Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

Simon Singh lectures at The University of Chester, 21 October 2013

22/10/2013

SimonSinghSimpsonsHeader

I recently posted about Simon Singh’s kind thanks to me in his latest book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets.  I saw Simon lecture on his book at The University of Chester last night at 7:30pm, Monday, 21 October 2013.

And here’s a picture of me with him:

MSP and Simon Singh

And here’s a scan of his autograph in my copy of The Simpsons:

SinghSimpsonsAutograph

The lecture itself covered many of the points that were in Singh’s book, which I have now finished and highly recommend whether you are a maths PhD or a numerical incompetent like your humble servant.

However, Simon started off with a few nifty observations at the beginning of his talk that were not in the book.  The Toblerone logo has a bear hidden in the mountain as the original makers of the chocolate were based in the Germany city of Bern (or Berne) whose symbol is the bear:

TobleroneLogo

Likewise, Parcel delivery company FedEx’s logo has an arrow between the ‘E’ and the ‘X’:

FedExLogo

And finally Amazon’s logo has its arrow going from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ to signify that they too are a parcel delivery company:

AmazonLogo

At the end of the main talk, I asked Simon whether any complimentary alternative medicines (“CAM”) are ever effective at anything beyond the placebo effect and “regression to the mean”; for example, does chiropractic actually do anything to ease back pain?

Simon replied that the majority of the evidence and medical opinion is stacked against CAM, but there is some evidence that they have some effect: meditation can relieve anxiety and chiropractic can be as effective at relieving back pain as other more conventional medical interventions such as physiotherapy.  He mentioned that he updated the paperback edition to Trick or Treatment? co-authored with Edzard Ernst to include new research that the Alexander technique has some positive effect in treating and preventing back pain.

Most amusingly, Edzard Ernst is a professor in complimentary alternative medicine; however, he does support it outright.  When this stance enraged the CAM community who though he should axiomatically be on their side, Ernst replied that if he was a qualified toxicologist, that would hardly make him obliged to be in favour of toxins!

Simon mentioned that the current bane of his life in this area is the fairly new magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You.  They seem to be the “9/11 Troofers” of the medical profession telling the lay public that medical science is a big conspiracy, that tried and trust remedies are actually killing scores of patients and we would all be better off visiting our homeopaths instead of our GPs.

The writers of this pseudo-scientific rag have already threatened to sue Singh for voicing his concerns.  I listened to the opening segment of this edition of Radio 4’s “Inside Health” featuring the magazine’s editor Lynne McTaggart and was pretty appalled by her biased and unsupported claims.  This website also has some hilarious  photoshopped versions of the magazine’s front cover, which make the skeptic’s point crystal clear such as:

WhatDoctorsDontTellYouREALANDSKIT

Now to gear up for Lawrence Krausslecture at Liverpool University tonight…  😀

Simon Singh goes on a book tour. And mentions me in his new book!

15/10/2013

SimonSinghSimpsonsHeader

Way back in February 2010, I posted on science journalist and author Dr Simon Singh’s campaign to have British libel law changed in view of his defence of a legal action brought by The British Chiropractic Association who sued him for libel following publication of a highly critical piece on The Guardian Comment Is Free in April 2008.

My original piece bemoaned that I had signed Singh’s online petition and forwarded it to my local MP only to receive a discouraging reply that while he supported the aims of the campaign, he was not in the habit of supporting “Early Day Motions” as he felt they are a waste of Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money.  Apparently, they are seldom debated, rarely brought to a vote and require neither recognition nor response from the government.  They are known in Westminster as “parliamentary graffiti” and can cost in excess of £627,000.

Since that post, I did not comment any further on the matter and indeed went on an extended blogging sabbatical shortly thereafter.  However, I forwarded my post to Simon Singh and received a delightful reply.  I post both my email and his reply in the comments section below.   I also followed the case with interest and am glad that my original post was proven wrong.  Firstly, Singh won the libel action in April 2010 when The British Chiropractic Association dropped the case after he was given leave to appeal using the defence of “fair comment”.

Furthermore, in April 2013 Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 which should provide more protection for individuals and organisations, including newspapers and broadcasters, which criticise big companies.  The Act also aims to end London’s status as the “libel tourism capital of the World” by stopping cases being taken in London against journalists, academics or individuals who live outside the country, denting the libel tourism industry (but not ending it altogether, as foreigners will still be able to lodge claims in the High Court).

