Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2017 scientific society talks in London blog post

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Alternative medicine conferences and events - a guide for hotels and conference centres

tl;dr is it a good idea to produce a checklist for hotel event bookers so that they can avoid hosting out and out quackery? What would go in the checklist? 

Occasionally skeptically-minded people* will learn that a hotel's conference rooms are to be used for a health-related event on a topic that has the potential to be harmful and costly to customers ('patients'). Occasionally such talks even take place at universities or on hospital trust grounds too.

Universities and hospitals generally don't want to be associated with quackery, particularly dangerous stuff, and tend to be pretty amenable to cancelling the event or having it moved off-site. That's not always the case with hotels. Many of us would prefer that these events were cancelled completely but as long as the event is legal then there's not much we can do.

Cancer-related alternative health events, however, may be in danger of breaching the Cancer Act 1939 and it may be more appropriate to cancel them. Of course it's entirely possible that someone wants to talk about complementary support for people with cancer with no mention of stopping their treatment and no advice about undertaking unevidenced treatments - despite the treatment being quackery it's probably fairly hairmless and I suspect we don't really have much of a valid objection.

This example below though - where a speaker encouraged audience members who had cancer to give up their medication (or avoid taking it in the first place) - that took place at a hotel in Liverpool would seem to be one of the ones that should not have gone ahead. The report, from Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society, is a startling read.

Cancer ‘Cure’ is Quackers Skeptical Magazine, November 2017, by Michael Marshall

Hotel event bookers might not know whether a health-related talk, perhaps badged as a 'wellness' event, is unevidenced quackery or the latest thing that everyone should know about and that's where the skeptical-minded community might be able to help.

I wondered if we might put together a short checklist to help people appraise whether events are likely to cause problems. Does this idea have 'legs' as they say?

For example I might include things like
  • if it mentions cancer at all ask them to assure you (the hotel booker) how they will ensure that the content of the presentation and any responses to questions don't breach the Cancer Act 1939 (Trading Standards can veto these events, or bring criminal proceedings against the speaker - I've never heard of venues being prosecuted though, anyone know?)
  • if it talks about curing any health condition beware - this may fall within misleading advertising (overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority in general, anything relating to the use of medicines would fall under the MHRA [Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Authority]
  • also be wary of "that they don't want you to know about" type of hyperbole
  • be aware that skeptically-minded people often attend these events for monitoring purposes
  • possibility of the whole social media backlash thing, though I think hotels can probably weather that!
  • the very real possibility of doing harm to members of the public either by them paying out money for a duff event, or a duff treatment (or them failing to follow better treatment advice) - this is not a good look.
  • a list of 'treatment modalities' known to be unevidenced twaddle (eg homeopathy, MMS aka Master Mineral Solution or Miracle Mineral Solution, it goes by other names too)
  • a list of treatments for which the evidence is not very good
  • how the skeptic-minded community can help beforehand 
  • links to other 'how to spot quackery' checklists including these red flags, or this rough guide to spotting bad science
*healthcare professionals, scientists, skeptical activists, concerned members of the public etc
Skepticism-based clearing houses
Any of these organisations would possibly be able to field, or forward on, enquiries from hotels or other event-conference-centres about potentially problematic health events.
Obviously if your organisation is listed above and you're thinking "hang on, we don't really have the capacity for that!" I can remove you (or amend the listing to clarify the way you might like to be involved).
  • Are there any good skeptic-monitored hashtags? (Beyond #homeopathy and #Burzynski?).
  • Do we have examples of successes (from our point of view) where an event has been cancelled or moved?

Examples of events being cancelled or moved

A Cinema In London Has Pulled A Documentary By A Disgraced Anti-Vaccine Activist (January 2016) Buzzfeed - Vaxxed, an anti-vaccination film directed by Andrew Wakefield, was to be screened at Curzon Soho but an outcry from scientists and the public stopped that. The film had previously been removed from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Manchester United cancel David Icke show at Old Trafford after backlash (17 November 2017)  The Guardian - the cancellation possibly more to do with alleged antisemitic remarks than quackery per se but an interesting example of social media backlash causing a venue to investigate further.

UCL cancels homeopathy event by Indian docs after complaints (2 February 2016) The Wire - see background to this story in Andy Lewis' blog Indian Homeopaths come to UK to Lecture on Treating Cancer (comment: “Event cancelled. Booking made by junior sec unaware of issues. Lessons learnt process set up. New instructions on booking in IoN now in place.”)

Cancelled: Man who claims to have cured cancer will not be speaking in Ireland (16 June 2015) The Journal - one event was scheduled to take place at the Clayton Hotel in Galway but was moved to another hotel, which later cancelled once the organisers learned how controversial the speaker's views were, a second event in Dublin was also cancelled. More info at Cork Skeptics' page (they led the campaign).

Other responses to quackery

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Updating my list of places that might employ science communicators

In 2003 when I began working in science communication I didn't know about all the different type of jobs available or the different sectors, so I began collecting examples of places that had employed, or seemed likely to employ, science communicators. 

That list became a hugely popular blog post in 2009 and I have been perennially updating it ever since. The latest version (checked Nov 2017) now lives in a Google Spreadsheet: Scicomm jobs - list of vacancies pages employing science communicators

Science communication happens in medical research charities, schools, newspapers, museums, universities, community groups, learned societies, pharma companies, government - it is impossible to completely map all the possible ways that one can do scicomm.

The jobs are hugely varied too - health information professionals (my own background), PR people, journalists, museum explainers, bloggers, television or radio presenters and vloggers, scientists who talk about their work, non-scientists who talk about other people's work. It's a big sector!

Anyway if you're new to science communication I hope you'll find something interesting among the suggestions.

Note that these employers also employ IT specialists, HR personnel etc so the vacancies pages will probably be of use to anyone looking for a job, but the focus is on scientific (broadly) institutions.

Note to employers
PLEASE consider adding a /jobs redirect to the end of your homepage address and pointing that to wherever you're currently keeping your jobs. The reason this list of science communication vacancies pages needs updating so frequently is partly because you keep moving your jobs around every time you have a website refresh but also because you use different terms to describe jobs (jobs, vacancies, recruitment, work for us, work with us, opportunities). 

Obviously you are free to put your vacancies pages wherever you wish and call them whatever you like but please let's all point to them with /jobs for simplicity. Thank you. This will let anyone type /jobs at the end of your homepage URL and go straight to your vacancies page, hooray!

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

I've had it up to here with homeopaths marketing CEASE therapy quackery for autism

UK homeopaths are not allowed to make misleading claims about homeopathy (no marketer is allowed to make misleading claims about any product or service). We have a fairly strange situation with the marketing of CEASE therapy in the UK though, which I have written about before, in passing, in October 2016 and July 2015.

