven not to work. These EDMs fly in the face of the advice of the Science and Technology Select Committee to cut homeopathy – a 200-year-old pseudoscience – from NHS funding. I applaud the committee, and their reliance on evidence to come to a solid conclusion.

In contrast, the studies cited as proof of the effect of homeopathic treatments in EDM284, EDM285 and EDM286 are in fact riddled with deep and significant flaws. Given that EDM285 applauds the use of homeopathic substances to treat breast cancer – a claim which I am told would be illegal if made by a UK practitioner – it’s clear to see how support for this motion could lead to real and significant harm.

I welcome the actions of Julian Huppert MP, who has tabled clear and reasonable amendments to these misguided motions, amendments which correct their inaccuracies and redirect them back in line with real science and evidence. These amendments are titled as follows:

EDM284A1 [Bma Annual Representative Meeting Motions On Homeopathy]

EDM285A1 [Effect Of Homeopathic Remedies On Breast Cancer Cells]

EDM286A1 [Homeopathic Medicines In The Treatment Of Moderate To Severe Depression]

EDM287A1 [Homeopathy And Chronic Primary Insomnia]

I therefore urge you to consider the issues and the serious ramifications to both the taxpayer in funding disproven treatments on the NHS, and to the overall health of the nation in recommending pseudo-medicine for such serious issues as severe depression and breast cancer. If you agree that cancer, depression and other illnesses should only be treated with modalities that have been proven to work, I urge you to sign EDM284A1, EDM285A1, EDM286A1 and EDM287A1.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

[Counting Quoll]

UPDATE – 26/6/10:

I just received this email:

From REDWOOD, John

Date Sat, Jun 26, 2010 at 2:07 PM

Subject RE: Effective health treatment

Thank you for your email. EDMs are never debated and have little impact.

That’s it. Disappointing, to say the least. Thrice I have emailed John Redwood with my rationalist concerns and thrice he has refused to sign the EDMs. I can’t fault the man for inconsistency.

How common is intersex?

What is intersex? Glad you asked. According to the Intersex Society of North America,

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.

The ISNA have some amazing figures on the frequency of these conditions:

Not XX and not XY one in 1,666 births
Klinefelter (XXY) one in 1,000 births
Androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 13,000 births
Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 130,000 births
Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia one in 13,000 births
Late onset adrenal hyperplasia one in 66 individuals
Vaginal agenesis one in 6,000 births
Ovotestes one in 83,000 births
Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause) one in 110,000 births
Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to pregnant mother) no estimate
5 alpha reductase deficiency no estimate
Mixed gonadal dysgenesis no estimate
Complete gonadal dysgenesis one in 150,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft) one in 2,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening between corona and tip of glans penis) one in 770 births
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female one in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance one or two in 1,000 births

It seems to me that whatever rule you might come up with for deciding a person’s gender, biology will show you an example to confound you. Indeed some people cannot identify themselves as being of either gender.

All this goes to show how ridiculous is the idea that gender should have any bearing whatsoever on our legal rights.

As the legal definition of gender struggles to reflect our growing knowledge of the realities of human biology, and the law ties itself in knots trying to accommodate trans-sexuality, I’m left wondering why we need a notion of legal gender at all.

Thanks to Audacia Ray and Dr Petra Boynton for signposting the ISNA data.

Micomort

A micromort is a 1 in 1million chance of death. As a new way of looking at the world, I reckon this is genius.

Consider. A car gives a reassuring 250 miles per micromort, a bike 20, walking 17 and a motorbike just 6 miles.

Alternatively consider the risk to troops in Afghanistan (33 micromorts per day) versus a spell in hospital (75), although the comparison of a fit young soldier to the average NHS patient is perhaps not a very valid one.

Finally,

Risk of general anaesthetic: 10 micromorts. Not negligible. Giving birth: 80 micromorts in UK. 50 in Sweden. 170 in US.

Many thanks to David Spielgelhalter and Mark Henderson.

UPDATE (25/6/10):

Plus has a great piece on micromorts with some rather nice animations.