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Stopping Quackery the Easy Way

Fighting skeptical battles can be tough, but it does not always have to be that way, as demonstrated last week by comedian and writer Gemma Arrowsmith (@mmaarrow).

Gemma noticed that her local Hallmark shop was advertising an in-store psychic/healer – there was a neon sign, a poster in the window and sign on the pavement. “Psychic Reader (healer and medium), palm, card, crystal ball, past, present, future, 100% results”.

She tweeted her observation to @hallmarkUK, and my recollection is that the company replied within an hour or two asking for more details. By the end of the day, Hallmark stated that the psychic activity had been halted.

Unfortunately, when Gemma checked the next day, the signs and the healer were still in the store, so she tweeted Hallmark again. Hallmark was very apologetic. It turns out that this particular store carries the Hallmark brand, but it is not run by Hallmark, so Hallmark’s influence was not immediate. Nevertheless, Gemma checked again on Tuesday, and the healer has disappeared. The signage has also been removed, apart from the neon sign. It has been turned off, and it will require a technician to remove it.

What can we learn from this?

  1. Stopping a psychic taking cash from members of the public can be surprisingly simple.
  1. Even if this approach was effective only one time in ten, it would be worth the effort, in my opinion.
  1. Gemma was polite and patient (but not too patient) in her dealings with Hallmark.
  1. Dealing with big companies can be easy. They have systems and care about their brand. They are keen to avoid bad publicity.
  1. Gemma did not just complain, but she also checked that the complaint had been dealt with as promised. In short, she persisted until she was happy with the outcome.

I asked Hallmark about their attitude to such complaints: “Hallmark rigorously pursues any issue where we feel the brand’s reputation is at stake. We always endeavour to address any issues as swiftly as possible.” So, if you see a psychic hiding between the Justin Bieber calendars and the get well soon cards, then please let @HallmarkUK know. And if you see any other form of quackery in any other stores, then consider making a complaint. There is a reasonable chance that you will be successful if you approach the situation in the right manner and pick the right target. In this way, you can help protect customers from wasting their money, relying on false hope and putting their health at risk.

Good Luck,
Simon.
Ps. If you want some advice about complaining about a medical claim, then you could start by exploring the Nightingale Collaboration website.

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Health News Thermometer Launched

First of all, apologies for the name of this project. Please help us by suggesting something better.

Second, Good Thinking has just launched a project to catalogue seriously poor health journalism in the national press. The goal is to identify which newspaper is the worst offender and to use a league table of bad journalism to help drive up standards. For example, the winning (?) editor might want to avoid topping the table in future, and readers of that particular newspaper might begin to have doubts about the accuracy of its health articles.

You can find out more about the project at the Good Thinking website, but I will reinforce and add a few points below.

  1. We will need your help to identify articles. You can find out how to submit articles by visiting the Good Thinking website.
  1. We will need your help to evaluate articles. If you are a PhD student, then please register to volunteer and you will receive articles within your sphere of expertise.
  1. Thanks to Professor Edzard Ernst, Dr Margaret McCartney and Dr Ben Goldacre for being on the judging panel for this project.
  1. The Science Media Centre does a great job of encouraging good journalism, and I hope the Good Thinking blog prizes in 2012 also supported good science journalism. I will take this opportunity to point out that the blog prizes will be part of the ABSW awards next year, and Good Thinking will continue to be involved. Both the Science Media Centre and the blog prizes are carrots, but the Health News Thermometer is much more of a stick.
  1. This is a pilot project and we will see how it develops over the course of the year. The goal is to learn lessons this year and to continue the project in future years, perhaps focusing on different areas of science journalism each year.

If you want to hear me talking about the project, then please tune into the Pod Delusion (4 July, 2013).