CEASE stands for 'Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression' - a name that belies its intention despite advertising regulations. As marketers are allowed to write out acronyms in full they are able to strongly (and wrongly) imply that the treatment can help people (typically children) who have autism.

I shan't link to it but there's an official CEASE therapy website which has recently been strongly criticised by the Dutch equivalent of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). However that website, not being hosted in the UK, is more able to ignore the ASA's requirements for advertising. Homeopaths around the world who have completed the CEASE training can also have a page about them in the practitioners section of the website.

UK homeopaths can therefore bypass advertising regulations while still obliquely promoting CEASE as a treatment for autism by
(i) avoiding making direct claims about homeopathy, CEASE and autism on their websites (some of them instead say that the ASA forbids them from making certain claims, or that the ASA has told them to remove certain claims etc)
(ii) spell out the acronym CEASE in full
(iii) link to the official CEASE page which is currently free-er to make claims. That is, defer the actual marketing to another site
(iv) leave page visitors to draw the hoped-for conclusion

Basically it's "I can't say anything about this treatment (or I'll get in trouble with the ASA) but go and have a look at this website that can say stuff and then come back here and make an appointment." As an added bonus the sites often talk about detoxing from vaccinations, thereby maintaining the background anxiety that autism and vaccinations are linked in some way (they're not).

I would like to see the term 'CEASE' ceased and no longer used in marketing, also no more linking to the 'cease-therapy' website. Ideally the homeopathy professional societies would sanction their members for implying any treatment was useful for autism.

~oOo~    •••    ~oOo~

Teddington Homeopathy (Melissa Wakeling) has been on the ASA's non-compliant list of online advertisers since August 2015 for failing to make all the required corrections to her marketing of CEASE therapy. She did make a few changes, but the website still makes misleading claims.

Interestingly one of the criticisms in the original adjudication was that Teddington Homeopathy linked to two websites which contained problematic phrases in their URLs (web addresses). Here's what the ASA said -
"The page also contained links to external websites containing "homeopathy-for-autism" and "homeopathy-and-autism-faq" in the visible URLS..."
"We welcomed Teddington Homeopathy's decision to remove the testimonial and other material from the page, but considered that the information about Tinus Smits and the URLs still implied a benefit for homeopathy and CEASE therapy for autism, and that the intention of CEASE therapy was to treat autism."
Comparing what the page was like on 23 December 2013 and currently (screenshots below) shows that some changes have indeed been made, though the current version is at pains to imply that they haven't.

Teddington Homeopathy's page on CEASE therapy in 2013 before the ASA made them change it.

Teddington Homeopathy's page on CEASE therapy after amendments were made, in line with ASA's requirements. As not all the amendments have been made yet the site has been listed as a non-compliant online advertiser.

The Society of Homeopaths has noted in their 2016 annual report that CEASE therapy was something that a lof of their members were keen to learn about, as part of their continuing professional development... obviously I'd prefer that they take to task their members who are promoting a non-therapy to vulnerable families.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Invented words and phrases (by me) - a small collection

Sometimes the existing language won't do and you have to create a new word, or one suggests itself. A lot of the time it's just recombining prefixes, infixes and suffixes but occasionally one that I quite like emerges. I'm sure you have your own, here are mine. If you tell me yours I might add a section at the bottom for them :)

While you're listening enjoy the excellent poomphing sounds of Groove Armada's Chicago.

Apostroppy - people who get extra miffed with misplaced apostrophe's (see what I did there!). Inspired by @PenguinGalaxy's misspelling of 'apostrope'

Damplitude - a measure of how hard it's raining, from how high the drops bounce on the pavement

DNAouement - the conclusion of a Jeremy Kyle show

Flim-flammable - a phrase looking for a use, without much hope of a resolution unless there are some good fire myths it might be applied to

Lipidome / lipidomics - I came up with this in 2000 after attending a conference on lipid chemistry. Around that time proteome (and later metabolome) was all the rage I think and I, being the only lipid chemist in the department, jokingly suggested the lipidome - which has since become a real word. I doubt I was the first to think of it! The lipid-ome is the full complement of all lipids (eg cell membrane lipids).

Malheureuse legumes - reaching for a description for poisonous mushrooms during an O Level French oral exam in which I had to role play the sister of a boy who'd eaten them in the forest. I'd forgotten the word 'champignon'. Fortunately I never had to use it as the examiner used the correct word in the preliminary introductions to the role play.

Quantumacious - the absolute determination, despite no evidence or even evidence to the contrary, that your particularly brand of quackery can be explained by 'quantum' something or other

Monthabetically - my efforts to solve the fact that the months of the year are not alphabetic so I've renamed them Anuary, Bebruary, Charm, Dapril, Ey, Fune, Guly, Haugust, Iptember, Joctober, Movember, Zecember for my own filing purposes.

'ping it me-wards' - please send me a copy. I don't really know what I was thinking there

Teledelegates - people attending a conference solely via the Twitter hashtag

Whirritation - persistent helicopters overhead (to be honest I do quite like the sound, especially if Chinooks though they never seem to hover sadly), often heard early on Sunday mornings at the London Marathon which runs through bits of Blackheath near where I live. Those can be quite whirritating.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Seller of GcMAF on trial - 'banned' product, unlikely claims made for it

Some of the people behind Immuno Biotech Ltd are to stand trial later this week for selling products containing GcMAF which has been wrongly touted (papers retracted by the journals that published them) as a cure-all for a number of conditions, including cancer. Despite that this trial does not appear to involve the Cancer Act 1939.

There's no good evidence that GcMAF is of any particular use as a treatment for anything and the fact that it's derived from blood products means particular care would be needed when giving this sort of thing to people.

In 2015 the MHRA (Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) shut down a Cambridgeshire factory (UK's MHRA Shuts Down GcMAF Plant, 27 Feb 2015) that had been producing GcMAF (also known as First Immune).  The product itself is unlicensed / unapproved (effectively 'banned') so may not be marketed for anything and the equipment used to produce it may have been contaminated because poor manufacturing processes were in place.

It was also banned from import into Guernsey in Feb 2015 and their health department urged users or former users of GcMAF to contact their GP.

David Noakes, CEO of Immuno Biotech Ltd, is a former Guernsey resident who appeared on The One Show in 2015 talking about GcMAF - the interview did not appear to go well.

He and colleagues* appeared at Southwark Crown Court yesterday before their trial begins on 5 Nov (or possibly in 2018, conflicting reports "All four will stand trial at the same court next year.") - it's expected to take six weeks.

Further reading
*David Noakes - CEO, Brian Hall - associate, Emma Ward - biochemist and Loraine Noakes - distribution firm director and also his ex-wife.

