Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Science, Chiropractic, and libel laws

Scientist and author Simon Singh is in a spot of trouble. His crime is writing a strongly-worded article on the lack of evidence for several claims made by the chiropractic profession. In it, he criticizes the British Chiropractic Association's (BCA) promotion of chiropractic treatments for certain conditions:
The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

Note that he's not name-calling here. He's making a claim - that certain treatments promoted by the BCA have no good evidence behind them - and backing it up with data. (Here's an Amazon link for the book he mentions.)

So why is he in trouble then? Surely stronger (and less well-evidenced) claims are made in the media all the time.

Rather than try to refute his claims on scientific grounds - perhaps by submitting a counter-article - the BCA responded by crying libel. They have taken advantage of the ill-designed and internationally condemned libel laws in the UK, tying Singh up in expensive proceedings which are already going against him.

Specifically, the BCA is complaining about the word "bogus". The judge at the preliminary hearing agreed with the BCA that the word implied that the BCA knowingly promoted unproven treatments. I'll leave it to more savvy linguists to address the dramatic ridiculousness of this interpretation - or read Singh's article (linked and excerpted above) to see for yourself.

Basically, the BCA's original claims are factually wrong;, and Singh's critique was proportionate to the evidence, with no evident desire to exaggerate the facts in order to damage the BCA's reputation. Is he being sued only because the BCA doesn't like to be criticized? It looks like it. As a British taxpayer, I do not think that deserves my tax dollars. The case should be thrown out, and the BCA should pay expenses to Singh, plus a penalty for wasting the court's time.

But I'm not the judge. And even if I were, British law is skewed massively in favour of the accuser in libel cases - particularly if the accuser is rich.

Which is very worrying. Does British law value the tender feelings of professionals over free speech? Do we want honest, evidence-based criticism to be trampled on in favour of wealthy interest groups?

The judgement in the preliminary hearing feels like a blow against free speech, science-based journalism, and common sense, there is cause for hope. Check out these links for extensive roundups of the case and the coverage it has gained in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Between the BCA's bullying behaviour, the bad law, and the ridiculous linguistic inclinations of the judge, they are likely to end up looking even worse (and Singh even more noble and valiant) than if they'd just let the article sink into yesterday's news.

If you live in the UK and are as disturbed as I am about how Britain's unjust libel laws can be and are used to silence important exercises of free speech, then sign this online petition. It will be seen by MPs. In conjunction with the increasing media coverage, a petition like this might actually motivate them to reform the libel law in this country.

And, since that won't change things in the short term, let's make some noise in support of Simon Singh. Here are some other bloggers that are keeping an eye on the situation:
Here is a Facebook group for supporters of Simon.

I would also like to extend kudos to the Guardian newspaper, for supporting Singh in this fight (and Ben Goldacre before him). The little-guy-against-the-giant image may be inspiring, but in real life it's good to have slightly more even odds. Good for them.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Greater than ourselves

How many times has someone has asked you, as a non-believer (whatever it happens to be that you don't believe in), "Don't you believe in anything greater than yourself?" For me, the question most often comes up when I declare a naturalistic worldview. No god? No afterlife? Then what do you look to for hope and inspiration?

Today, I'm just going to offer a couple of items on one source of inspiration and hope from something greater than myself: the cosmos.

Even as a simple empirical matter, there are worlds beyond count, many grander than our own in their different ways. The image to the right is one example - click on it, enlarge it, try to get your head around the vast grandeur of everything that lies outside our little planetary cocoon (a cocoon that is itself much vaster and more beautiful than anything I or any human can claim credit for).

Or try this simple image. Some of you will recognize it. Some will know the phrase often associated with it: the Pale Blue Dot.

This is the last image of Earth taken by the Voyager probe, as it passed Saturn on its journey out of the Solar System.

