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Why I hate Lab in a Lorry & the Einstein Ballet

Okay, hate is a strong word. But they do annoy me. More in a moment.

Earlier today @BenGoldacre tweeted: “i have a real problem with most state funded science engagement stuff in general. huge expense, small audiences, wrong approach. they all try to do commercial stuff, but without commercial success. can’t help noticing that outside state funded sci eng world there is (a) people like me and @robinince who make it (with hard ideas) work commercially and (b) blogs that get big audiences without state funding. i’ll stop now. but srsly, give me one thousandth of the cash that’s spent on science engagement and i would make shit happen.” [N.B. I have merged the tweets.]

I retweeted Ben and added that: “Institute of Physics: 2 mentions for least cost-effective science engagement ideas & the Einstein Ballet 2005. I’d be v interested to read blogs championing either of these bad ideas. In terms of wonderful science engagement, look at & Chemistry Top Trumps (chemists seem to do it better).”

So, please add comments below. In particular, how would you defend Lab in a Lorry and the Einstein Ballet?

Before you comment, here are a few thoughts:

1. Why did I pick on Lab in a Lorry and the Einstein ballet?
They involve massive costs. If you want to defend either of these please include a note of the total running cost. For example, for Lab in a Lorry, this might include IOP staff time back at base, lorry running costs, lorry lab staff time, PR cost, contributions from sponsors, money from regional development agencies and money from schools. There is also the initial cost of the lorry and kitting it out. Remember, even if most of the money came from sponsors, this is money that did not go to other science engagement projects. Also, in your defence of Lab in a Lorry, you will need to estimate the number of schools visited, the number of pupils engaged and for how long, and any wider impact. Also, I am not sure how a lab in a lorry is different from a lab in a school, except it is more cramped.
By the way, I think doing real experiments in schools is brilliant, but I think there are smarter, cheaper ways to deliver this than sticking a lab in the back of an HGV.

2. One way to think about this is to treat the “teacher” as the SI unit of science engagement. The science engagement activity (£ for £) should achieve more than a single teacher, who works with 100 students across a day for roughly 150 days a year.

3. Also, you could compare Lab in a Lorry with other methods of science engagement. I think some of the 6th form lecture days are cost-effective. 1,000 students hear 5 speakers in a large venue. However, I can see that this reaches only a specific audience (i.e., already semi-committed to science and willing to pay £10), but on the other hand I think that the events deliver something worthwhile. In any case, all engagement activities are specific in one way or another, so the key question is whether that specific audience gets something out of it at a reasonable cost.

4. For me, cost-effectiveness is the key thing, and innovation counts for very little. I would rather have a cheap, tried and tested idea that really delivers, rather than a contemporary dance production that costs £100k and which reaches very few and has very little impact.

5. Why did I pick as something to admire? Currently at 184 videos, which have been watched on YouTube over 20 million times. I don’t know the cost, but I am confident that it is a fraction of Lab in a Lorry. Even if the cost was on par with Lab in a Lorry, Periodic Videos wins on reach and longevity.

6. Why did I pick Top Trump chemistry cards? I was in a rush. However, at first sight it looked clever, geeky and cheap. And the product was being sold. If people are willing to pay for your product then it probably means that it is good (homeopathy excluded). And if it does not cost much in the first place, then that is good too. By contrast, I don’t think schools pay or are allowed to pay for Lab in the Lorry. If they did, it would be interesting to see how much they would pay.

Please add your thoughts below. In particular, let’s have an analysis of Lab in a Lorry. If it turns out to be brilliant and cost-effective, then I will be very happy.

On the other hand, if it turns out to be expensive and not cost-effective, then the funders need to think seriously about how they spend their money. I am sorry to have picked on Lab in a Lorry, because it is just one of dozens of such wasteful projects. On the other hand, lots of other wasteful projects is not an excuse for the Institute of Physics to be wasteful. Physics education is in crisis and throwing away money on big lorries is not helping.

