Friday, November 19, 2010

Bloggers and Libel Law - Sense About Science

Sense about Science have released a guide to the libel laws written for bloggers and online journalists, titled
"So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?”
You can download it for free from the Sense about Science website, here (.pdf).

The background to the document is copied below from the Sense about Science website:
This guide was prepared following Sense About Science’s recent survey of the impact of the libel laws on online discussion.

To coincide with the guide’s publication, Sense About Science is making available a summary of the effects of the English libel laws on bloggers, drawn from cases that have come to attention since the start of the Libel Reform Campaign and from the recent survey of bloggers. The summary identifies the particular ways in which online forums are affected by the current laws, notably:

* the individual and non-professional character of much online writing, and therefore the more pronounced inequality of arms, particularly where people are writing about companies, institutions and products;
* related to the above, the relative lack of familiarity with libel law and access to advice about handling complaints;
* the liability of ISPs, leading to material being removed without consultation with authors;
* and the vulnerability to legal action arising from the international availability of Internet material, and it being possible to republish old material by downloading it.

Reform of English libel law has been promised, and if campaigners are successful, then changes that will give better defences to online publishers and writers may come into force in 2012.

This leaflet is certainly not a substitute for legal advice, but it does provide information which other bloggers and writers who have experienced libel threats say they wished they had known at the outset.

The publication of the guide comes on the day that Yahoo!, AOL UK, Mumsnet and the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) are writing to the Prime Minister calling for urgent reform of our libel laws, and in the week where the summary of the effects of libel law on bloggers has been shared with the Ministry of Justice.

This is in conjunction with the blogpost earlier this month
"Mass Blog for Libel Reform"
which was headed up by Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote in the Guardian on the lack of evidence for Chiropractic. After much legal wrangling, the BCA eventually withdrew their claim but face legal bills of upwards of £250,000.

So, well done Sense about Science for producing this guide (and all the other organisations involved) - I hope I never have to read it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is that your diet I can smell?

If you want to make money from a product for the masses, make it a weightloss aid.

Despite literally squillions of diets available, it appears that there is always room for another one, and the hoards of people, having lost money (but not weight) on a particualr diet, seem more than ready to transfer to the next thing that will present the opportunity of having a slim physique.

Losing weight isn't particularly easy - like most health advice, it broadly falls into "don't eat too much, don't eat crap and take some excercise", and because longlasting results will take 12 months or more, people get disillusioned and wander off looking for a quicker fix to weightloss.

As a result there is a market ready and willing to try any new way you can think of to lose weight. It may be a surprise to know that most of these fall into two categories -

1. Stuff you already know, packaged in a new way.
2. Stuff that requires will-power - i.e. doesn't do anything.
3. Stuff that will cock up your innards in some way while trying to achieve its purpose.

Some are clever enough to fit into two or more of these groups.

I've came across an example which hit the main stream media over the last few months, and I'll leave it up to you to decide which category it goes into.
"Crystals Use Smell to trick you into weightloss"
said the Telegraph in Nov 2010. A clear statement for fact, no room for discussion, cut and dried TRUE.
"The smells that help you to slim"
wrote the Daily Express in 2009, less certainly, but still no room for doubt.
"Can a spoonful of sprinkles help the weight go down?"
asked the Daily Mail in Aug 2009, offering yet another candidate for Dr*T's First Law.
"Smell yourself Well"
offered the Independent in Feb 2010, the headline editor pleasantly missing the point.

(Incidentally, these last THREE offerings were all penned by Hugh Wilson - he seems pretty good at selling dubious 'science' journalism to multiple papers having recently sold the story of how sitting down can make you ill to both the Independent and the Mail.)

The nub of the product is that it has a smell/flavour, you sprinkle it on your food and hey-ho the weight the drops off quicker than you can say "calories in needs to be less than calories out".

The product is called Sensa(R), and works on the idea that if you overstimulate your body with smells and flavour, it will thinks it's already full and your appetite will be reduced. You won't even want to touch that piece of crackling that's been sprinkled with something that makes it smell really good and taste even better.

The chap who is flogging this is Dr Alan Hirsh MD who seems to have qualifications and publications aplenty, and is the Director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Admittedly, this is an organisation he founded, but nonetheless.

As always, the important point is: evidence. What are the claims? How are those claims tested and proved?

The website proudly claims:
and a graph showing clearly that the 1436-person clinical trial found that people on the Sensa(R) product lost about 35lb whereas the control group lost 2lb.

This is quite a big thing - usually when newspapers pick up a 'science' story, it is centred around a crappy piece of PR puff, with a trial of about 6 people (I'm looking at you, University of Bath) but this looks good.