Do I believe in anything greater than myself? Yes. In my boldest moments, I try to go beyond simply accepting the facts of astronomy as told in numbers. I try to take into the very centre of my self the understanding given by astronomers and scientists. To grasp the enormity of everything that exists, and to accept my humble place in this reality.

It is a difficult task for my limited, pragmatic ape brain. But I have the help of some great poet-scientists of yesterday and today. Here's one of them, Carl Sagan - the man we can thank for the Pale Blue Dot image - contemplating its meaning for us who live on that dot:

Photo credits:

Scale of the stars - source unknown. Link given by a member of the Friendly Atheist forum.

Pale Blue Dot - public domain, created by NASA. Via Wikimedia.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Support at the speed of light

If you're ever feeling down and in need of an uplifting thought, try this science-inspired contemplation. It occurred to me yesterday as I was seeking consolation after a rather acute disappointment.

The Earth's gravity pulls on us to the tune of almost 10 m/s/s. In other words, if it were unopposed, every second it would accelerate us downwards 10 metres per second faster. But fortunately, we have a very supportive ground to keep us up. Remember Newton's third law of motion? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So that 10 m/s/s downward pull is counteracted by a 10 m/s/s supportive force holding us up.*

Now, imagine we had that 10 m/s/s support out in space, where there was no gravity to counteract it. How fast would you go?

Well, the speed of light is just shy of 300 million metres per second, so after 30 million seconds, one gravity of acceleration would get you to the speed of light.

And how long is 30 million seconds, you ask?

Just shy of a year: 353 days.

Think about that. Every year, the ground under you supports you with enough force to get you to the speed of light.


* For the pedants in my audience, yes, I know that force and acceleration are two different things. But for the purpose of this contemplation, the differences are immaterial, and to pedantically point them out would distract from the point of the contemplation.

Photo credits:
Earth photo from the Great Expectations blog, probably public domain.

Millennium Falcon cockpit at light speed from the Common Defense blog, almost certainly copyright Lucasfilm, fair use.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Unitarian Jihad

I just wanted to give you all a heads-up about an under-reported threat to the state of the world today. An acquaintance of mine just sent me a link to this declaration by a group calling itself Unitarian Jihad.

Here is a sample, to give you an idea of the sort of flagrant extremism we may be facing:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Follow the link to the full article if you think you can stomach it. The article was written four years ago. I think we only need to look at the recent political upheaval in the small* North American country known as the "Union of American States" to see that these threats were not idle, but are already being carried out. Beware!

Also, although this group may appear to be a splinter from the larger and more (officially) peace-loving Unitarian Universalist Association, readers are reminded that the symbol of that wider group is a burning flame (image on the right) - clearly a symbol of extremist ideology in sync with the content of the Unitarian Jihad's declaration.

* Geographically small, that is. Relative to its northern neighbour anyway.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Story behind the stories

Here's one from the vault - a post I began, set aside, and forgot about. I thought you might find it interesting.

The folks over at the Dangerous Intersection blog posted an uncomfortable series of news stories. Here are the titles:

Father of two charged in child poisoning case

Principal drowns hundreds of grade-school students in school basement

Bush administration destroyed cancer research center and scattered the researchers

I'll leave it to your curiosity to read them and form your own reactions.

This isn't the sort of thing I would normally post - the stories aren't exactly Friendly. Observant readers of those articles will notice that they're not friendly on a couple of levels. But they are thought-provoking, and so I think they're worth sharing.

If anyone wants to explore or discuss these stories, their message, and their tone any further, the comment thread is open.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Novella on science

I am always looking for good, concise ways to define science and to explain why it is key to a realistic understanding of the world around us. This recent post by Steve Novella on his blog, Neurologica, opens with a pretty good summation of science and the skeptical outlook that underlies it:

There are numerous ways in which thought processes go astray, leading us to false conclusions, even persistent delusions. Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.