Ps. Just about to dash to get a train to Coventry for Skeptics in the Pub. SitP is arguably one of the most cost-effective science engagement projects in the UK. Well done to Sid Rodrigues and everyone else who helped start and grow this network. The Institute of Physics could spend a small amount of money encouraging half a dozen physicists to speak at Skeptics in the Pub or it could offer some seed money to establish SitP in towns that don’t have them. On the other hand, SitP seems to do very well without any interference, so I am not sure if this is a good or bad idea.


The Pizza Express Summits

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I published a blog on 15 July, 2012: Two Questions for Monty Don About Organic Farming.

If you visit the blog, then you will see that the 15th comment is a response from Monty Don. I have also pasted it below.

Unfortunately, he has chosen to ignore all of my points and questions. If I was a member of the Soil Association, then I think I would be disappointed that my President decided not to engage in discussion. Instead, he suggests that I am incapable of understanding the issues surrounding organic farming because I am not “temperamentally and intellectually suited”.

I have heard similar comments from homeopaths, who feel that I am not qualified to write about or criticise homeopathy. Indeed, homeopaths and organic farmers seem to have lot in common. Remember, the Soil Association supports homeopathy and many organic dairies use homeopathy.

So, where do we go from here? Well, here is my invitation to Monty.

Monty, I am disappointed by your lack of a serious response to my blog. This dialogue was initiated by you. You tweeted me, not vice versa. You tweeted and accused me of being “pathetic”, “mischievous, ridiculous, truly unhelpful”, “plain silly” and “silly” again. I offered to talk on the phone, as yet no response. I wrote a blog in order have a more mature discussion, but you have not addressed any of the points that I have raised.

I am still keen and willing to discuss organic farming with you. In the spirit of positive dialogue, please let me take you out to dinner one evening in West or Central London. By all means bring along a friendly expert and I will also ask an expert to join us, so you will have a chance to engage with someone who is both critical of and knowledgeable about organic farming. If possible, Wednesday evening’s are best, as we can then make the most of the Pizza Express Orange Wednesday offer. The rules are simple:

1. We all turn up with an open mind.
2. We all argue our points, discuss the issues and ask/answer questions.
3. We all leave as friends.
4. I will pick up the bill (dough balls and desserts included)

You can contact me via to arrange a date.

If the first dinner goes well, then we could continue with homeopathy and then GM as separate dinner topics. Or, if you want to change the order, we could start with homeopathy or GM.


Monty Don responded on 17 July, 2012:

It is helping no one by reducing this to itemised point-scoring. Surely the idea is to understand what is happening rather than prove things right or wrong? Suggest you inform yourself a lot more before taking this any further. If you are genuinely interested in understanding what it is all about start by reading Michael Pollan, Colin Tudge and Rob Hopkins. No specific scientific work so you may not feel comfortable with it but very good cross section of the field.

Importantly it is not a contest or case of anything being right or wrong. It is all about everyone concerned joining thoughts, practices and concepts to nurturing and sustaining all forms of life – and humans not least – as successfully as possible. That begs a thousand questions rather than trying to pick holes in one or two issues.

If that looks as though I am dodging your questions then so be it – and in a way I am because they are not sensible out of the context of the much bigger picture and I hate the idea of point scoring on something as important as this.

Having known you for nigh on 20 years – albeit with great gaps – I suspect that you are as temperamentally and intellectually suited to immersing yourself in organic, holistic agriculture as I am in particle physics. Your mind just doesnt work that way. That does not make you wrong or me right. Well,OK, I am just being polite but it doesn’t make you bad for being wrong…

with very best wishes

Two questions for Monty Don about organic farming

I should start by stressing that organic farming is not an area of particular interest. I only have a superficial understanding and knowledge of the subject, but I think it is clear that:

  1. In relation to fruit and veg, one of the main reasons for the growth in the market for organic products is that the public believes the produce is healthier, safer and more nutritious. However, according to the Food Standards Agency (2009) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland (2009), the overall balance of evidence does not support this view.