In order to find out more about the trial, I went searching in all the usual places - Cochrane Library, Clinical etc, but couldn't find any reference to the trial. After spending more time on this than I probably should have, I had a lightbulb realisation - it wasn't a clinical trial, it was a "clinical study". Apparently, clinical studies *sound* like clinical trials, but they're different - from what I can gather - in that the study has not been verified, validated or approved by anyone or body, outside of Hirsch's own establishments.

So, perhaps then, despite the lack of clarity of the trial - sorry, *study* - the results may be published somewhere? Surely a website wouldn't claim it had 'extradordinary clinical results' without publishing somewhere? Of course not - that would be underhand, unscientific and very, very naughty. Dr Hirsh doesn't come across as the type of fellow just to run an unregulated, unvalidated, unapproved clinical trial and not publish the results.

The link on his website takes you directly to where the results are published, and he has listed this on his publication page
Hirsch, A.R. "Use of gustatory stimuli to facilitate weight loss." ATTD Abstracts, 2008, p. 39.

ATTD Abstracts? Not one I know - a little bit of googling yields that it is an abstract for the Advanced Technologies for Treatments of Diabetes Conference in Prague, Feb 2008. You can find and enjoy his abstract here (put Hirsch into the search box) and, from his website, spend some time cocking your head at the poster he presented (pdf).

Just to clarify this, presenting an abstract at a conference is pretty much open for anyone to do. I could make a copy of the Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies by Van Klump and articulate how it can be used to cure genital warts, and may well have my abstract accepted.

(This is not to do with low standards, but more with allowing freedom of ideas. I accept my warts cure has limited scientific plausability but that's beside the point.)

So when he says he has 'published', he is not being untruthful, more he is (consciously or otherwise) conflating different levels of evidence - one (the abstract) which requires no questioning, no approvals, no testing, no explaining, no demonstration of data, no minimum levels of scientific methodology to name a few, and two (peer-review publishing) which requires many, if not all those things.

(As I repeat often, peer-review is still open to fatal flaws, but it's certainly better than nothing)

So someone has come up with a product, which contains ingredients currently used in food (so no need for pharma-style regulation), has managed to run an uncritical PR-campaign which has been accepted by many of UK's media outlets (with Hugh Wilson pushing his stories through), without ever having had to present even the slightest snippet of reasonable published evidence, despite claiming to have the most "extraordinary clinical results" of any weight loss aid.

How on earth can the system be so screwed up as to allow this to happen?

As far as a product that is sprinkled on food to overstimulate the senses to aid weight loss, I'm pretty sure I know what it smells of.

(Belated h/t to @kashfarooq)


Photo by Boaz Yiftach

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mass Blog For Libel Reform

Following on from Simon Singh's interview in the new Strange Quarks podcast (download from iTunes here), this blog is taking part in the Mass Blog for Libel Reform - here is Simon to explain:

“This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A new strange type of Quarkery.

Strange Quarks is a new podcast that has entered the downloadosphere looking at the Ups and Downs of science-based politics in the UK, from the Top of science to the bottom of pseudoscience, with two charming hosts; Martin Robbins off of the Guardian, and Michael Marshall off of Righteous Indignation, Skeptics with a K, Inkredulous and co-organiser of next year's QED conference.

Martin kindly asked me to do a report for the first episode, which also features Simon Singh (whose battle against being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association was covered on this blog) and Simon Perry, a troublemaker for the legislators of nonsense.

My own report is in there too, and it is probably the campest piece of overacting ever to be seen by this blog. (To be mentioned on the Guardian Online website made it all worth it....)

The podcast is produced in conjuction with Pulse Project and the .mp3 can be downloaded from their website here or you could wait and get it from iTunes (should be up in a few days).

For those of you who prefer their content readable with links, rather than audible, here is a transcript of the report, which may be less fun without my squeaky mixed-up regional accent and intonations. Each to their own :)

Who is responsible for responsible science journalism? An itchy case study.

Earlier this year, Professor Dorothy Bishop from the University of Oxford announced that she was launching a new prize for science journalism which she called the Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation. It would be awarded annually to the English-language national newspaper that has published the most inaccurate report of a piece of academic work.

“Why is science reporting in the media so rubbish?” you’ll probably have heard someone ask.

“That’s because scientists are notoriously bad at engaging the public,“ will no doubt come the media-savvy reply.

“They tend to talk in the language of dry research papers because publication numbers are all that matters”

“But journalists are so lazy they just print any old nonsense and rarely have any real comprehension of the science or its impacts”, someone will chirp, probably a scientist.

In reality, all of that and more is true, and a story which was run recently by a number major news outlets in the UK is perhaps a pretty good case study.