Things to bear in mind
There are several different ways in which an untested alternative "treatment" can cause harm -
1) by containing an ingredient that's harmful, or by being prepared in such a way that means harmful ingredients are present at problematic doses
2) by being utterly harmless but containing nothing of use and offering no real help - wasting time for getting real treatment and wasting money
3) by offering false hope

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Cancer Act 1939 convictions in the UK - part two

In 2014 I wrote a very, very long detailed post about all the known-to-me convictions under the UK's  Cancer Act 1939 for which I could find information (see Cancer Act 1939 convictions on the UK).

I'm not aware of any new cases since then, other than Jerry Sargeant's from September 2017. There's not a great deal of information about his court case. An article from The Metro from 20 September, when he appeared in court, indicated sentencing would happen later that day but another article in the Daily Mail said that sentencing had been due on the day but would now happen on 8 November 2017, so not long to wait. Mr Sargeant is currently filling Twitter in a memely fashion with inspiring 'aphorisms' stuck on images of space.

Backing up a little bit to Summer last year we had Noel Edmonds making some odd claims on Twitter about a box and a mat which could, he felt, help with cancer. Not too surprisingly he received rather a strong response from pretty much everyone, for making misleading health claims. He didn't help his case much when someone with cancer challenged him and he replied that perhaps that person's negative attitude was why they had cancer. Oof.

Anyway, Tom Scott made this video about Why you can't advertise cancer cures in Britain, below. It's pretty clear, please don't do that.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Amused and amazed at Chris Heaton-Harris' letter to universities re: Brexit

MP Chris Heaton-Harris has written to universities' vice-chancellors asking for...

"...the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.

Furthermore, if I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area I would be much obliged."

Not surprisingly academic Twitter is up in arms about it, with heavy sarcasm. There's a piece about it in the Guardian from which I got the text of the letter above.

The academics quoted in the article, on either side of Brexit or Remain, have said that they don't push a particular angle and that their opinions are acknowledged as just that.

I think the letter fails on two counts.

1. It asks for 'professors' not 'lecturers'. I suspect many (most?) university classes are people called Dr, not Prof. The letter's imprecise wording narrows the scope considerably.

2. I think it asks to look in the wrong thing. Surely it's the admin emails (sent to everyone) which convey the uncertainty and concern about Brexit. The ones I've seen (I work at two universities) don't push any particular agenda but they don't have to, the Brexit process is unknown and the presence of the emails - let alone their content - communicates that. The emails are about providing people with support, advice (including legal), collecting examples, considering future EU funding applications etc.

I presume that these facts are obvious to Mr H-H and that his letter serves another purpose that I must have missed.

Perhaps the syllabuses contain more informative information than I'm imagining they do, but 'topics' are quite different from how they're framed.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Christmas 2017: How to watch #Elf in London this December

Welcome to the annually updated 'Where to watch Elf in London' - 2017 edition.

Elf (2003), best Christmas film ever. Rarely seen on regular UK terrestrial television now, due to Sky buying the rights to it (or at least that's what I heard). Fortunately it is in plentiful supply in cinemas and there are many screenings in London over the next few weeks.

Film listing first, then organisations and venues list.

Saturday screenings are in bold.

  1. Friday 25 November, 7.45pm - Backyard Cinema: Winter Night Garden, Winterville, Clapham Common (from £17) SOLD OUT
  2. Sunday 26 November, 4pm - Backyard Cinema: The Snow Kingdom, Mercato Metropolitano, Borough (from £17) SOLD OUT
  3. Wednesday 29 November, 4pm - Backyard Cinema: The Snow Kingdom, Mercato Metropolitano, Borough (from £17)
  1. Friday 1 December, 6.30pm - One Aldwych (£55 screening, champagne & dinner) 
  2. Friday 1 December, 8.30pm - Backyard Cinema: The Snow Kingdom, Mercato Metropolitano, Borough (from £17) SOLD OUT 
  3. Saturday 2 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55)
  4. Saturday 2 December, 3.45pm - Backyard Cinema: Winter Night Garden, Winterville, Clapham Common (from £17) SOLD OUT
  5. Saturday 2 Decdember, 6pm - Charlotte Street Hotel, W1T 1RJ
  6. Saturday 2 December, 6.30pm - One Aldwych (£55 screening, champagne & dinner)
  7. Sunday 3 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55)  
  8. Sunday 3 December, 4.30pm - One Aldwych (£55 screening, champagne & dinner)
  9. Monday 4 December, 6.10pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  10. Thursday 7 December, 6.30pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)  
  11. Friday 8 December, 3.45pm - Backyard Cinema: Winter Night Garden, Winterville, Clapham Common
  12. Friday 8 December, 8.30pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  13. Saturday 9 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55)
  14. Saturday 9 December, 5.30pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  15. Sunday 10 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55) 
  16. Sunday 10 December, 1pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  17. Sunday 10 December, 8.30pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  18. Monday 11 December, 6.40pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening
  19. Tuesday 12 December, 8.30pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  20. Wednesday 13 December, 9pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  21. Thursday 14 December, 6.30pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  22. Friday 15 December, 3.50pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  23. Friday 15 December, 6.10pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  24. Saturday 16 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55) 
  25. Saturday 16 December, 1.15pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  26. Saturday 16 December, 6.30pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  27. Saturday 16 December, 6.30pm - The Exhibit (£6 cinema only, £16 with post-film meal) 
  28. Saturday 16 December, 8.45pm - The Exhibit (£6 cinema only, £16 with post-film meal)
  29. Sunday 17 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55) 
  30. Sunday 17 December, 1pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  31. Sunday 17 December, 1.30pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening
  32. Sunday 17 December, 6.30pm - The Exhibit (£6 cinema only, £16 with post-film meal)
  33. Sunday 17 December, 8.45pm - The Exhibit (£6 cinema only, £16 with post-film meal)
  34. Monday 18 December, 4.20pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  35. Monday 18 December, 6.15pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  36. Tuesday 19 December, 2pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  37. Tuesday 19 December, 6.25pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  38. Wednesday 20 December, 4.20pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  39. Wednesday 20 December, 6.40pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  40. Wednesday 20 December, 8.30pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  41. Thursday 21 December, 4.10pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening)
  42. Thursday 21 December, 6.30pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  43. Friday 22 December, 4.15pm - Prince Charles Cinema (regular screening
  44. Friday 22 December, 6.10pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)
  45. Saturday 23 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55) 
  46. Saturday 23 December, 3.35pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening
  47. Saturday 23 December, 5pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs
  48. Sunday 24 December, 12.30pm, Gaucho London, Charlotte Street (£55) 
  49. Sunday 24 December, 2pm - Charlotte Street Hotel, W1T 1RJ
  50. Sunday 24 December, 3.25pm - Prince Charles Cinema (quote along screening)  
  51. Sunday 24 December, 7pm - Pop Up Screens, Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs

Organisations and venues
Backyard Cinema: The Snow Kingdom, Mercato Metropolitano, Borough, 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 (Elephant & Castle)
Backyard Cinema: Winter Night Garden, Winterville, Clapham Common, Windmill Dr, SW4 9DE
Charlotte Street Hotel Cinema, W1T 1RJ
Exhibit Bar and Restaurant Cinema, Balham
The Gaucho - Fitzrovia / Goodge St: 60A Charlotte Street,W1T 2NU
One Aldwych - Aldwych! hat tip Londonist
Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square
Pop Up Screens - Hackney Showroom, Hackney Downs, Studios Amhurst Terrace, E8 2BT

Have previously screened Elf but don't seem to be doing so this year
Clapham Grand
Regent Street Cinema - 309 Regent Street, W1B 2HW
Electric Theatre Cinema, Peckham - Winter Film Club 
Nomad Cinema - Victoria: Ecclestone Place Courtyard, Victoria
Rooftop Film Club - Kensington Roof Gardens
St Swithun's Church Hall, SE13 6QE
Underground Film Club - Vaults, Lower Marsh, Waterloo

Monday, 25 September 2017

Scientific talks in London - 2017 edition

by @JoBrodie,
  • Blackheath Scientific Society - 2017 not published yet (programme starts in late October)
  • Chelsea Physic Garden - Thursday Supper talks
  • Hampstead Scientific Society - programme
  • Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution - Lectures / Events (I'll just display the ones that seem the most sciencey, there are plenty of other interesting events there)
  • Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS) - Information page (PDF) @Kewlectures)
  • Linnean Society - Events (PDF)
  • Richmond Scientific Society - programme (starts in September)
  • Worshipful Society of Apothecaries - Events (lectures free, booking advisable) 
See also Interesting Talks in London
There are also events from the Royal Institution and the Royal Society which are fantastic but it's almost impossible to copy and paste text from their website so I've not added them here.

Also, feel free to copy and paste this and put it in your own blog posts and listings. It's not my info, it's just culled from all these sources above. Share the science communication news :)

12 September - Tuesday
6pm, Apothecaries Hall
'An illustrated history of modern cardiology and cardiac surgery' - W Bruce Fye

13 September - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'How do we know anything? And how can we know things better?' - Michael de Podesta
[Tickets on the door only]

15 September - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
'Pathogen Surveillance' - with Dr David Aanensen, Welcome Trust, Sanger Institute

21 September 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘It’s not all about the Flowers’  with Matthew Wilson
[More info] [Tickets]

21 September 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'You may not believe this but....?' - Heinz Wolff
[Tickets on the door only]

2 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Plant hunting in Northern Vietnam' - Alex Summers
[Tickets on the door only]

5 October 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘How to Eat Better’ with James Wong
[More info] [Tickets]

9 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'A study of New Zealand's native flora' - Matthew Rees
'Exploring the forests of temperate North America' - Olivia Seed-Mundin
[Tickets on the door only]

11 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'South East Asian Geology' - Robert Hall
[Tickets on the door only]

16 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Conservation of the Fen orchid' - Tim Pankhurst
[Tickets on the door only]

19 October 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘The Joys and Powers of Herbs’ with Judith Hann

19 October 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'Biosignatures in Earth's oldest sediments' - Dominic Papineau
[Tickets on the door only]

20 October 2017 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
‘Tales of Things’ in the Olympic Park - with Dr Duncan Hay, University College

23 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Make America Green Again! A perspective on US public gardens' - Sophie Walwin
'Step back in time: a tour of heritage gardens of France and Italy' - Chris Clowser
[Tickets on the door only]

25 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
Sopwith Biplanes - David Hassard
[Tickets on the door only]

30 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'The science and politics of soil carbon' - Ed Revill
[Tickets on the door only]

31 October 2017 - Tuesday
8pm, Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution
'Bitten by Witch Fever: wallpaper and arsenic in the Victorian home' - Lucinda Hawksley
[haven't worked out how you get tickets yet]


2 November 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden 
Grandma’s Herbal Remedies, Fact and Fiction – with Jekka McVicar

6 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Using every opportunity to cultivate, record and conserve' - Martin Gardner 
[Tickets on the door only]

21 November 2017 - Tuesday
8pm, Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution
'Discussing climate change: why so toxic?' - Christopher Rapley
[haven't worked out how you get tickets yet]

25 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'Aerodynamics of today's megastructures' - Stefano Cammelli
[Tickets on the door only]

13 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Searching for passionflowers in South America' - John Vanderplank 
[Tickets on the door only]

16 November 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'The history of local anaesthesia' - William Harrop-Griffiths
[Tickets on the door only]

17 November 2017 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
Fuel Cells & Electrolysers with Dr Enrique Ruiz Trejo, ImperialCollege

20 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Hillier Gardens through the seasons' - David Jewell
[Tickets on the door only]

22 November 2017 - Wednesday
5.15pm, Royal College of Physicians (under the aegis of the Soc Apothecaries)
'Gene, cells and systems - keys to life and the future of medicine' - Paul Nurse
'The college and the Society: origins, ambition and survival' - David Starkey
[tickets and info] - £15 for just the lecture, if you want the lecture and the coach transfer back to Apothecaries Hall for the 3 course dinner you'll need a lounge suit and £110

27 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Conifers: a natural history of the Pacific Northwest' - Harry Baldwin
'The botanical wonders of Malaysian Borneo' - Keegan Hickey
[Tickets on the door only]

4 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Before roots, shoots and leaves: the early evolution of plants' - Paul Kenrick
[Tickets on the door only]

7 December 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘Fashioned from Nature’ with Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

11 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'The art of creative pruning' - Jake Hobson
[Tickets on the door only]

13 December 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'Forensic microscopy - tales from the past' - Pam Hamer
[Tickets on the door only]

14 December 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'Ancient Chinese science' - Andrew Gregory
[Tickets on the door only]

15 December 2017 - Friday

7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society 

18 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Exploring the flora of Danube Delta in Romania' - Loredana Vacareanu
'Trees of the Chilean temperate rainforest - a trip to the end of the world' - Eliot Bardon
[Tickets on the door only]

19 January 2018 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
Light, Sleep and Time - and how they interact with Dr Russel Foster, Nuffield - Ophthalmology

16 February 2018 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
The Cassini Legacy and JUICE with Dr Greg Hunt, Imperial College
MARCH 2018
16 March 2018 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
MRI - Imaging & 3D Modelling Prior to Surgery with Dr David Nordsletten, Kings College
APRIL 2018
20 April 2018 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
Positive Thought & Behaviour Boost the Immune System with Dr Fulvio D'Acquisto, William Harvey Institute
MAY 201818 May 2018 - Friday
7.45pm, Mycenae House, Blackheath Scientific Society
Discovering Earthlike Planets with Dr Guillem Anglada, Queen Mary College

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Confusing reversed passenger flow at Cannon Street tube station

tl;dr - a bleat about confusing tube-station signage, with everyone walking in the wrong direction.