  2. Another reason for the growth in the organic fruit and veg market is that the public believes that organic is good for the environment, and that the UK would be a better place if crop production shifted from modern intensive farming to organic.

I will return to point (2) later and challenge it, but, first, this is what happened a couple of days ago to trigger this blog.

On Wednesday 11 July, @mark_lynas tweeted about a proposition in California (funded by Big Quacka) to demand labelling of genetically engineered foods. I shared the view that this was just an attempt to scaremonger, as there is no significant risk associated with such products according to the Royal Society of Medicine (2008). Also, the US National Academies of Sciences (2004), stated: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

Mark Lynas, who is an environmentalist activist who takes a scientific and balanced view, went on to tweet: “It’s unnecessary. Organic lobby trying to get a skull and crossbones on competitors’ produce.”

Then Mark Lynas tweeted: “How about a label on organic foods: ‘Warning, land-inefficient product, may cause damage to the environment’”

This tweet challenges point (2), which I stated earlier, which is that organic farmers claim their way of growing crops is better for the environment. Mark’s counterargument is that organic must be bad for the environment if crops require, let’s say, 25% more land to generate the same yield.

Unfortunately Mark’s tweet and my retweeting upset Monty Don, President of the Soil Association. Monty tweeted in response:

@TheMontyDon come on Simon, you can do better than that. That is just pathetic.


That struck me as somewhat harsh and rather lacking in a sense of humour, so I tried to engage with Monty. We worked together on “Tomorrow’s World” back in 1994/1995 and even went on a filming trip to Australia, and I know he is a decent chap. Here is the twitter exchange that followed.

@TheMontyDon come on Simon, you can do better than that.
That is just pathetic.

@SLSingh Hello Monty, good to hear from you. What exactly are you objecting too? Very happy to chat on the phone if that is easier.

@TheMontyDon Objecting to mischeivous, ridiculous, truly unhelpful remark Simon. Adds nothing to any debate. And I know you as a very bloke.

@SLSingh Which tweet? I had a busy tweeting day today. genuinely keen to understand your concern.

@TheMontyDon the one about labelling organic products ‘land inefficient’ Simon. Just plain silly.

@SLSingh Semi-joke but based on evidence  “overall, organic yields are significantly lower than conventional yields”

@TheMontyDon yields in relationship to inputs? to health? to ecology? to diversity? No. Picking at a corner of this subject is silly

The exchange was a bit more complicated than the slightly edited version above, but these are the main and interesting points.

In short, Monty (supported by some tweets from @suebeesley) was arguing that the yield per acre point in isolation is not significant, and that it is only possible to discuss organic farming in a holistic manner. For example, @suebeesley seemed to argue that organic crops may require more land to generate the same yield, but this did not matter in the bigger pictures because: “So, once you add in the land ‘cost’ of externalities for non-organic, and reduce meat consumption in organic, the gap is bridged?”

So part of the organic argument seems to be that we should eat less meat to free up land currently occupied by cows in order to be able to grow more organic crops. This would mean that we could feed ourselves organically without having to turn more of the countryside into farmland.

That’s a fair point, but it relies on a major change in eating habits. A start would be for the organic movement to stop selling meat, but I think many supporters of organic are not vegetarians.

In any c
ase, even if we all eat less meat, then I would argue that we should continue with intensive farming of crops and that any land that is recouped from cows, sheep, pigs and chickens could be used for more intensive farming for export or GM biofuel crops or wind turbines or house-building or returned to nature. Basically, I would argue that the land could be used for anything except inefficient organic crops.

I accept that the argument is more complicated than I could convey in a handful of tweets, but I think that my core point (copied from Mark Lynas) is still valid, which is that the public do not realise that if we were to increase our consumption of organic crops, then it would mean turning more of the countryside into fields.

I think it is fair to say that we could say goodbye to between 5% and 10% of the countryside if we were to hand over crop production to the organic industry.