Science itself is a set of methods for avoiding or minimizing errors in observation, memory, and analysis. Our instincts cannot be trusted, so we need to keep them in check with objective outcome measures, systematic observation, and rigid control of variables. In fact bias has a way of creeping into any observation and exerting powerful if subtle effects, leading to the need to completely blind scientific experiments. Good scientists have learned not to trust even themselves.

For more skepticism and science from Steve and company, I enthusiastically recommend you check out the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. It is a fun and informative podcast that covers all sorts of cool and unusual topics - from current science to skeptical thinking to evaluating paranormal claims.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Dangerous lunatic cyclist ... wow!

I commute by bicycle to work here in Edinburgh. It's an okay city for cycling. One of my biggest peeves is other cyclists who ignore the traffic rules, encouraging motorists to think that all cyclists are dangerous lunatics.

Well, Erich at Dangerous Intersection has just introduced me to a dangerous lunatic cyclist in this fair city whose antics are simply inspiring. Take a look:

(But notice that he's wearing a helmet.)

Postscript: I queued this post up several days in advance. Since then, the video has become quite well-known, and been picked up by media outlets that get more circulation than this blog. So apologies if this is old news to you.

Friday, 1 May 2009

When is Milky Way Day?

I have recently learned that Carl Sagan's Cosmic Calendar idea, which I have talked about before, may be gaining traction in the minds of some humanists, so I'll make a concerted effort to mark the key cosmic events through the year. If I miss one, please let me know.

I previously placed the Milky Way's formation at the first of May - a nice confluence with other holiday traditions. But, since the Cosmic Calendar is based on empirical knowledge, I would like to use this post to acknowledge that both of the numbers that feed into the calculation of which day is "Milky Way Day" were problematic, and to consider the implications for our holiday.

The first inaccurate number was the age of the universe: my first calculation was based on an age of 15 billion years (a nice round number that I picked up from I-don't-know-where). In fact, best estimates put the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago.* That changes the scale of everything (from about 41 million years per calendar day to about 37.5 million).

Second, it is difficult to put a particular date to the origin of the Milky Way. Is it the date when its oldest star formed (possibly about 13.6 billion years ago - the afternoon of January 3rd)? It seems more reasonable to look for the achievement of something like its current disk-like structure - something that Wikipedia tells us occurred somewhere between 10.1 and 6.5 billion years ago. (I don't know if that means it took that long, or if astronomers simply can't pinpoint the time more precisely than that.)

That gives us a range from April 6 to July 11. Now, I'd be all for a 3-month-long humanist festival celebrating our local stellar metropolis ... but some people might think this impractical.

So I'm going to stick with May 1 for the time being. It's well within the range of dates (it corresponds to a cosmic date 9.1 billion years ago). Remember, the whole idea of using the Cosmic Calendar is to raise our awareness of the scale of cosmic history. We don't have to be dead on. (But feel free to celebrate Milky Way Day at any date in the range that suits you. There's nothing sacred about May 1.)

So, happy Milky Way Day!

What will you be doing to commemorate this momentous event? Will you try your hand at a star-formation game? Will you look for spiral shapes in your environment? Or will you just spend some time outside tonight, gazing at that pale band of light across the sky?

* Observant readers will note that I often just reference Wikipedia in my fact-supporting links. I do research beyond Wikipedia, but in an effort to avoid link soup, I limit the number of links I provide. If there is relevant information elsewhere, I will link to it. If Wikipedia seems to be weak on a particular topic, I will look elsewhere. Otherwise, it's a reliable standby.

Image credits:
Opening image of Milky Way by R. Hurt. Obtained via Astronomy Picture of the Day. Believed to be public domain.

Image of Hera nursing Heracles (Greek myth on the formation of the Milky Way) by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), via this page. Public domain.

Nautilus shell from Wikipedia, copyright user Mgiganteus1, distributed under GNU Free documentation License.

Sunflower from Wikipedia, copyright L. Shyamal, distributed under the CC Attribution Share-alike License 2.5.