Everyone who uses the underground learns, probably quite quickly, that you walk on the left and stand on the right (on an escalator). However there are a handful of tube stations on the system where parts of the passenger route ask you 'keep to the right' when walking - the upper level section of Baker Street and all of Cannon Street tube station come to mind.

I have no idea why Cannon Street tube station wants people to walk on the right and none of the staff I've spoken to seem to know either. Presumably someone deliberately made this decision after doing some test or other. I'm afraid it isn't working.

All the signs say 'keep right' but plenty of people ignore this.

The signs fail to take account of where people's eyes are looking, and fail to make it clear that something is different about this station. If you use are a user of a sytem in which almost every other station is 'keep left' then you can be forgiven for thinking you're meant to walk on the left. Signs on the left hand side will probably be seen, but ignored (other than one word being different the signs look identical so people probably don't even clock them) because people expecgt them to say 'Keep Left', and no-one's looking on the right hand side - why would they, they're walking on the left. Given that you're asking people to walk down the 'wrong' stairs the signs need to be positioned more obviously, on the ground with those shoe sole things indicating which direction to travel in, or a hanging sign above the staircase saying 'this way' or 'no entry'.

If you want users (passengers) to follow your instructions then you need to design the system to accommodate their prior expectations and make it very clear that something is different at this station.

My advice is simple and effective - and it would save a lot of confusion for the passengers who do see and obey the signs and find themselves facing lots of oncoming commuters. Remove the damn signs completely. Everyone already knows to keep left and the lack of signs means that people will simply default to that (in fact that is what they are already doing now, because they're certainly not seeing or paying attention to the signs). Those that don't know* will fall in with everyone else walking left and won't be confused by signs telling them something different. This will also be a lot cheaper than re-signing the station.

It would be interesting to know if there's a particularly good reason why someone thought everyone should move on the right. If it's absolutely essential for people to keep right (have to assume it isn't given that almost no-one does) then (a) make the signs look really, really different fromt the Keep Left ones and (b) think about where people's eyes are actually pointing as they move around the station, and put the signs there.

*The current system is confused as regulars walk on the left and visitors / tourists (often with large bags) look for the signs and obey them, with the result that everyone has to walk around each other on busy stairs.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

A lovely time at Wilderness Festival 2017, or 'camping while slightly unfit' ;)

I've not been to an on-site camping-based music festival in about 20 years, and I've not been camping for 10 years (after a handful of brilliant bushcraft weekends with Woodsmoke in the Lake District) so I was pretty thoughtful about spending five days and four nights away in a tent. Knowing that I could bail at any moment and get a taxi back to a train station (or to London if it came to it!) or a hotel might have offered an additional reassurance of course. But in the end I had a great time and didn't freeze or get too soaked, bit of sunburn but nothing awful.

And I met Tom Hollander, which was a lovely surprise.

Tom Hollander reading a letter at Letters Live

Table of contents
  • On-site help
  • Getting there
  • General packing advice
  • Tent / camping
  • Mistakes I made
  • General foot comfort
  • Loos
  • Showers
  • Food
  • Bunting
  • Phone charging
  • Phone signal
  • Useful information I kept on my phone
  • Family friendly
  • Torches
  • Keeping dry / weather
  • What I would change (more informative website, ISS pass announcements)

All the Letters Live people (minus Russell Brand who's not in shot)

On-site help
They have a general store in the main arena that sells soft drinks, sun lotion, lighters, stoves, sleeping bags, ground sheets, tent pegs, toothpaste - pretty much anything you've forgotten. They also sell spring onions, presumably for the campers determined to cook - though I kept a fascinated eye on them and don't think they sold (m)any. There's an Information Tent which is very helpful, also each campsite has its own welfare tent if you get into difficulties. They also have lockers where you can charge your phone (!) though I brought chargers and lasted five days. There are also cash machines. Are all festivals like this now? I might have gone to a few more if I'd known!

I recommend actively checking in with the Information Tent to hear if there are any changes to the programme or exciting additions. Physical programmes are compact thick booklets full of info for £10.

The bunting outside the Information Tent

If you're leaving on the last day of the festival note that the arena and stalls will be closed so pick up your breakfast provisions (in my case a Snickers bar and can of diet coke) on the day before.

Getting there
I am not one for walking long distances holding tents and camping mats and would rather take a coach that drops me off inside the venue than a train that doesn't and where I can't be certain of the taxis. I had a great journey from Blackheath to Victoria rail, then from the coach station to the venue - two hours, easy peasy. We left at 10am and I was tent-up by 1pm and having a light snooze before exploring. Thank you National Express. The return journey was also good although the traffic was so ridiculously busy we left an hour and a half after the scheduled time.

I enjoyed arriving the day before everything got going and having a chance to check out the lay of the land (and where all the food stalls were) while there were considerably fewer people.

General packing advice
Put everything in a plastic bag before putting into main bag and squeeze the air out of it as much as possible, I used sandwich bags a lot. While I knew where everything was at the start (I am a maker of lists) it all got a bit more muddled as time went on, I might try mentally labelling each bag A, B etc and then each pocket is A1 or B4 - we'll see, it's a work in progress ;)

Tent / camping
For the benefit of my hands carrying stuff I prioritised lightness over all other considerations and ended up with a single-skin pop-up two man tent. There was just about enough room for my luggage, but not enough room to stand up or really sit up in. I need more room. Very easy to put up, not so difficult to put down though I still managed to break it, oops.

I am not one for kneeling or crawling around on grass and would prefer a bit more space for getting into the tent, there were quite a few graceless entrances and exits. When moving from wet outdoors to warm indoors I wanted to create a sort of interstitial space between the two, so this basically meant spare shoes that I could change into and get into / out of the tent with, using a spare ground sheet as the 'ante-room'. Lots of people much braver than me went barefoot, feet being neither absorbent nor having treads and so much easier to dry and keep clean. Flip-flops also good I suppose.

Quiet camping isn't all that quiet, but it turned out that family camping is also pretty disturbed too - people aren't that quiet. The quiet camping is further from the main stage but not from the other parties. 