In conclusion, I don’t think my tweet was “pathetic”, “mischievous, ridiculous, truly unhelpful”, “plain silly” and “silly” again,

Finally, Monty, can I ask you two questions?

  1. Do you agree with the conclusions of the meta-analysis in Nature (2012), which reviewed 66 studies comparing the yields of 34 different crop species, and which concluded that the yield per acre for organic farming is 3% less for fruit, 11% less for legumes, 26% less for cereals and 33% less for vegetables. So, while organic fruit production is fairly efficient, everything else performs poorly to very poorly. By all means say that there are other factors to be considered when considering organic farming, but was this a good piece of research on the issue of yield per acre? If not, why not?
  1. While I have the ear of the President of the Soil, Monty, what is all the nonsense about supporting homeopathy for farm animals? Really? No, seriously, really? Chris Atkinson, your Head of Standards, wrote in 2011: “Encouraging healthy farm animals can be supported by using complementary therapies – which include homeopathy – where these can be shown to be effective.” Please tell me the conditions for which homeopathy is appropriate and the evidence that means it has been “shown to be effective”.

You can leave a comment of any length below. By all means add additional detail, but please answer the questions above in (1) and (2).

7am 16 July, 2012
Ps. I can’t reply to all comments, but I will reply to Sue Beesley, as her tweeets were part of the original exchange. I accept that peak phosphorus is an important issue, and there are several issues to be addressed in the years ahead. However, my understanding is that we might have enough phosphorus for “between 300 and 400 years”, according to
the World Phosphate Rock Reserves and Resources study, and most experts seem to agree that supplies are sufficient until the end of the century. By that stage, GM or better utilisation of phosphorus or recovery of phosophorus or more deposits of phsopshorus will have changed our assessment of this issue.
Sue, I am disappointed that you have completely ignored the two questions I posed to Monty and ignored the statements that were backed with references, and instead you focused on the only statement in my blog that was clearly marked as a personal view. As that sentence appears to be a distraction, I have removed it. My main point was that organic is not safer or healthier, according to two major reports.
Thanks for the kind words.
As you and I both recognise, I am not an expert, but my main point is that even with my level of very limited knowledge I can see some issues that the organic movement fudges, and hence consumers are largely unaware of these issuess (e.g., lack of health benefit, lack of safety benefit, inefficient land use).
My initial tweet was somewhat slammed by Monty, so I am trying to move the debate forward by airing ideas at more length. It would be a shame if Monty was willing to respond to a tweet on several occasions, but not willing to reply to a more serious blog. Unlike you, I am optimistic that he will respond, and that he will address the specific questions.

2pm 16 July, 2012

PPs. And you should also read this related post by Mark Lynas, triggered by the same twitter conversation.

My polite complaint to the BBC & its impact

Last Thursday, @callyauckland tweeted:

Penny Edwards, from Helios #TunWells today on
         @BBCSurrey #homeopathy 1pm, until about 1.45pm.

I think the tweet was from one of Penny’s fans and was intended to promote her and her radio appearance. This was RT’ed by @lecanardnoir, which is when I spotted it.

I decided to investigate further. My correspondence over the next 24 hours illustrates exactly why we need to complain when it is clear that the media is promoting potentially dangerous pseudoscience. This is particularly true in the case of the BBC, which has a responsibility to maintain the standards expected of a public service broadcaster.

First, before the show was even aired, I rang the producer and asked why a homeopath was appearing on the programme. She explained that the homeopath appeared regularly in the 1pm expert slot of the Joe Talbot show on BBC Radio Surrey and BBC Radio Sussex. I explained why this was problematic, but the producer seemed confused. Her three main responses were:
     (a) Penny (the homeopath) knows what she is talking about. After all, she has a busy surgery.
     (b) Penny has a website and is allowed to advertise, so she must be ok.
     (c) Nobody had ever complained before.

