Tuesday, 21 February 2017

ARGH! How to give your journal a bad reputation

Received on 21 February 2017:

Dear Dr. Richard J Edwards,

Good Morning…..!

We are in shortfall of one article for successful release of Volume 3, Issue 2. Is it possible for you to support us with your transcript for this issue before 28th February? If this is a short notice please do send 2 page opinion or mini review, we hope 2 page article isn’t time taken for eminent like you.

We are confident that you are always will be there to support us.

Await your response.

Sincerely,
Brittney Reeves
Advanced Research in Gastroenterology & Hepatology (ARGH)

Begging for a two-page article in a week from someone who doesn’t even work in the field… ARGH indeed!

Sunday, 5 February 2017

An ode to Trump

There once was a Donald called Trump,
Who springs high when Bannon says jump,
His empathy’s lacking,
His sanity’s cracking,
A scary yet pitiful chump.

Friday, 27 January 2017

In Defense of Science

From the Evolution Directory (evoldir) mailing list today:

Governmental scientists employed at a subset of agencies have been forbidden from presenting their findings to the public. We have drafted the following response for distribution, and encourage other scientists to post it to their websites, when feasible.

Graham Coop
Professor of Evolution and Ecology
UC Davis

Michael B. Eisen
Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology
UC Berkeley

Molly Przeworski
Professor of Biological Sciences
Columbia University


The message, for any affected US scientists out there:

We are deeply concerned by the Trump administration’s move to gag scientists working at various governmental agencies. The US government employs scientists working on medicine, public health, agriculture, energy, space, clean water and air, weather, the climate and many other important areas. Their job is to produce data to inform decisions by policymakers, businesses and individuals. We are all best served by allowing these scientists to discuss their findings openly and without the intrusion of politics. Any attack on their ability to do so is an attack on our ability to make informed decisions as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

If you are a government scientist who is blocked from discussing their work, we will share it on your behalf, publicly or with the appropriate recipients. You can email us at USScienceFacts@gmail.com.

I’ve also heard a rumour that Michael Eisen is running for senate. That would be cool - we need fewer Trumps and more science-savvy politicians.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Is it fair to compare "Alternative Facts" with "Alternative Medicine"

I came across this “meme” on Facebook today:

“The very concept of alternative medicine exists to create a double standard where the rules of science and evidence are stood on their head specifically to manufacture the result that is desired by cranks, charlatans, snake-oil salesmen, and self-proclaimed gurus. There is no alternative medicine. There is just medicine. Either it works or it doesn’t work.”
-Steven Novella

The inevitable retort was: but what about some “natural/traditional” medicines that have not been thoroughly studied. These might work. So, surely it’s an unfair comparison?

My response to that is this:

When people bullshit based on their gut feelings, they can also be right sometimes. It’s only when someone looks into it do we know whether it is actually fact or fiction. “Folk medicine” and natural products may have good (or bad!) effects but it is wrong to imply that they are medicine until we know whether/when they work.

In the same way that an opinion is not an “alternative fact”, a natural product that somebody thinks might do something is not “alternative medicine”.

Then, of course, there is the less generous - but even more apt - comparison of bare-faced lies with bare-faced fraudulent treatments like homeopathy - things demonstrably false that are being badged at truth under the label “alternative”.

I just hope that the war on “Alternative Facts” is more successful than the war on “Alternative Medicine”. The real problem with taking action based on made up stuff is that reality doesn’t care how well-meaning you are, or how much you want it to be true. Hopefully, America will not suffer too much at the hands of reality before Trump and/or his cronies realise this.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Stay angry Britain - but at your politicians, not each other

This is a call to voter on both sides: stay angry about Brexit and hold those ultimately responsible to account. I am not talking about Leave voters, or the Remain voters who won't shut up. I am talking about our political leaders who, despite often being pictured pint-in-hand for PR purposes, couldn't organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.†

Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen aside, it is pretty clear that the Brexit affair is a national embarrassment. But I don't feel embarrassed by the decision itself - even if I think it's terrible - I feel embarrassed by the way that politicians appear* to have handed responsibility of the biggest political decision of our generation to the Great British public but then neither (1) adequately equipped to make an informed decision, (2) taken precautions to ensure that people were voting for what they thought, nor (3) put any plans in place to deal with anything other than the expected Remain victory. [*The vote was actually only a recommendation to parliament, who still make the ultimate decision.]

Remain supporters feel justifiably angry that the nation was duped into what they see as a calamitous decision of unprecedented proportions. But Leave supporters should feel equally angry. For, whilst you technically "won", the manner of your victory - underpinned by false promises and undermined by subsequent back-tracking and recriminations - removes any real mandate to act unilaterally on the outcome. Do you really want to hang onto a “victory” achieved only by cheating? Do you want to be the 1986 Maradona of British politics? Well, forgive me if I don’t consider that in-line with a traditional British sense of fair play.

Democracy is about compromise but if we're not careful we'll end up with a compromise that makes no one happy - of exactly the sort that "Project Fear" predicted. As Boris has implied, Britain is likely to try hard to maintain free trade, which means no change to borders (that we already control!) or the influence of EU law, but leaves us sitting on the outside peering in, rather than driving reforms and agendas.

It is in the interests of both camps to acknowledge that this referendum was a terrible idea, poorly executed. Such complex and wide-ranging decisions should not be based on a single vote on a single day. Nor should either side be allowed to get away with telling blatant lies. We need to stay passionate about the legitimate issues behind the Leave success - housing, education, jobs and healthcare - and push our politicians together to come clean about the causes and the solutions. If it turns out that the EU and immigrants are not simply scapegoats, or if the real facts about immigration and EU interference still leaving you wanting to leave, let’s vote Leave again and move forward together.