Mistakes I made
  • trusting the piddly little tent pegs which bent easily in the tough terrain of Wilderness (fortunately I'd picked up a bag of extra-sturdy pegs from a pound shop)
  • not bringing a plastic mallet to hammer them in (borrowed one from a new neighbour, campers being a friendly, helpful bunch)
  • adding bunting to my tent - looked lovely but here's what happens when it rains and is windy. The rain that's on the outside of the rain is basically tapped through the single-skin tent as the wind flaps the bunting against the outside of the tent. After the first night I dispensed with the bunting.
  • forgot sun lotion, didn't bother to pick up spare though - didn't get too burned fortunately
  • packed sunglasses, forgot (every single day) to transfer them into my day bag so squinted
General foot comfort
There's a LOT of walking and standing around, unless you happen to find a seat (there are plenty, but a great deal of competition) and I'm not 20, or even 30. Over the five days I definitely got better at sitting on the grass and getting up again but I don't find it easy (don't really trust my knees or leg muscles not to give way during descent or ascent) so I kept spare socks and those insole things to hand. The site is large but while not massive you are moving around on different terrains, mostly grassy, with some inclines (I'm more worried about things sloping down than up as that's worse on the knees) so quite tiring to walk over. I moved very slowly, but pretty much constantly so ironically I'm a bit fitter than I was at the start.
Shout out to Andyloos whose loos were lovely. Clean, fragrant, constantly stocked with loo roll and hand sanitiser. Most of the loos had mirrors too. Absolutely amazing. At no point did I feel nauseous in the festival loos, and though the queues were occasionally long they moved quite quickly. I did pack a pound-shop variation on the Shewee in case of emergencies but didn't need it. Nor could I have used it in my tent as I wouldn't have been able to sustain the kneeling position to use it anyway, especially in the dark.

Crowd enjoying the Wilderness Orchestra at the Atrium on Sunday night

Each campsite had its own shower units with a fairly long queue for those. I'm afraid I dispensed with the concept of showering and used only baby wipes to maintain a minimal level of cleanliness. Just the thought of getting changed, then wet, then getting changed again - too much effort. A scent spray from Boots possibly helped a bit - which reminds me of a cartoon of a woman trying different scents in a shop and asking the opinion of the shop staff: "no madam, you're still coming through".

Delicious and varied. There were options to have fancy dining experiences with long-table feasts for £80 but they sell out quite quickly and my friends with kids probably wouldn't have been that into it so I didn't splash out to go by myself. Maybe next year I will, I do quite fancy the idea.

The Wilderness Festival is peak bunting. It's everywhere. Lovely stuff.

 Example of the various bunting, flagging and general garlanding plus moody cloud

Phone charging 
Can you believe it's taken me over six years of owning an iPhone to fully understand what switching off cellular data means. I thought it meant no internet AND no phone signal but no it only switches off internet - you can text and ring your mates nae bother without it (though can't share pictures through text as that seems to require an internet connection, fair enough). This fact alone guaranteed that my phone charge held for much longer than it might have. Amazing. I had packed several full-charged spare chargers and didn't have to use them all.

There are places on-site where you can charge your phone.

Phone signal
I had excellent 3G and general O2 text / call signal throughout the festival. It struggled a little on the last day (when everyone is packing up and arranging to meet people I suppose) but I didn't really need it then.

Useful information I kept on my phone
Obviously I had my National Express ticket in my emails but I kept a screenshot as well just in case of low signal. I also had a copy of the PDF map and various other files and bits and pieces in a folder on Dropbox. Before I set off I changed the setting on each file so that it was accessible if I had no signal. Dropbox on a phone is great for this.

Family friendly
It's the most ridiculously family-friendly festival I've ever heard of. Not only do they have a big dedicated kids' area with fun stalls full of things for smaller visitors, loads of adults had small trolleys with them for transporting their kids around the site. I'm not sure if they brought them with them or hired them but whoever came up with the idea is a genius.

Flowers (not real!) at the festival

It turns out I had four sources of light: my iPhone, headtorch, regular torch and one of the phone chargers also has a light. I kept my headtorch on me at all times so that I never had to go back to my tent at dusk in order to collect it for use later. When in use I kept it on my wrist to avoid blinding people.

Keeping dry / weather
I saw a few people with umbrellas but I find them fiddly to 'manage' so I got by with a pac-a-mac thing and a shower curtain (lighter than a ground sheet / tarp and does the job fine) for sitting on. Alas my legs are too chubby to fit comfortably in most wellies but my footwear is reasonably waterproof and we only had one major downpour.

The weather app on the iPhone was pretty reliable for keeping me informed. Annoyingly you kind of have to pack for rain and sunshine, though I was glad I did.

What I would change
Online information
There was a lot of information about dressing up and themes but I found the website info quite confusing. All I really wanted was a list of timings and answers to FAQs. I did find this information eventually but felt the website was more of a teaser for the event than informative.

Shush people in quiet camping
I'd have liked a bit more policing of the quiet camping area as people walked in having loud conversations and continued them inside the compound. My in-tent shushing was ineffective as they were too far away anyway. 

Announce ISS passes
A nice thing on Saturday night, after the special event on the main stage, was seeing the International Space Station going overhead. I was with very good friends and their kids (that I've known since they were born) so it was a lovely communal moment, among many. Lots of people were moving away from the main stage, as the event had ended, and none of them seemed to know about the ISS. I thought that was a tiny bit of a shame as it would have been lovely for everyone there to be able to look up and see it very clearly - on a lovely cloudless sky. It was beautiful. I wish I'd thought to ask them to make a public address system announcement about it.

As the ISS was due to pass over again on Sunday night I tried to suggest it at the Info Tent but they weren't buying it, and in any case it was cloudy anyway. But if you have an outdoor evening event and there's an ISS pass why not tell people about it.

 Moon peeking through the clouds

Sunday, 23 July 2017

RadioTimes is stopping its TV Watchlist - recommended alternatives?

RadioTimes had a handy thing for keeping an eye on when favourite films or programmes were going to be broadcast. As long as you had an account you could click a 'Watchlist' button on the page for any programme, then you could look at your watchlist to see what was coming up in the schedules.

I'm not quite sure how I discovered this but I associate it with coming across films that David Arnold had scored and tweeting him that they were on. Gradually I added more of his films and would let him know - whether or not he wanted me to - that a particular film of his was to be screened. Sometimes he'd retweet the info and on occasion people would write back saying how much they loved that score, which was always rather lovely to be included in. It was also fun when he'd live tweet stuff about the making of the film or the score.

But RadioTimes are stopping the Watchlist, and now we have to use some app instead. Alas I can't download any more apps onto my very full phone so I'm looking for a 'web-based solution'. Do you know of any?

Homeopathy 'banned on the NHS' - nearly, but not quite

NHS England is updating its guidance to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), recommending that certain items offered in primary care should no longer be prescribed. This includes homeopathy but some herbal remedies are in there too, also glucosamine + chondroitin used (ineffectively as it turns out) for osteoarthritis pain.