The cure with a sting: Eczema cream meant to soothe 'makes skin WORSE” – panicked the Daily Mail, the word WORSE was in capitals for extra effect.

Moisturisers can aggravate Eczema” warned the Independent.

Eczema is extremely common and can be pretty tortuous, so this news will be of interest to millions of people. Could this eczema cream really be making eczema worse?

According the articles, the research had been carried out at the Pharmacy and Pharmacology dept of the University of Bath and published in the British Journal of Dermatology. A respectable institution publishing in a respectable journal – any wonder this story was big. The University had put out a Press Release about the research and had kindly put it on its website, with the headline

Creams used to treat eczema could make it worse

The media outlets weren’t exaggerating – here it is from the horse’s mouth (or more accurately the horse’s owner’s mouth, if you want to stretch the metaphor beyond it’s elastic limit)

Incidentally a search for that exact phrase “Creams used to treat eczema could make it worse” comes up over 5000 hits in a google search, mostly syndicated news outlets. Given the media coverage of this story, this research must be top drawer, watertight stuff. I mean, the researchers wouldn’t allow their university to risk both parties’ reputations by putting out a press release which gets global coverage and could impact the treatment regime of millions of eczema sufferers, but was based on unreplicated, duff research? Would they? Can you hear an impending air of disappointment in my voice?

The cream in question is Aqueous Cream BP, a cheap emollient – which is a substance that soothes or softens the skin. It is a light moisturiser which helps stop the outer skin layer from drying out and becoming itchy and flaky. It’s one of the main treatments for general eczema, along with not scratching, avoiding environmental triggers and using steroid cream against more aggressive flare-ups.

The BP in Aqueous Cream BP means it is a British Pharmacopiea standard and anyone selling it must make it to the standard recipe. It’s basically an emulsion of paraffin and water, with some preservative. The emulsion is made using an ingredient called SLS a cheap and cheerful surfactant used in myriad household products, although SLS can be a problem as sensitivity to it is well known and can itself cause reactions which exacerbate the eczema. So perhaps this is why the “Eczema cream can make eczema worse”?

It would be valuable to know what the sensitivity of eczema sufferers is to this workhorse treatment, and given the numbers of people with eczema, it should be cheap and easy to run a test on a large random bunch of healthy-skinned and eczema sufferers, giving them either Aqueous Cream BP or an SLS free equivalent. Any questions?

Let’s have a look at the actual published research – it turns out the researchers in question Tsang and Guy didn’t quite do that:

First of all, rather than testing a large bunch of people there were 6 participants.

And they were all women.

And they were all aged 20 – 36 years of age.

Now perhaps in idle moment of fanciful daydreaming, I like to think that the population of the UK is entirely made up of 20 – 36 year old women and me, but sadly it isn’t.

So this sample is a long way from being representative, quite aside from the point that any study regardless of how rigourous, if done in 6 people is probably not worth a hill of eczema flakes on its own.

So what about the ratio of healthy-skinned people to eczema-sufferers on the trial?

Well they didn’t treat anyone with eczema, they only tested the cream on people with healthy skin. I hope I don’t need to embarrass both of us here by stating the gigantic flaw in research that doesn’t actually test the thing against the thing that you’re claiming it makes worse, but somehow that passed the researchers by.

The researchers also seemed to be doing funny things with the statistics. Each of the 6 women did the same test, twice on each forearm – so four results per person. They then claimed this meant their sample size was 6 times 4 - 24. Still not a large enough sample to carry much weight but that’s not the point. It’s like trying to find out people’s opinions and rather than asking 24 people, asking 6 people 4 times. The accuracy of the individual result should be better, but the sample size won’t change from 6.

So as a quick summary of the research, they concluded that SLS, an ingredient they didn’t control for, can make eczema, a condition they didn’t test on, worse in the population, despite only testing it in an extremely small number of young women.
To me , this is the worst kind of research – it’s trying to answer a question it didn’t ask, makes a very definite conclusion despite being incredibly weakly powered, and in actual fact doesn’t add any real knowledge to issue of whether of SLS is a problem in Aqueous Cream.

So the scientists did the research and came to a conclusion which was perhaps bolstered in order to make it to publication, the University took the conclusion and passed it through a media-friendlifier which perhaps bolstered it a bit more , the media outlets then passed it through a science-mangle which tends to bolster claims and suddenly 5000 websites around the world are informing their readers that the cream your doctor is prescribing for your eczema is making it worse!


So to go back to Professor Bishop’s award for Journalistic Misrepresentation mentioned at the beginning – I don’t know who it would go to: The newspapers, The Journal, The University or the scientists themselves.

With thanks to @JoBrodie, @friendlylion, Sonya C, Stuart R & Peter for assistance.