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (& SitP)

My new book is out in October, and you might be surprised by the subject. Everyone knows that The Simpsons is the most successful show in television history, but you might not realise that the team behind it consists of several mathematically gifted writers, who have degrees and PhDs from top universities, such as Princeton, Harvard and Berkeley. Moreover, they have expressed their love of mathematics by smuggling everything from calculus to geometry, from pi to game theory, and from infinitesimals to infinity into various episodes of The Simpsons. The book covers The Simpsons, the writers and the mathematics in the series. I also discuss how the writers of Futurama (the sister series to The Simpsons) have similarly made it their mission to insert deep mathematical ideas into the series.

Image

I think it is a fairly light-hearted and hopefullly entertaining read, but it also contains some serious mathematics.

Anyway… my reason for this short blog is that I will be talking about the book when it is published in the autumn, and already have events scheduled for Greenwich SitP (Dec 4) and Birmingham SitP (Nov 27). I am not sure of the format yet, but I will probably talk about the mathematics of The Simpsons and Futurama in the first half and then have a more general skeptical Q&A in the second half.

I am keen to speak at other SitP venues. I am not yet sure of my schedule between Nov 11 and Christmas, but I will start pencilling in talks if organisers would like to suggest some dates.

Please use my personal email address if you have it or contact me via my website. It would help if the subject line was “SImpsons SitP ‘venue'”. Please suggest specific dates and also let me know if you might have some flexibility beyond your normal SitP night. I will then try to confirm dates in late July or early August.

Psychic Sally v Daily Mail libel trial set for 2013

It is Halloween, so time for a quick Psychic Sally update.

Back in January, Psychic Sally sued the Daily Mail for libel, after questions were raised about how she gives the impression of being a medium.

The case is still moving ahead, and we can look forward to a trial in 2013. In the meantime, I have collected some of the relevant legal documents from the High Court.

The opening of Sally’s claim and the opening of the Daily Mail’s defence have been scanned and are at the bottom of this page.

 I do not think there is any legal reason not to put the full version of both documents online. I will try to scan them and upload them in the next few days.

UPDATE 8 Nov 2012: The complete legal documents have been uploaded to Pinterest in two parts (Part 1 & Part 2) and to Scribd. The documents include Claim Form, Particulars of Claim, Order, Amended Defence and Reply to Amended Defence. David Allen Green will be posting an analysis soon.

 

ClaimDefence

 

 

Overseas translation of my books in return for £15 donation to a good cause.

I have:

1 paperback German translation of The Code Book (Geheime Botschaften)

1 paperback German translation of the Code Book for teenagers “Codes”

5 Basque translations of The Code Book (Codeen Libura)

2 Italian translations of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

2 Polish translations of Trick or Treatment?

7 Simplified Chinese translation of The Code Book

1 Simplified Chinese translation of Fermat’s Last Theorem

To get a signed copy, just email me your address (UK only) via http://www.simonsingh.net/contact/

Then, after the book has safely arrived, please donate £15 to https://www.justgiving.com/alltrials – a campaign lobbying for more open data in medical research.

Simon.

Let BBC Radio Surrey & Sussex know that you support its sensible stance on so-called homeopathy experts

BBC Radio Surrey and Sussex broadcast a programme with a lunchtime expert slot. In the past, this slot has included a homeopath offering medical advice to callers.

When I heard about this, I was shocked and contacted the programme’s producer. I was delighted that Sara David, the station manager, responded firmly: “We will not be giving advice based on homeopathy on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey in the future.

The homeopathic community is unhappy about my complaint and the BBC’s sensible response. One homeopathic website has now started a campaign to lobby the BBC to change its position. The site encourages people to write to the BBC, complain to MPs and contact the press.

To balance and hopefully overwhelm the homeopathy campaign, I think it is important that the BBC realises that there are lots of people opposed to pseudoscience and who support BBC Radio Surrey & Sussex’s decision not to promote pseudoscientists as experts.

Rather than bombarding the BBC with emails and letters, please scroll to the bottom of this page and leave a comment. Even a single sentence will be helpful. I will forward the list of comments to the station manager at the end of the week.

7.32am 31st July 2012
NOTE: After 24 hours and over 100 comments, I am now sending the comments to tbe BBC. Thanks for the brilliant, polite and large show of support.