The document outlining the recommended changes was published on 21 July 2017 and is called Items which should not routinely be prescribed in primary care: A Consultation on guidance for CCGs. It's out for public consultation until 21 October 2017 (see pg 7 of 48 of the linked docuent on how to respond).

A. Things I want to consider in this post, the short version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS? 
No, not yet

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?  
Seems pretty likely

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
The evidence isn't good, also to minimise any unwarranted positive associations with healthcare

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS? 
Slightly dishonest ones

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS? 
Probably helped

B. Things I want to consider in this post, the longer version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS?
Not yet. The document acknowledges that the evidence for homeopathy is poor and that homeopathy should not be prescribed, however this is a consultation document not an edict. Also this will affect England, not the whole UK.

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?
I think so - it's widely acknowledged that it's a waste of money and there is little support for it being on the NHS. To be fair homeopathy has been declining on the NHS for two decades as this bar chart from the Nightingale Collaboration. This is more tidying up loose ends than a big new thing.

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
While it's true that the homeopathy spend is now under £100,000 (a drop in the ocean compared with total NHS costs) it's not just about costs. We don't want money wasted on unevidenced treatments (this includes pharma drugs too), even if it is only a small amount of money. But there's also the 'halo effect': homeopathy benefits by its association with healthcare, the NHS is effectively giving its backing to nonsense. Removing it from the NHS removes this positive association. Annoyingly homeopathy also benefits from the fact that you can buy it in many highstreet pharmacists but that's a different argument.

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS?
Not good ones, no. Some doctors have argued that patients who are distressed about perceived ill-health, despite not actually being unwell, might benefit from homeopathy or placebo pills.

"TEETH" stands for "Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy".

The idea would involve doctors knowingly (or perhaps even unwittingly) giving patients inert medication with the aim of making them feel better (placebo effects, being taken seriously etc) without causing any side-effects. Another possible benefit is keeping a link with a patient who might otherwise withdraw from appropriate healthcare and explore unhelpful and costly options from quacks.

To be honest I do have some sympathy with this notion. The dishonesty troubles me - it's basically lying to a patient 'for their own good' but I can see examples of where I might go along with this (which also troubles me!).

Here a GP writes about 'heartsink' patients (where your heart sinks as what's ailing them isn't clear, nor is the solution) in an article on the Faculty of Homeopaths website. The FoH is a society of medical doctors who are also homeopaths.

"Another group of patients for which homeopathy can be helpful is those who frequently appear in GPs’ surgeries presenting with a whole host of “functional disorders”. Despite undergoing the full gamut of blood and hospital tests, no abnormality in the body is found. Nevertheless, these “heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this.

Sometimes conventional medicines can be useful, but once again they are symptomatic treatments which may also produce unpleasant side-effects, resulting in the patient feeling even worse. Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help."

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS?
The term 'Skeptics' is generally assumed to mean activist bloggers but obviously includes people who aren't bloggers but who are also skeptical of homeopathy - including scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals, teachers, people who've tried it but experienced no real benefit from homeopathy, members of the public, anyone.

It's difficult to prove causality. My perception is that online skeptical activism, particularly targeted at homeopathy, really got going in the early-mid 2000s, coalescing around Ben Goldacre's Bad Science colummn and blog. Obviously scientists and doctors have obviously been skeptical of homeopathy pretty much since it was invented. Prof David Colquhoun has been blogging about homeopathy since the very early 2000s and published (in a journal) a re-analysis of some homeopathy data in a paper in 1990 - I'm sure others have too, it's just we happened to have a conversation about this recently!

The focus of skeptic activism can be both narrow and targeted (for example getting something changed, eg getting an advert taken down, getting an event moved from an academic setting etc) or wider (eg contributing to people's awareness of what homeopathy actually is) and I think both feed into each other. I think of the former as 'meat' and the latter as 'marinade' and I think skeptic activism has done both very well. It seems as if articles in the press about homeopathy are much more critical and less credulous than they have been in the past - I don't know if this can be attributed to skeptics but I know that quite a few of us have contacted journalists to point to better information.

In late 2009 the UK Government announced that it was seeking examples of topics in which a science Select Committee could "assess the Government’s use of evidence in policy-making", inviting the public to suggest topics. Homeopathy was one of many, and was chosen to be the second 'evidence check' resulting in a 2010 document recommending that funding be withdrawn.

The fact that homeopathy's been included in the current consultation is also largely due to the efforts of the Good Thinking Society which has mounted legal challenges to Clinical Commissioning Groups to get them to stop funding homeopathy, as well as trying to get it blacklisted from NHS spending.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (originally published 24 August 2015 but regularly updated)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A couple of useful mildly passive-aggressive phrases I learned from my dad

These two phrases, passed on from father to daughter (I've no idea where Dad got them from) have been occasionally useful and I thought I'd share them in case others want to adopt them too.

1. To what fault in yourself do you attribute that?
I'm not sure I can really carry this one off as well as my dad (though he annoyingly remains dead when he was alive he was 6ft 2, large, loud and commanding) so I tend to use it more in jest but I leave it to you to decide how to use it :)

Dad probably used it most with jobsworth types. Or people lacking in insight.

2. Well to be fair they're probably not as well-advised as me
This one's good for rebuffing annoying people who tell you that 'everyone is doing X', particularly if they're trying to sell you something or beat you in a game of I Remain Unconvinced. It's not an actual game but I tend to gamify efforts to sell me things.

Here's a bonus one from my mum...

3. X permanently has his/her foot in the stirrup of his/her high-horse 
Funnily enough it's quite possible Mum might have been talking about Dad or me. She used to ring me occasionally with news of Dad's victories against companies that had foolishly tried to rip him off; he was never happier than when a proper fight was in the offing. Honestly my dad used to have the most amazingly protracted arguments (and the weird thing was they were nearly always really amiable) with companies about something failing to turn up, the wrong thing turning up, something needing replaced etc. An awful lot of Mum's, or his, stories seemed to be about vacuum cleaners - our house was like some sort of graveyard for them, a lot went there to die. Companies kept sending them, particularly after they'd spoken to my dad for upwards of half an hour.

Anyway, make sure you don't die by knowing what a failing smoke alarm sounds like or get out of the house and go and see a film in the open air (admittedly this link only relevant if you live in London).

Know when your fire alarm / smoke detector's battery is failing - sound beeps

On three separate occasions in three separate mini supermarkets in London I've mentioned to the person serving me that the high pitched, intermittent "pink" chirruping beep was their smoke detector's battery announcing its demise. Two of the people looked at me blankly (one couldn't even pick it out from the surrounding noise) and the third person told me it always made that sound and that it was the sound of a normally-functioning fire alarm - I mean really! I think next time I might be a bit more persistent.

