Archive for January, 2010

‘United Nations of Science’ – nice idea that will never work


I recently came across an interesting article in NewScientist, ‘The United Nations of science: why we need it‘, written by a Lorna Casselton, foreign secretary of the Royal Society (??) and Emeritus Professor of Fungal Genetics at the University of Oxford.

In it, Prof Casselton introduces the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP):

“[The IAP is] a global coalition of national science academies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Its task this week is to agree a way forward for scientific advice to government – how the world of science, speaking as one, can reach out to policy-makers to help solve the critical global challenges we now face.”

So far so good – as a scientist by training myself I can relate to that. She continues:

“The organisation’s ambition is to become the most influential voice for the world’s scientists amid the clamour of politicians and lobby groups.

IAP is also working hard to promote better science education, support young scientists and improve science communication. This is especially important in the developing world: IAP strives to help the poorest countries build their science, technology and advisory capacities and thus champion robust, evidence-based policy-making.” (my emphasis)

 You see, here’s where it all goes wrong. Prof Casselton starts her piece with:

“As the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate summit sinks in, you could be forgiven for despairing of science ever being put at the centre of international policy-making. But scientists are not giving up the fight.”

Far from being any sort of disappointment, the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit was a great result for all those who have been following the incredible revelations from across the world that the case for anthopogenic global warming was completely overstated at best, and a complete fabrication and corruption of the scientific process at worst (have a look at the Watts Up With That blog for further details).

Quite frankly, I would have expected better from an Oxford Professor (although as a Cambridge alumnus perhaps I’m not surprised!) – I would love her in a follow-up article to explain how exactly climategate equates to ‘robust, evidence-based policy-making’.

For me, climategate shows pretty well the dangers of scientists getting involved in politics (Prof David Nutt did and look what happened to him). They should stick to doing their experiments and advancing our body of knowledge; leave the dirty business of deciding what to do with the results to the politicians!

Categories: science

Mad Scientist Syndrome – a significant and increasing burden on society

2010-01-16 1 comment


Science – in of itself – is pretty straight forward. You know the drill: review all of the knowledge on your chosen topic currently available; form a hypothesis which if verified by experimentation will extend that knowledge; perform said experimentation; discard hypothesis if results are not in agreement, otherwise publish hypothesis in Nature; repeat.

Obviously, medicine is in a number of ways a lot ‘messier’ than science, but exactly the same principles should apply. Epidemiology has no such excuse, since real people here are just numbers in a spreadsheet to be summed and averaged at will of the investigator. So, why do we continue to go through scare after hysterical scare about health matters – surely we should all be tired of it by now?

Cited on Dick Puddlecote’s blog, I came across an excellent article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian with a title which perfectly summarizes the problem: Swine flu was as elusive as WMD. The real threat is mad scientist syndrome.

“The BBC was intoning nightly statistics on what “could” happen as “the deadly virus” took hold. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, bandied about any figure that came into his head, settling on “65,000 could die”, peaking at 350 corpses a day.

Donaldson knew exactly what would happen. The media went berserk. The World Health Organisation declared a “six-level alert” so as to “prepare the world for an imminent attack”. The happy-go-lucky virologist, John Oxford, said half the population could be infected, and that his lowest estimate was 6,000 dead.

The “Andromeda strain” was stalking the earth, and its first victims were clearly scientists. Drugs were frantically stockpiled and key workers identified as vital to be saved for humanity’s future. Cobra alerted the army. Morgues were told to stand ready. The Green party blamed intensive pig farming. The Guardian listed “the top 10 plague books”.

If anyone dared question this drivel, they were dismissed by Donaldson as “extremists”. When people started reporting swine flu to be even milder than ordinary flu, he accused them of complacency and told them to “wait for next winter”. He was already buying 32m masks and spending more than £1bn on Tamiflu and vaccines. Surgeries refused entry to those with flu symptoms, referring them to a government “hotline” where prescription drugs were ordered to be made available without examination or doctor’s note. Who knows how many died of undiagnosed illness as a result? Lines were instantly jammed. It was pure, systematic government-induced panic – in which I accept that the media played its joyful part.”

