Monthly Archives: July 2011

Libel Reform and Science

In May 2011, I attended my first Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association. This annual two-day conference addresses the key issues facing science communicators in the UK and brings together people involved in public engagement.


This year’s theme was online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about social media, podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, including a public engagement activity close to my heart (I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!). The speakers included Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radford on his career and experience as former science editor of the Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from the British Science Association to attend the conference; in return I was asked to write a report of the first day’s Libel Reform and Science session (I’ve added extra links and fixed some of my sloppy typos from the published report):

A Libel Reform and Science session at the 2011 Science Communication Conference? How do the English libel laws affect scientists across the world? Just ask Dr Simon Singh, who’s two-year battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) cost him upwards of £500,000 when they sued for libel regarding an article he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery.

Simon Singh hosted this session with Sile Lane, who coordinates the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign led by Sense About Science (a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion). Simon first presented an overview of libel and the key issues: defamation, protecting reputations, privacy, free speech (including “reckless” free speech, as well as the impact of the Human Rights Act 1988), plus the distinction between slander and libel: it is also possible to get sued for spoken material that is recorded live, such as a radio interview or conference talk. This is obviously an important issue for scientists and researchers. The law as it stands is very much in favour of the claimant: you do not currently need to show proof of damage; in essence there is a reverse burden of proof, you are guilty until you can prove you are correct (innocent!). Furthermore, it is horrendously expensive to defend yourself; in the majority of cases, people tend to settle early because of the prohibitive cost of going to trial. This has created the “chilling effect” of libel: many people are now scared of invoking a libel threat, providing an undesirable form of editorial control.

Simon also clarified that a company or organisation has the right to reputation and can sue to protect it (a primary example being his case with the BCA), which pits the significant resources of organisations against individuals. Legal Aid is theoretically possible for libel cases, but in practice appears hard to access. He cited the now-famous “McLibel” case, a lawsuit filed by the McDonald’s Corporation against two environmental activists over a pamphlet critical of the company. The case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history, and was only a partial libel victory for the “The McLibel Two” (although they later won damages against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights).

Sile Lane then introduced the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign), which is working with English PEN and Index on Censorship to push libel reform in the UK. More than 60 societies and organisations are members, including scientific bodies, professional institutions, journals and lobby groups. Libel reform became an election issue at the 2010 UK general elections, with all major parties making manifesto pledges. She highlighted some key libel cases: Dr Ben Goldacre‘s three articles [1,2,3] in the Guardian regarding Matthias Rath‘s promotion of vitamin pills for the treatment of AIDS (nearly two years, overall cost £175,000); Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at UCL who was threatened by herbal and Chinese medicine practitioners due to a blog post; Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist who is in the fifth year of being sued by a medical devices company over remarks he made on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (even though the company have since gone into administration); to the absurd: the parenting community website Mumsnet has had to pull down discussion posts about a certain childcare company due to threats of libel. At this stage, an interesting point of order was raised by a barrister in the audience: you need to be careful with using the terms innocent and guilty, as it is not a criminal case. They continued by agreeing that libel reform is important, but some of the problems discussed are wider problems with the entire English legal system.

Simon then gave an abbreviated history of his case with the BCA (more detailed history), highlighting some of the key issues. The case hinged on the following phrase in his article: “The BCA happily promote bogus therapies…“; did bogus mean deliberately fake? Did happily mean willingly? To Simon, it meant incompetent and dishonest: he cited claims by chiropractors of treating colic, asthma and other chronic illnesses with no scientific evidence to back up these claims. During the preliminary hearing, it appeared that an opinion ruling was easier to defend that a justification of fact or scientific evidence; when Simon’s statement was ruled to be a statement of fact and required Simon to prove dishonesty by the BCA, he seriously considered giving up the case. When the case finally went to appeal (at the third attempt, two years after the article was originally published), they finally agreed with Simon’s defence — it was the opinion of the three judges that if you are criticising a conclusion in a science article, it should be assumed it is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, this decision was not binding and has yet to be tested, as the existing case law is still fuzzy. While this was a victory for Simon, he lost over a year of his life and financially it was a disaster.

So why is this relevant to all of us? Essentially we have now all become publishers, with this being especially worrying for bloggers. What do you do if you receive a threatening letter? Sense About Science provide an advice guide, but you should always obtain legal advice in the first instance. Due to the prohibitive cost of libel actions (anywhere from £200,000 to £1m) and the difficulty of obtaining Legal Aid, it is sad state of affairs that withdrawing the article from the public domain may be the easiest thing to do.