I then received a group email from Simon Singh on 8 October 2013 announcing that he was going on a speaking tour to promote his new book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets, and that everyone who had signed his online petition had been mentioned in his new book.  I will be seeing Simon speak at The University of Chester on 21 October 2013 and then hopefully again at Merseyside Skeptics Society – Skeptics In The Pub on 12 December 2013.   A scan of the page in his new book where I am thanked is below; first full name on the bottom line.

Singh Simpsons p 233 CROPPEDAt the time of posting, I am about one third of the way through Singh’s book.  For someone who just barely scrapped a Grade ‘C’ on the lower paper for GCSE Maths and still to this day shudders at the mere sight of numbers, I am finding it a most lucid and humorous journey in equations through one of my all time favourite television shows.  It may not transform me overnight into Good Will Hunting, but it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than having SOHCAHTOA drilled into my head at school ever was.

Andrew Brown posts another clanger on Comment is free

13/03/2010

manicstreetpreacher wonders whether this hack can stoop any lower.

US evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, recently described British science and religion journalist Andrew Brown as “The Guardian’s resident moron”.

I have been less than impressed by Brown after his pathetic attack on Sam Harrisobjection to Francis Collins’ appointment as head of the National Institute of Health, culminating in Brown quote-mining Harris’ The End of Faith something rotten to make it look like Harris endorses torture and rendition.  I can only assume that this was a dummy-spitting exercise by Brown to recoup ground from the commenters who lambasted his first piece and rallied in support for Harris.

Now, Brown has not simply scraped the bottom of the barrel, he has removed the base of said wooden container entirely and is tunnelling fast for Australia.  On 11 March 2010, Brown posted this appalling piece on The Guardian: Comment is free arguing that perhaps we are being a tad harsh on all those child sodomising Catholic priests, since the rate of child abuse among the clergy is apparently much lower than other professions.

Pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not having a bad dream:

[T]here is no doubt that a lot of children were damaged for life by priests, and that this was mostly covered up by the hierarchy until recently.  But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out?  Aren’t all children vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they are poor and unwanted?…

The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute’s report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops’ conference.  From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is.  Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims.  These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had “a history of childhood sexual abuse”; while the the [sic] most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of “childhood”. In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.

Well, if a report has been prepared for the American Catholic Bishops Conference, who are we to argue with it?

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4%.  But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different.  Four out of five of their victims were male.  Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.  The concentration on boys makes the Catholic pattern of abuse stand out; what makes it so shocking is that parents trusted their children with priests.  They stood in for the parents.  But this isn’t all that different from the pattern in the wider world, either, where the vast majority of abuse comes from within families.  The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported.  It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.

I’ll agree with Brown there.  Yes, it is extremely vile.  But there my support ends.  His post is an exercise in “Yeah, but what about…”.  Road traffic deaths kill far more people every year than deliberate homicide, so let’s get the police to withdraw all personnel and resources from investigating murders and get them to devote all their time and effort ensuring that motorists wear their seat beats and drive under the speed limits, shall we?

So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers?  Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things.  Because it is an extremely authoritarian institution at least within the hierarchy, it is also one where there were few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful.  The scandal has been loudest and most damaging in Ireland, because it came along just at the moment when the church was losing its power over society at large, and where it was no longer able to cover up what had happened, but still willing to try.  Much the same is true in the diocese of Boston which was bankrupted by the scandal.

Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but I think we are entitled to demand a higher standard of moral behaviour from institutions and individuals whose alleged purpose is to uphold and enforce those of us mere mortals who do not have a one-to-one with The Big Surveillance Camera In The Sky.

Rabbi David Wolpe raised this objection in a debate against Christopher Hitchens: the public is more shocked and the criticism more vitriolic when a clergyman falls into error.  Hitch’s reply was that he is not shocked at all.  The Catholic Church preaches that women are vessels of temptation, insists on celibacy, makes sex a matter of guilt and shame and comprises an all male priesthood that is based on sexual repression.  What is going to happen to the children under the care of those people?   No need to act surprised.  The Church wasn’t surprised at all.  They knew it was going on all the time which is why they covered up for it.

Hitchens’ comments are at the beginning of this tape.

And regardless of whether the abuse itself has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion in the media, there is no playing down the deliberate covering-up of the scandal by the Vatican, of which the present pope, Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, played a pivotal role by issuing a Vatican edict in 2001 while  a cardinal ordering Catholic bishops and priests were not to cooperate with the police on pain of excommunication.  Only last Tuesday (9 March 2010) the BBC’s Newsnight reported on the case of Bill Carney was named as one of the worst cases in Dublin’s Catholic diocese in the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in Ireland.  However, for the last 10 years Carney has been free to live quietly in Britain and is now hiding out in the Canary Islands.