Jenkins go on to make the point that we have been here before: remember SARS? What about BSE/CJD? To this list I would add AGW, although the list could go on and on. Every time it’s the same: media quotes ‘scientists’ claiming that there is yet another major catastrophe just around the corner which, surprise surprise, means that we all have (a) give up more personal freedoms to the state, (b) pay more taxes, (c) stop enjoying something which we enjoy doing/taking that has been perfectly legal up till now, (d) live in a state of near-permanent anxiety or (e) any combination of the above.

Jenkins rounds off his article with the sad consequence of the ongoing farce of ‘crying wolf’ from our politicians and leading scientists/doctors:

“This is why people are ever more sceptical of scientists. Why should they believe what “experts” say when they can be so wrong and with such impunity? Weapons of mass destruction, lethal viruses, nuclear radiation, global warming … why should we believe a word of it? And it is a short step from don’t believe to don’t care.”

 It’s not meant to be like this…

Why can’t drug policy be evidence-based?


Two recent articles on the vexed topic of illegal drugs caught my eye this week. The first was an interview in the Metro with Prof David Nutt, until recently the UK Government’s chief drugs adviser, who was fired after making ‘outspoken’ comments on how the country’s current drugs policy is not fit for purpose.

Being a scientist by training, and working in the pharmaceutical industry where everything my clients and I do must be evidence-based and referenced, the glaring inconsistencies in the UK’s drug laws have always perplexed me (writing as someone whose dabbling in mind-altering substances is strictly restricted to ethanol and the occasional bowl of Tira Misu) – smoking and alcohol are somehow okay (or at least legal) while drugs like cannabis and ecstacy are not. Even within the classification system there appears to be little evidence-based decision-making going on, with drugs being moved between bands on a seemingly regular basis with no clear justification.

Prof Nutt makes some pretty good points – to me at least – in his interview, for example:

“Alcohol is a drug that is most worrying to most parents and it is the drug that is most likely to damage young teenagers. One a day dies of alcohol poisoning and one or two a day die in a road traffic or other accident relating to alcohol – that’s why it is the most dangerous drug. We should be focusing our efforts on that, not pretending that other drugs are worse … I am continuing to make a case that drug laws, to be fair and just, should properly reflect the harm to the person using and to society, and if they don’t do that then injustice will occur. More innocent non-drug-using people die from road traffic accidents and other damage from alcohol than any other drug.”

Personally, I believe that adults should be free to do what they like with their own bodies, as long as they are fully aware of the potential consequences beforehand (for example, possible mental illness) and are willing to take responsibility for whatever may happen, and also as long as no-one else is harmed directly or indirectly as a result.

This leads to the second article, posted by Melanie Phillips on her blog at the Spectator. Phillips takes a very hard line on Prof Nutt’s views and on those who consider that liberalization of the drug laws may be an avenue worth going down. Clearly, drugs policy is not my area, but one specific section sprang out:

“Nutt’s offence in crossing the line into opposition to government policy was merely the overt political expression of a position on drug law so irresponsible and potentially harmful, through its downplaying of the risks of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, that it should have barred him from public office long previously.”

I freely admit that I have not performed a full literature review and analysis of the safety and toxicity of drugs like cannabis or ecstacy; however, what I have seen to date suggests to me that – while obviously not being risk-free – the potential dangers of either of these drugs are probably comparable in severity to drinking way too much on a night out or smoking 20 a day long-term.

As always, politics and people who are either simply ignorant or have vested interests always rear their ugly heads in any discussion on this topic. As a scientist by training, is it really too much to ask for some evidence-based decision-making??

Perhaps, as always, there is a conspiracy at work? 😉

UPDATE: Have just found the Support Professor David Nutt: We want an evidence based drugs policy group on Facebook.