I'm sure different kinds of smoke alarms emit different kinds of sonic death announcements but here's the one I'm most familiar with. Wouldn't it be great if the British Standards document for smoke alarm beeps kept them the same. Perhaps it does. I hope everyone knows what a failing smoke detector sounds like, it's basically an important warning. I hope everyone has a smoke detector...

Whenever I've changed the battery on a detector it's always made a terrific din and beeps for a bit before settling down, perhaps those beeps are to cue me in to what it sounds like - it worked for me but not the people in the shops.

My mum once rang me when Dad was away asking if I knew what had started beeping overnight and disturbing her sleep. I think she may have ended up holding the phone near to where the sound was coming from (she didn't know it was the smoke alarm and wasn't sure of the source's exact location) and eventually we worked out what it was and she was able to change the battery. 


I've just taken the bus home from Westcombe Park station and waited for the 108 bus going upwards back to the heath. While standing at Bus Stop B I heard the unmistakeable sound, coming from the houses behind me, of a failing smoke alarm. The lights were off and it was late (and no fire!) so I didn't start knocking on doors but I hope someone works out what the problem is.

Westcombe Park station is a lot less welcoming than Blackheath station, particularly as two of the street lights are out - not great when it's quite a steep hill and uneven pavement, anyway...

Sunday, 16 July 2017

I'm a bit skeptical about Ms Courtney's post about the future of homeopathy

Perhaps I shouldn't take the bait but when someone is wrong on the internet (and wrong with such enthusiastic regularity) it's difficult to ignore. If homeopaths restricted themselves to saying something along the lines of "you might feel a bit cheerier after talking to one of us, we're mostly quite nice, but the pills are just a distraction" I'd probably tolerate* homeopathy on the NHS, as an inert placebo. It's the fact that homeopaths promote it as a separate system of medicine that grates, and that some of them promote it as an alternative to real medicine for real diseases that worries.

The homeopathy enthusiast BrownBagPantry has posted the above quote numerous times on her Twitter feed under the #homeopathy hashtag and I thought I'd write up a quick rebuttal and correction of the points within it.

*It's still lying to patients in a rather paternalistic way, but that's an argument for a different post.

"Realistically, the anti homeopathy activists have a minuscule sphere of influence worldwide."
- 'Anti homeopathy activists' probably refers only to skeptical bloggers but it's important to remember that healthcare professionals, journalists, authors, scientists and all sorts of other people have taken steps to warn the public about the dangers of relying on homeopathy and other fake medicines. Many of them wouldn't recognise themselves as 'anti homeopathy activists' though.

The 'sphere of influence' bit is perfectly true of course. We don't particularly need to influence everyone who might consider buying or using homeopathy, we only really need to influence the decision-makers, that is people who regulate it (allow it on to the market, or how it can be marketed) and the people who commission it on the NHS etc. As it happens I'm also a fan of encouraging users of homeopathy to be aware of what it is (and it looks like plenty of people might be mistaken in thinking that it's the same as 'herbal').

I think of the first part (influencing decision-makers) as the meat of what skeptic activists might do and the second part (public) as the background marinade that also needs to be changed. It feels like public attitudes to homeopathy are changing - there are more negative articles about it in tabloid newspapers that, until recently, tended to be more supportive. There have also been a number of high profile stories. However I don't know how much this changes the minds of staunch supporters.

Generally "anti-homeopathy activists" act locally - I don't write to universities in India asking them to move a homeopathy event on their campus but I do in the UK (with a recent success in Birmingham). However we know that people IN Australia tackle local Australian quackery and likewise in other countries. So the 'worldwide' thing is a bit of a red herring. We're everywhere, having local effects, so while none of us has worldwide influence the effect of skeptical activity is felt globally.

"Since Hahnmann's time, these activists' opinions have been unable to stop the manufacture & distribution of homeopathic remedies"
- I don't think we've ever tried to stop the manufacture or distribution. Personally I've no objection to homeopathy products being on sale (this would be like objecting to sugar being on sale), only to the confusing or misleading advice given about what the products can do. There have been isolated examples of products being removed from sale because they no longer have a market license and I think the FDA sanctioned one manufacturer for poor manufacturing practices, but this hasn't particularly been a focus.

Recently homeopathic teething products for babies were withdrawn from sale after links to serious ill-health problems, combined with the discovery that the contents of the products were not as described on the label and had been inconsistently produced. It was the parents of the children harmed by homeopathy that brought the action - I don't know if they consider themselves to be anti homeopathy activists, but the manufacture and distribution of some homeopathic remedies has most certainly happened.

"the private practice & licensing of homeopaths; the schools, universities, organizations and private groups that teach it;"
- well this just isn't true. A number of universities have stopped teaching homeopathy, most recently in Spain, and they're also stopping validating others' courses. Hooray! The evidence base for homeopathy (poor) is also critiqued in UK pharmacy and medical degree courses, and there are critical-thinking modules available for schools that use it as an example.

"the privately and government funded research studies"
- goodness me, if people are still wasting money on research into homeopathy when it's been comprehensively shown that any effects can be explained by placebo then we need to step up our efforts here ;)

"surveys; the publication of books, journals and magazines for public and student consumption"
- I don't think we've tried that much to be honest. A few people have taken one magazine's advertisers to task for misleading content and to get it removed from a number of shops, but no attempt's been made to stop it from publishing. There have been a few examples of looking at getting books removed from sale (not from being published though) including a pharmaceutical society in the UK that still makes them available for pharmacists (!).

"the social media sites that educate curious health care consumers about it, and the cured patients who sing its praises to family members, co-workers, [casual] and longtime friends."
- particularly for Twitter those promoting homeopathy will certainly be met with rejoinders from people who are skeptical of the claims. I've been in work situations where someone has suggested homeopathy and I've certainly taken the time to explain why that might be unwise (I often gave talks to colleagues and members of the public about diabetes research and often talked about the risks of using either herbal or homeopathic remedies).

"The National Center for Homeopathy in the U.S. recently noted that the interest in their website grew by a "whopping 600%" over the past two years."
I emailed and asked them about this and they were unable to confirm, only wanting to know why I wanted to know, which is a bit odd. 600% seems quite an impressive figure so you might imagine they'd want to tell a homeopathy skeptic about it. They said it was something that had been sent in a newsletter to members. I've no idea then if the 600% figure is true but let's assume that it is. But it doesn't tell us if they had only 2 visitors two years ago and that this has just gone up to 14 visitors two years later ;) It also doesn't tell us if they're measuring all visitors (which includes Google indexing 'bots') plus people visiting by accident, or who are skeptics. Nor does it tell us what those visitors think about the information they found there.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (24 August 2015, updated September 2016)