Brown’s insulting apologia concludes thus:

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world.  That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’m sure that all those children and families whose lives have been ruined by the abuse and subsequent covering up by the Vatican will be consoled no end by the knowledge that it could have been worse if they were looked after by doctors and lawyers.

Brown’s vile wipe was ripped to shreds by its own commenters, and justly so.  Why does this appalling man continue to be published in the national dailies?

UPDATE 14 MARCH 2010

As I expected, Jerry Coyne has commented on Brown’s piece on his blog with typical rhetorical fire:

It’s a disgusting and self-serving piece of faitheistic tripe, and its underlying message is this: those people who attack the Catholic church for systematic child abuse are really anti-Catholic bigots.  After all, claims Brown, the Church was no worse than other abusers…

I beg to differ with Brown’s implicit conclusion.  The concentration on Catholic priests and brothers comes from the shocking institutionalization of that abuse: the consistent efforts of Church officials, who knew full well about the abuse, to cover it up and, sometimes, simply transfer abusers to new places.  Yes, other professions sometimes cover up child abuse, but not, I think, on such a massive scale.  I am not aware of this kind of cover-up being endemic to American public schools, for example.

And what Brown fails to grasp is that the abuse is doubly shocking because it was committed by those priests to whom parents not only entrusted their children, but entrusted them to inculcate in those children a sense of morality.  The outrage comes from seeing that those who were supposed to serve as role models – as paragons of morality – systematically abused that trust in the most heinous ways.  And perhaps the Church’s ridiculous policy of celibacy contributed to this abuse.

Fortunately, Brown’s commenters – as usual – take him apart.  It must be disheartening for the Resident Moron to watch, week after week, as his readers chew his tuchus to pieces.  Maybe the Guardian keeps him on because his continuing idiocy promotes traffic on their website.  But really, how can a reputable paper tolerate such witless garbage?  Do the editors have any notion of what should pass for decent commentary?

Nice one, Jerry.  The words “asshole”, “new” and “rip” spring to mind.

Campaign to reform UK libel law may well be symbolic only

12/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher thinks that the law is an ass!

In recent months, I have been following The Libel Reform Campaign.  I signed the online petition to Parliament to have the scope of the public interest defence widened in order to make it harder for “libel tourists” to bring actions against writers and journalists in London where they feel relatively more assured of success, since the legal costs of defending such actions can bring about financial ruin for a defendant.  The campaign has also received a fair amount of coverage on RichardDawkins.net and there is a page on Sense About Science.

The campaign was initiated following science journalist and author Simon Singh being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for publishing a highly critical piece about chiropractic on The Guardian Comment Is Free on 19 April 2008.  Singh compared spine manipulation to a drug that had “such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, it would almost certainly have been taken off the market”.

After losing the preliminary ruling, Singh won his right to appeal in October 2009.  However, his case has highlighted the strangling effect that the UK’s libel laws have on critical writing.  As Singh wrote following his successful application to appeal:

One of the main fears… [is] the sheer cost of a libel case.  Although the damages at stake might be just £10,000, going to trial can mean risking more than £1m.  This means that a blogger has to ask whether he or she can afford the possibility of bankruptcy.  Even if a blogger is 90% confident of victory, there is still a 10% chance of failure, which is why bloggers often back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

I received permission [from the Court of Appeal] to appeal against an earlier ruling on the meaning of my article.  The original article was published 18 months ago, the case has cost me £100,000 and there is still a long way to go.  My reason for not backing down is that I believe my article is accurate, important and a matter of public interest, as it relates to the use of chiropractic in treating various childhood conditions, such as asthma and ear infections.

Although my article was published in The Guardian, I am being sued personally. Fortunately, thanks to the success of my books, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book, I have the resources to fund my own defence. The case might seriously damage me but it will not bankrupt me.  For bloggers, such a case could lead to financial ruin.

As a lover of free thought, free speech and free inquiry, I signed the online petition and forwarded a message to my local MP.  I received a letter from the MP’s office saying that while he supported the campaign in principle, he did not put his name to Early Day Motion 423 because they are a waste of Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money.  Apparently “they are seldom debated, rarely brought to a vote and require neither recognition nor response from the government”.  They are known in Westminster as “parliamentary graffiti” and can cost in excess of £627,000.

Talk about Catch-22.  Attempting to reform a bad law and being scuppered by the bad law-making process.  Oh, the irony!  So much for democracy in action, power to the people etc.  Time for strategic re-think, perhaps?