The inconvenient truth about peer review


I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on man-made global warming, a few years ago. What with dire warnings of rising sea levels, more droughts, hurricanes and floods around the world, drowning polar bears and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitos poised to ravage Europe, the film certainly delivered its key message. I was depressed for a week afterwards.

It’s a shame that it would appear that global warming may well be little, if not nothing, to do with human activity (specifically CO2 levels) at all. Worse, ‘climategate‘ as this whole saga is now referred to, has been denounced by some to be all shady politics rather than based on proper science. Further details on this can be found on the excellent Watts Up With That blog, amongst many others.

Anyway, however this issue plays out, one aspect was particularly interesting to me – namely allegations that leading scientists supplying data to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) interfered with the publication of manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals that went against the ‘accepted’ consensus.

Having been a research scientist myself, I had personal experience of the vagaries (and outright back-stabbing) that is the standard peer-review process. For those who have not had the pleasure, your paper – representing months or years of work – goes off to a journal you believe warrants a piece of research of this calibre. It is then sent off – usually on an anonymous basis – to be reviewed by 2-3 experts in the field, who are supposed to check it thoroughly for errors of fact, point out anything that might be missing, and/or suggests improvements. Assuming you didn’t go for a ridiculously high profile journal, and you jump through the reviewers’ hoops, voila – publication!

Except it often doesn’t work like that. Anonymity is not always assured, since research areas are so narrowly-focused these days that everyone pretty much knows everyone else in the field so can guess who wrote the paper. One or more of your reviewers might hate you, your boss, one of your named co-authors, or your institution. He (or she) may not like your conclusion (whether or not it is correct is irrelevant) – particularly if it contradicts their own pet theory.

Your paper – which could be 100% factually correct with a sound conclusion – can then be vetoed by said reviewer, with no consequences for him (or her), and with little or nothing you can do about it. In the end, all you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move onto the next journal. Eventually, you’ll see your name in print.

Remember that this is common in science already, where pretty much the only thing on the line is personal reputation. Throw in global politics, deals involving trillians of dollars per year and massive vested interests and you truly have a process ripe for corruption.

Categories: climategate, science

Yet more airport security hassle

>An article posted by Andrew Gilligan on the Telegraph website today caught my eye: in essence, he has articulated something which I am sure many people silently repeat to themselves over and over while standing in a never-ending queue at airport security, which is a variation of “is this hassle really worth it” (a question posed in increasingly colourful language depending on the length of the queue). Well, apparently not – a key passage follows (emphasis mine):

“In my documentary, Philip Baum, the editor of the magazine Aviation Security International, said he could not recall a single time when a bomb had been found using an airport X-ray machine alone. Airport security, he said, was “theatre”, designed to reassure the public rather than to stop bombers. The Abdulmutallab case would seem to support this view.
Many airport X-ray machines cannot, in fact, detect most types of explosives: Baum ran a recent trial for a European government where a woman passed successfully through 24 different airports with the complete components of a bomb concealed on her body.”

Gilligan goes on to make the point that airport security starts well before anyone presents themselves at the scanner; quite clearly, it was a failure of intelligence and information sharing by the security services that was to blame for the recent attempted bombing of a flight to Detriot. Having lost count of the number of times I have seen the people supposed to be studying the scanner monitor for suspect items either simply not looking or even chatting with colleagues, even the basics need revisiting!

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the authorities from using this as an excuse to beef up security even further, as if flying wasn’t unpleasant an experience enough already. Some of the more draconian steps being introduced for flights to the US include:

  • Customers to remain seated during final hour of flight
  • No access to hand luggage and a ban on leaving possessions or blankets on laps during this hour

Try to remember not to drink anything for the final two hours of your next flight or you may find your trip quite uncomfortable…

UPDATE: Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the new all-body scanners that will now be rushed into our airports at massive expense do not detect a number of different materials, such as those used by the would-be Detroit bomber:

“Officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.

Categories: big state, travel