If you want to read more about what happaned, then you can read an account of my original complaint to the BBC here and you can visit the homeopathy campaign page opposed to my complaint here.

Why I am mildly perturbed by Lab in a Lorry

Good to see lots of comments after my blog “ Why I hate Lab in a Lorry & the Einstein Ballet“.

Perhaps I should start by making two further points.

1. My main criticism is with funders, not with those who actually conduct the projects. Lab in a Lorry might be conducted with enthusiasm and skill by highly motivated and knowledgeable people (including volunteers), but if the running costs of the project are astronomical then it remains a poor project. The problem resides not with those running the project on the ground, but those who commissioned it and who continue to fund it from on high. Similarly, I am not blaming sponsors, who are trying to support science with hard cash or resources. I am blaming those who spend that money and use those resources. As I have said before, I might be wrong, in which case I am keen to see the analysis, formal or informal.

2. There are good science engagement projects. Richard Wiseman’s videos cost virtually nothing, yet they are witty and thought-provoking. Take a look at Top Ten Quirky Science Tricks for Parties, which has over 5 million hits. Or listen to the Pod Delusion, which reaches 10,000 people every week. The audience includes many non-scientists, because of the podcast’s mix of content. It’s run on a shoestring budget and would probably benefit from some support. I helped start the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme, a credited undergraduate degree module that currently operates in over 100 departments around the UK and which sends over 1,000 undergraduates into schools each year. At the moment, as far as I know, it runs on about £5,000 per year. It does require lecturers to devote time to it, but they are involved because the module helps them achieve an important goal, namely graduates with transferable skills. I am also closely involved in the Enigma Project, which takes my Enigma to schools in order to explore maths and its links with history, technology and, of course, codes. It ran over 100 events last year, half of which were full day workshops, and it reached 12,000 students … and it operates at a profit, including the loan fee for the Enigma. I am also impressed with the various activities at the maths and computing departments at Queen Mary, University of London. Anything involving Matt Parker seems to be priceless, yet relatively cheap. Maths Inspirations is also worth a mention. It lacks anything innovative, flashy or stylish, but it delivers inspiring maths lectures to students in large numbers. It mimics the sixth form study day format, which is known to be profitable and appreciated by teachers, but it makes the format more affordable and transportable, so that the lectures range from Kent to Durham. It baffles me why learned institutions have not jumped on this idea and created Physics Inspirations or Chemistry Inspirations or Science Inspirations.

I am still hoping for a response from the people behind Lab in a Lorry or the Institute of Physics. I would be delighted to receive a robust defence of the project, which showed that is actually excellent value for money. I am often grumpy and critical, but I prefer being happy and impressed.

In the meantime, here is my best effort at addressing as many as possible of the existing comments on the blog in 30 minutes.
(Apologies in advance for typos, errors, omissions, etc. I am trying to answer every point quickly and briefly, rather than provide a long, structured response to one particular point.)

Rolandjackson (Chief Executive of the British Science Association)

You criticise my use of the word ‘hate’.

Happy to change it. I have put in a holding phrase. Let me know the most appropriate word or phrase and I will update it.

The word was partly put there to generate interest, and it was partly put there because it is not far from how I feel.

Physics education in the UK is in a terrible state (is the word ‘terrible’ ok? Probably not. Sorry) and it makes me sad and angry when I think money is being wasted when it could be spent on trying to fix the problem.

You raise the problem of metrics

I agree that it is hard to measure the impact of a project and even to assess its real cost. However, if the goal is clear (e.g., improve take up of A level by A and A* GCSE students or increase positive attitudes towards science among parents), then it should be possible to assess projects.

In particular, if £1 million (fair guess?) has been spent on Lab in a Lorry, then the organisers ought to be able to give some idea of the impact, particularly if it is being run year after year after year.

I have sat in meetings where we have discussed the assessment of Lab in a Lorry and other engagement projects, and my recollection is that the level of scrutiny is poor. There seems to be an understanding that nobody is allowed to say anything too critical, because after all people are doing their best.

If absolute measurement is hard, then organisations should at least be able to rank their projects in relative terms, so that top projects can be expanded and bottom projects abandoned or revamped.