Simon finished the session by summarising the latest libel reform work with the draft Defamation Bill that was published in March 2011. We need new libel laws, but the balance has to be fair, serving both journalists and the general public. We must ask why the cost of defending a libel case in England is 140 times the European average and why 90% of cases are won by the claimant. The draft Bill is a good start, but needs to go further; there needs to be a stronger public interest defence (especially beyond investigative journalism, to cover blogging, etc), as well as a notion of “substantial and serious” — if you write something that is in the public interest and you are careful but make a genuine mistake, you should not have to receive the ultimate punishment. Libel tourism is an increasingly problem, with individuals and organisations with little apparent ties to the UK using this jurisdiction to silence their critics. The changing mode of publication in the digital age also needs to be considered: as it stands, every single download or viewing of a web article refreshes the one year defamation window. Furthermore, from a scientist’s perspective, it is important that peer reviewed research should come under qualified privilege. We should all be concerned about the libel laws and Simon and Sile finished the session by urging us to feedback during the Bill’s scrutiny period, as well as supporting the Libel Reform campaign and signing the national petition.

Libel reform

The full conference report for the 2011 Science Communication Conference is now available online, as well as a number of the presentations and supplementary resources, including relevant background reading. I attended the following sessions over the two days:

Day 1

Day 2

There were a number of active online discussions on the #SCC2011 hashtag over the two days, as well as the conference Twitter account (@SciCommConf): see the Storify for Day 1 and Day 2, as well as this tag cloud (with thanks to @clivebgs):


A big thank you to the British Science Association for providing me with a bursary; I look forward to next year’s event (get involved Allan Pacey!).

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A week at Microsoft Research Cambridge

I have just spent an enjoyable week on a research visit at Microsoft Research Cambridge, one of Microsoft’s ten worldwide research labs. It was founded in 1997 and is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering.

Microsoft Research logo

I’ve been working with Andrew Fitzgibbon, a principal researcher in computer vision at MSR (we bumped into each other at an EPSRC event last October). We’ve been looking at applications of a technique known as superoptimisation to problems in machine learning. My PhD research developed a superoptimising framework to generate provably optimal code sequences using Answer Set Programming, a declarative programming language based on the answer set semantics of logic programming. I still think there is a lot of interesting research to be done in superoptimisation.

Some of the potential research ideas that we have been throwing around include using superoptimisation to optimise common machine learning expressions, such as automatic differentiation and symbolic matrix algebra (whilst worrying about auto sparsity, numerical stability and code complexity). Maybe even looking at aspects of auto parallelisation…lots of things to think about!

I would highly recommend motivated computer science PhD students to apply for an internship at MSR; I have colleagues in the Programming Principles and Tools and Machine Learning and Perception research groups, but check out the other groups for intersecting research interests. MSR is a fine place to be, an invigorating research environment; it is also situated in rather illustrious company, on the same site as the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, Whittle Laboratory and Cavendish Laboratory (where I had an interesting lunch on Friday). I look forward to going back over the next few months.


Fermat’s Last Theorem

I have been re-reading Simon Singh‘s excellent Fermat’s Last Theorem, a biography of the famous mathematical theorem (although for the past 350 years it should more accurately have been referred to as Fermat’s Last Conjecture):

Cubem autem in duos cubos, aut quadratoquadratum in duos quadratoquadratos, et generaliter nullam in infinitum ultra quadratum potestatem in duos eiusdem nominis fas est dividere.


It is impossible for a cube to be written as a sum of two cubes or a fourth power to be written as the sum of two fourth powers or, in general, for any number which is a power greater than the second to be written as a sum of two like powers:

x^n + y^n = z^n

Pierre de Fermat was a French lawyer whose hobby was mathematics, a true amateur academic. Fermat is often referred to as the “Prince of Amateurs”, but his contribution to mathematics during the 17th century was so great that he should be counted as a professional mathematician.

Fermat was also well known for steadfastly refusing to reveal his proofs — publication and recognition meant nothing to him as he was satisfied with the simple pleasure of being able to solve problem in mathematics. However, this shy and retiring genius also had a mischievous streak, which, when combined with his secrecy, meant that when he did communicate with other mathematicians, it was only to tease them. He would write letters stating his most recent theorems without providing the accompanying proof, whilst also challenging his contemporaries to find the proof. Descartes called Fermat a “braggart“; English mathematician John Wallis referred to him as “That damned Frenchman“. Pascal urged Fermat to publish his work, who replied: “Whatever of my work is judged worthy of publication, I do not want my name to appear there.

Much of Fermat’s mathematical inspiration came from his copy of DiophantusArithmetica, a collection of 130 algebraic problems giving numerical solutions of indeterminate equations (Diophantine equations). In was in the margin of his Arithmetica, next to Problem VIII, that he made his famous observation:

Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.

which means:

I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.

This was Fermat at his most frustrating. While he left no proof of the conjecture for all n, he did prove the special case n=4. As his own words suggest, he was particularly pleased with this “truly marvellous” proof, but he had no intention of writing out the detail of the argument, let alone publishing it.

Further proofs for specific exponents were contributed by a number of mathematicians, including Euler, Legendre and Hilbert. The problem was reduced to proving the conjecture for exponents n that were prime; Germain proved a special case for all primes less than 100, while Kummer proved it for all regular primes. Building on Kummer’s work, other mathematicians were able to prove the conjecture for all odd primes up to four million, but a general proof appeared to be out of reach.