My responses were:     
      (a) There are busy psychic hotlines, but they are also very dodgy.
(b) The Advertising Standards Authority is currently dealing with over 150 complaints about homeopathic websites.
(c) I said I would send out a quick tweet to see if others shared my view.

     Does homeopath deserve expert
          slot on@BBCSurrey  today at 1pm? Is this the BBC at its best? Yes/No?

There were 17 twitter replies in the next 5 minutes, all sharing my concern. I accept that my twitter followers are not a fair cross-section of the British public, but the replies proved that I was not a lone voice/ear.

Later that day, I listened to the show on i-Player. It was a painful experience. It was half an hour of utter tosh, concentrated baloney and dodgy advice, interspersed with some easy listening tunes. It was a major piece of promotion for homeopaths. At least, that’s my opinion. You can hear it for yourself here: The URL should take you to the start of Penny’s contribution at 1hr 9m 48s.

 Prompted by callers and emails, Penny talked about homeopathy in relation to gout, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, Raynaud’s syndrome, psoriasis, urinary tract infection and back pain following a miscarriage.

At this point, I should stress that Penny Edwards seems to have a genuine belief that homeopathy is effective. Sadly, she is wrong. She is merely doling out placebo sugar pills to her patients.

Given the producer’s lack of interest in my concerns and the presenter’s apparent enthusiasm for homeopathy, I thought I would complain straight to the station’s managing editor/director, Sara David.

Ms David replied within eleven minutes and said she would get back to me after her meetings. The following day she wrote:
Thank you for your email about yesterday’s phone-in with Penny Edwards.  I have reviewed the programme and spoken to its producer, and made clear that this was the wrong kind of guest, and the wrong kind of advice, for a phone-in programme on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey.   We will not be giving advice based on homeopathy on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey in the future.

I must admit that I was a bit shocked. No half-hearted defence. No tedious back and forth. No attempt at a cover up. Just a simple: “We got it wrong. It won’t happen again.”

We all make mistakes. As my teacher used to say, “That’s why they put rubbers on the end of pencils.”

So what conclusions can we draw from this? First, nobody had previously complained, which is why homeopaths on Radio Surrey had been allowed to continue to appear as ‘experts’. So, the only way to stop pseudoscience in the media is to raise concerns (firmly, but politely).

Second, an informal complaint or a friendly note to the presenter, producer or managing editor is sometimes sufficient to have an impact. If you receive a sensible response then great. If not, then a formal complaint to the BBC Trust or OFCOM might be necessary.

 Third, Sara David’s response is very important, as I think it sets a benchmark that other local radio stations now have to match. If you hear a homeopath or any other quack on your local radio station, then please send the station a friendly note. You might even cite Ms David’s response. If that does not work, then submit a formal complaint.

Finally, as someone who is campaigning for more free speech (, am I being a hypocrite? I think there is no contradiction. If the BBC promotes a homeopath as a health expert, without any critical voice to counter the twaddle, then this is anti-scientific, pseudoscientific and possibly dangerous. Libel reform is about encouraging debate and criticism, it is not about the BBC providing a free platform for deluded quacks to promote potentially dangerous treatments. Of course, homeopathy is harmless, but if patients choose it over conventional remedies, then the issue of patient safety is very real.

Ps. Although I love the BBC and worked in the BBC Science Department for five years, complaining to the BBC holds a special place in my heart. One of my first adventures in skepticism was when I complained about a programme that gave a misleading impression of the power of acupuncture. You can find more information about the complaint here.

PPs. Well done to @JonMcA who actually submitted a formal complaint about Penny Edwards’ appearance on the BBC. The complaint may not be necessary now, but it might still be interesting to see if the BBC Trust is as unequivocal in its apology as Sara David.

My favoritest pic of James Randi

My favoritest pic of Randi, on backpack, on Hari’s back on 1st day at nursery aged 2 this week. Slightly blurred.


Why did Psychic Sally lose her powers in September 2011?