One approach would be to have an independent panel assess science engagement projects. Experienced and successful science communicators have a good nose for what works and what does not. This is far from ideal, but I think it would filter out the worst projects sooner rather than later.

By the way, I don’t think I am arguing just that some projects are a bit below par, but rather that some projects are far below par, inasmuch as they are hugely expensive and not having nearly the proportionate impact.

You support innovation

So do I. My point is that I often see innovation for innovation’s sake. Let’s make it interactive. Let’s give the audience buttons to press. Let’s do it through mime. Let’s pre
sent it in Esperanto. Let’s turn it into a ballet.

You enjoyed the Einstein Ballet and say it should be judged in comparison with Swan Lake, not as a piece of science education

It was commissioned by the Institute of Physics. I don’t know how much was required in terms of IoP money or sponsorship, but I am arguing that the money could have been better spent. Perhaps I am wrong. Ultimately it is up to the members of the IoP to judge if their money is being well spent. Lots of people are bored by physics and lots of people are bored by ballet, so IMHO this project merely allowed people to be bored more efficiently.

(Apologies to ballet lovers. Ballet has no meaning for me, but I realise many others (more cultured than me) do appreciate it. Ballet has its place and I am not saying that we should cut funding to ballet or the arts. However, IMHO physicists should not be spending its money on ballet projects. BTW I also don’t recommend that the Ballet Rambert commits funding to the Isis muon and neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.)

Nigelbrown & David McGloin & Andy Lloyd

You seem to support Lab in a Lorry in the Highlands

Maybe Lab in a Lorry is cost-effective in that area of the UK. I certainly would not want the money to be spent elsewhere. I just think the money could be spent more effectively and efficiently, even in the Highlands.

David M Pyle

You support Time Truck in Cambridge

I am sure that it achieves great things, but could those great things be achieved in cheaper ways? Perhaps the project could then be run twice a year. How about trying to work out the full cost of the project?

Sarah Martin

You say “expensive and not cost-effective” are the same thing.

No. Sorry if it was not clear. I don’t mind if projects are expensive as long as they have a huge positive impact, which then makes the projects cost-effective.

You say “Comparing them on cost and attendance alone is simplistic”

I agree. WRT Lab in a Lorry I mentioned “any wider impact”. Impact is not just numbers of people, but the difference made per person. Wider impact could include, for example, positive local press that might influence parents to be more supportive of science. I agree with the approach suggested by @amyplatypus at Wellcome: “We also look at the type and depth of engagement, whether we reached people we wouldn’t otherwise…”

David McGloin & Suzie Sheehy

You point out the good things that result from Lab in a Lorry (eg hands on experience for pupils & science communication experience for undergraduates)

As with Time Truck, I am sure that it achieves great things, but could those great things be achieved in cheaper ways? Lab in a suitcase?

Andy Lloyd

You suggest Skeptics in the Pub is not real science engagement

Having spoken at maybe 20 pubs, I think one third of the audience is made up of non-scientists, eg. partners, friends, curious folk. But it would be interesting to do a survey. Perhaps all the pubs could pick a month (October?) and ask how many people in the audience have a degree in science or engineering or maths?

In any case, it does not really matter. Skeptics in the Pub does not take money from anyone, so it can do whatever it wants.

My concern is with projects funded by research councils or other public bodies. There is a limited (but not insignificant) pot of money for UK science engagement, and I am asking if it is being well spent.

Jensen Warwick

You say assessment is hard

Fair point and I talk a bit about this in response to Roland Jackson. However, the problem starts even before assessment. I sometimes wonder how some of these projects get funded in the first place.

Andrew Holding

You ask for help running Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub.

Someone help, please.

Brady

Correction – Periodic Table videos have 23.6 million viewings, not 11 million.

Sorry, I was thinking of the copycat project for physics, namely Sixty Symbols, also out of Nottingham University. Copycat is meant as compliment, because good ideas are hard to find, so once you have a good idea then make the most of it and replicate it.