The final proof of the conjecture for all n came in the late 20th century. Andrew Wiles, building on the work of Gerhard Frey and Ken Ribet, presented a proof of the modularity theorem for semistable elliptic curves (via proof of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture), applying techniques from algebraic geometry and number theory. His two manuscripts, published in 1995 in the Annals of Mathematics, were the last step in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, 358 years after it was conjectured: “Modular elliptic curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem” and “Ring theoretic properties of certain Hecke algebras“. The proof itself is over 100 pages long and consumed seven years of Wiles’ research time.

But the question remains: did Fermat possess a general proof? Wiles’ proof relies on mathematical techniques developed in the 20th century, which would have been alien to Fermat. Most mathematicians and science historians doubt that Fermat had a valid proof of his theorem for all exponents n, as it would have had to have been elementary, given mathematical knowledge of the time.

Over three centuries of effort on this problem, enhancing its notoriety as the most demanding riddle in mathematics (even transcending popular culture), all because of small margins.

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Sense About Science: Report Dodgy Science

Bad science is everywhere. Whether this is homeopaths claiming to be able to cure cancer, universities teaching “alternative” medicine alongside rigorous medical and science degrees, celebrities making misleading claims in the public sphere or even individuals and companies using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery. While some of this is countered by the admirable work of people such as Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Simon Singh, everyone needs to get involved by tackling misleading science wherever it manifests.

Sense About Science logo

Sense About Science is a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion. With a database of over 5,000 scientists, from Nobel prize winners to postdocs and PhD students, they work in partnership with scientific bodies, research publishers, policy makers, the public and the media, to change public discussions about science and evidence. Through their award-winning public campaigns and publications, they share the tools of scientific thinking and scrutiny with everyone.

This week, Sense About Science are launching a new campaign to tackle misleading science claims more systematically: the Report Dodgy Science appeal. The aim of this appeal is to encourage people to highlight misleading claim and to take up more situations where the evidence is missing — whether because of distortion, political pressure, or vested interests intimidating people who try to put forward evidence. Sense About Science can then help people who contact them to take things up themselves, providing advice, encouragement and assistance from the specialist databas, as well as using your reports to identify problems that need action from them.

But this costs money. They urgently need the help of supporters to raise an initial fund of £8,000 by 22nd July to get this campaign ready alongside the new website launch. If you feel passionately about how science is reported in the media, the importance of independent scientific advice in the government or how free scientific debate is hindered by the current libel laws, please donate anything you can to this important campaign.

It is free to join Sense About Science (@senseaboutsci), as well as their Voice of Young Science (@voiceofyoungsci) programme, which encourages early-career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.

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The Universe

Population: None.

It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

Chapter 19, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, HHGTTG

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IASGMOOH: Chromium Zone winner!

I'm A Scientist logo

After two weeks of chatting and answering questions, I was delighted to be crowned the winner of the Chromium Zone in this year’s I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!. Sarah Thomas, a PhD student in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry, was the final evictee from our Zone.

Chromium zone winner

Even though this is a week late (I haven’t been celebrating all week!), I want to say a massive thanks to my fellow Chromium Zone scientists: Dalya, Derek (with his insightful and reflective blogging), Tim and Sarah — it has been a hugely enjoyable two weeks, challenging but certainly rewarding. It was competitive right from the start (with the IASGMOOH team remarking that this was one of the strongest zones), but there was also support and a strong team spirit throughout. It would be nice to actually meet up in person at some point, after spending countless hours chatting and answering questions with each other!

So, after two weeks, 14 chat sessions and over 500 questions, what can I say about IASGMOOH?

Get involved next year! Without hesitation, I recommend it to any scientist of any discipline at any stage of their career. While it needs a certain level of commitment (you need to make sure that you have very little planned for those two weeks), it is a hugely effective way of engaging with a large audience about your research and your role as a scientist. The mode of interaction breaks down a number of barriers but you still need to develop a relationship with the students: the adage of getting out what you put in is certainly true here. Be prepared for probing questions; be prepared for silly questions! But make sure that you challenge the students back — while they have the power of the vote (which is key for this event), try and initiate a dialogue and get them thinking about why they are asking certain types of questions, what do they think the answer is and whether it has any wider relevance. Wherever possible, try and give them a range of sources and references for further reading: it can be very easy to rely on Wikipedia and let it turn into the “magic fact show”. A related issue is the concern that our answers to any question, irrespective of topic or our own expertise, are blindly trusted because we are “scientists”. Sometimes it is good to say “I don’t know” or to point them in the direction of a good primer on the relevant topic.

But overall, it is fun and a crucial part of being a researcher. Science communication and public engagement activities complement my research and teaching, putting it all into context. Now I need to have a think about how best to spend my £500 prize money for science communication activities, whilst drinking coffee out of my IASGMOOH mug

IASGMOOH certificate

(You can also listen to my IASGMOOH interview on Episode 90 of the Pod Delusion podcast, with Calcium Zone winner Drew Rae)