Yesterday, Psychic Sally (aka Sally Morgan) announced that she is suing the Daily Mail for libel. She is taking action against two an articles published in the Daily Mail last year in the wake of allegations made in September that Sally uses an earpiece to receive information on stage in order to help her perform apparent acts of mediumship. Sally Morgan has strongly denied these allegations.


You can find out more about the allegations and subsequent controversy in an article by Chris French, and in some blogs by me here, here, here, here and here.


With September’s earpiecegate in mind, I went to see Psychic Sally in three shows late last year. Before discussing the content of the shows, I should point out that Psychic Sally was not wearing an earpiece when I saw her. On each occasion her hair was tucked behind her ears. She has admitted to wearing an earpiece in the past (for stage direction only), but even this was not being used when I attended her shows.


I found her performances to be very disappointing. Apart from the ethical issues and some distasteful readings (in my opinion), she had very few direct hits and spent much of the evenings struggling to give convincing readings (in my opinion).


Her national tour has been a major success with 1,000-seat venues sold out night after night (tickets £20- £25), so I wondered why she was so popular in light of the lacklustre performances that I had witnessed.. Perhaps her current popularity was based on previous success. Maybe her performances had been more impressive earlier in the year. How could I find out if the shows that I had seen were a pale shadow of the sort of mediumship Sally had been capable of in the past?


Fortunately, Ticketmaster allows people to post reviews of Sally’s shows (and other shows) on its website. Reviewers can also award up to five stars. So, yesterday morning I looked at all of the reviews for 2011 and worked out the average star rating for each month. Before I reveal the data, I should point out a couple of things.


  1. This was a rush job, so it does need to be checked. I have tried to be accurate, but there were lots  of shows and reviews to wade through.
  2. There are some gaps in the data. This might be because Sally was on holiday and there were no shows, or because shows not sold via Ticketmaster are not reviewed on its site.

This is what I found:


January            81 reviews        4.5 stars

February          85                    4.6

March            130                    4.3

April                11                    4.2

May                  7                    4.6

June                29                    4.4

July                  –                       –

August             –                        –          

Sept                12                    2.3

October           90                    2.5

November       100                    2.9

December        –                       –


Technically, I probably should not present this data in a bar chart, but I have already drawn it and this is what the data set looks like. As you can see, fans were much less impressed by her shows at the end of the year. I have shown September as a half-width bar, as all the reviewed show
in September took place in the second half of the month, after the allegations about the earpiece.


So why bother with this exercise? First, those thinking about going to see Sally might be interested to know that she is much less popular than she used to be in terms of her reviews. Second, does it throw any light on Sally’s supposed psychic powers?


There are many reasons why Sally’s performances might have suffered from autumn onwards. For example,


  1. Sally might have been nervous and anxious after the allegations.
  2. Critics might have posted fake negative reviews in late 2011 – perhaps encouraged by the publicity.
  3. Sally’s powers may have genuinely waned and may continue to wane. Maybe she has lost the knack.


Perhaps you can think of other reasons why Sally’s performance suffered from September onwards.

Can you think of a name for my new thing?

My New Year’s resolution is to set up a small hub for pursuing and promoting various skeptical activities. In fact, planning is going well and I hope to announce something in late January. However, I still don’t have a name for this entity, so I need your help to find one.

I don’t want to constrain your creativity, but here are some thoughts that might be helpful…

1. This is undoubtedly a skeptical ‘thing’ that is being created, but the word skeptic has pros and cons.

2. The ‘thing’ will act as an umbrella for various projects, so it needs a name that is not too specific.

3. The ‘thing’ will probably have a charitable status, so it could have “Foundation” stuck at the front or end or nowhere.

4. The ‘thing’ will probably interact with grown-ups, so a name that carries some credibility would be preferable.

5. On the other hand, quirkiness is also a good thing.

In short, all suggestions would be welcome.

Please email me your suggestion via

Whoever comes up with the winning name will get something nice.