Above all else, let us drive for political reform to make Britain more democratic, which means abandoning first-past-the-post voting and replacing the House of Lords with an elected body, at the very least. I would also like to see voting become mandatory as in Australia, but with the option to abstain on the day.

To the politicians of Britain, I make this plea: don't follow through with Brexit purely because you are scared of appearing weak and undemocratic. That, ironically, is the weak and undemocratic thing to do. If you want to appear strong, and really want a democratic answer to the Brexit question, it is time to (wo)man up and admit that the whole way the referendum was conducted was a fiasco of gigantic proportions.


†Footnote. The exception to “Stay angry Britain - but not at each other” is the racist arseholes across the country who have taken the Brexit vote as a mandate to racially abuse anyone they don’t like the look of. Leave and Remain voters must unite to counter this ugly trend and come together to make one thing clear: the person not welcome in my country is the British racist, not the target of their abuse.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Asking for a second referendum isn't about being a "bad loser" or undemocratic - quite the opposite

So, the unthinkable happened and Brexit won. This has triggered many people to sign a petition calling for a second referendum. This is not a daft as it seems, as the referendum itself is not legally binding and had no firm actions attached to either result. Indeed, back in May Farage suggested that the Leave camp might do the same if Remain won by a small margin.

However, this request has triggered a flood of outcries from Leave voters, with accusations of Remain supporters being “bad losers” or failing to embrace democracy because the people had spoken. I saw this one on Facebook from a second-degree contact, for example:

Why is this even a thing?! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36629324

The people voted democratically and Leave got over 1.2million more votes. If you don’t like that, tough, you lost. That’s how democracy works. If you think that should be overturned, well maybe the voting system of North Korea will be more to your taste? I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you.

Apologies for the rant, I just wanted to say something about these childish people who can’t take “no” for an answer.

It is a valid question and, whilst I think it was meant rhetorically, here is my answer of why this is “a thing”…

The North Korea analogy is interesting. Imagine a vote in which leaders lie to the population, supported by propaganda machines of a biased and controlled media. Imagine this succeeds in getting the population to vote against their best interests. That is not democracy at work. That is a powerful elite, manipulating the political landscape to their own ends. That is major sections of the Leave campaign. (Not all: there were some genuine reasons for voting Leave. This is not about that - it’s about whether the people voting Leave were voting for those genuine reasons.)

This is not about being bad losers. This is about being passionate about the terrible decision that we are on the brink of. This about genuine fear of economic collapse, fragmentation of the UK and Europe, the rise of right-wing nationalism and xenophobic/divisive agendas, the collapse of the Northern Ireland peace process, the loss of workers rights as we “deregulate” and hand more power to the powerful. Look at America with its lack of decent holidays, parental leave or free healthcare. Not for Britain, thank you.

Imagine a bus and the occupants had voted to jump a ravine as a “shortcut” - despite mechanics, physicists and engineers warning that it probably won’t make the jump, and geographers pointing out that the probable landing point is further away from the destination. If you were in that bus and convinced it was about to plunge you all to destruction, you would scream pretty loud to reconsider.

Nor is this about elitist arrogance of the middle classes. Being confident in the overwhelming consensus opinion of experts who have studied certain fields for years - including all the uncertainty of outcomes - is not arrogance. Some rich privileged bloke in a suit, who studied Classics without any formal training in economics or law, believing that he knows better than those experts - that’s elitist arrogance.

Regular laws in the UK go through several readings and often get sent back to the Commons for a second vote. This has much more far-reaching consequences and unlike those laws cannot be undone, so the idea of some reflection and an “are you sure?” vote is not remotely undemocratic.

Democracy is about the will of the people, it is not about blindly seeing through the results of every single vote no matter what the consequences. If, as I and many others feel, a vote does not truly reflect the will of the people then damn straight it is our democratic right and responsibility to fight the result. (Politically, not physically, of course.)

The request is not to keep voting until Remain wins - it is to keep voting until there is a big majority. It is asking for people to be certain of their choice. If the Leave campaign are so confident that the people have spoken, they should have no problem with letting them speak again.

We, the people, all want what’s best for our country, not for our “leaders”. I suspect the majority on both sides actually want the same things - the disagreement lies in how to achieve them. When the leaders of the “winning” side have demonstrably lied about the consequences of their victory (and are now rapidly back-tracking, having not expected that victory), the anger, frustration and ire at the reaction of the “losers” would be better directed at those leaders, who now need to be held to account.

Should we give those who now realise they were mislead the chance to change their mind? Should we give those fools who feel that they should have voted and now regret not doing so the chance to undo their mistake? Normally, no. They would get their chance come the next election, and maybe they will have learnt their lesson. But here, there is no next election, no chance to make amends for a mistake - hence we are asking for one.

You may feel that people do not deserve a second chance. You may feel that we should be stuck with the decision even if it transpires that a majority actually oppose it, once they are in a position to make an informed decision. After all, them’s the rules, right? Well, that would be a victory for bureaucracy, but it hardly seems in the spirit of democracy.

Perhaps we Remainers are wrong. Perhaps the Leave supporters really do understand the implications of their choice and would do the same again, now that the reality is beginning to bite. Perhaps the EU and immigrants are not just scapegoats for problems with different solutions. So be it. But let’s not be so gung-ho as to sell our nation’s future down the river because it would be too painful to take a long, hard look at the manner in which we have just conducted the most important political decision of our generation.

To get Britain out of its current mess is going to take both sides working together. That means talking to each other, not shouting at each other. To have a chance of success, that solution needs more that 52% of the nation on board. So, do the democratic thing: keep the conversation going until we reach national consensus. Sign the petition.