Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pod Delusion - Episode 203 - UK, Syria and Chemicals.

Podcast: Download

I know chemistry. Not loads but some. I work in the chemical industry,  and (like many scientists) get frustrated from time to time about the miserably low level of basic knowledge of chemistry the average newspaper reader has. (I say "newspaper reader" - tabloid media especially seem to happily revel in ignorance, in the continual pursuit of headlines, and so sales.)

The most recent offender was the Sunday Mail, with their story about UK "selling nerve gas chemicals to Syria". I wanted to write a piece about it anyway, but when the crunch came that no actual chemicals had been sent on the licenses that the Sunday Mail claimed had, it seemed too perfect to miss. Hence, the Pod Delusion piece, the script of which is further below.

There is plenty to argue about whether business trumps all and regardless of the political state of a nation, we should be keen to transact but that's not really what this is about. The UK does tend to deal with most countries is most political states and has systems in place to try and mitigate the risks. But the point I was trying to make was that this is not like selling arms to a country (which UK also does, seemingly merrily) - this is about selling extremely common base chemicals which have myriad  uses, some of which are bad. It escalated to "Britain sold nerve gas to Syria" which is wrong, silly, and massively unhelpful to people trying to think through how best they want our country to react to the situation in Syria.

UPDATE: In a lovely twist of irony, the Mail on Sunday ran their front page today about previous export licenses the UK had given to companies exporting Sodium Fluoride to Syria.
You'll see the chemistry in 2 is exquisite. All you need is sodium fluoride, dimethylmethylphosphonate, phosphorus, alcohol, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. For a start, this is bollocks (surprise!). More importantly, dimethylmethylphosphonate is a Schedule 2 substance on the Chemical Weapons Convention which means it can't be exported to countries that are not party to the Convention (e.g. Syria). As an interesting aside, I wonder if iso-propylalcohol, which is also used in the synthesis of sarin and makes up a decent chunk of the sarin molecule (and is an even more commodity chemical with zillions of tons manufactured each year, so much so you can buy it on Amazon) would have caused the same stir if UK had exported that as well.

I find it odd that despite the UK openly selling £12bn of ACTUAL WEAPONS to dictators and global ne'er-do-wells (including Syria's chums, Russia) that this sort of ill-informed, could-possibly might-have, I-dont-understand-chemistry-politics-or-risk type stories make the paper.

Here is the script from the Pod Delusion piece.

Following on from last week’s segments on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, this week we heard news that the UK had been caught selling nerve gas chemicals to the regime, 10 months after the civil unrest began. Or at least, that’s what was claimed.

This story is an excellent textbook example of …well… a number of things:

1.       How tabloid journalism works
2.       How seemingly intelligent people can be fooled by tabloid journalism
3.       How tin foil hats are still all the rage.

So to the story. 

On Sunday 1st Sept, the Sunday Mail in Scotland (a rival of the The Scottish Sun newspaper, if you looking for a comparison) splashed the shocking news that Britain had sold nerve gas chemicals to Syria.

In my short time as a grown-up, I have observed that tabloid newspapers have a very casual relationship with the truth and don’t often splash on huge world political stories of this nature. On the occasion that they do, the story gets picked up by other media outlets very quickly and the whole thing snowballs.  

It would a HUGE story if the UK had been selling ANYONE chemical weapons. As we learnt in last week’s Pod Delusion, the UK ratified the Geneva protocol in 1930 and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1996. This prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons. It also requires the destruction of existing chemical weapon stockpiles and the destruction or conversion of chemical weapon production plants and storage facilities. Really. This would have been massive.

The Sunday Mail is the Sunday edition of the The Daily Record which has a circulation of 250 thousand newspapers per day and yet, even so, by the end of the day, no other mainstream UK newspaper had taken up the story. Huge red flag. In fact, I always find it bizarre that people who tend to disdain tabloids will happily use them as prrof on the odd occasion they say something that coincides with their belief – “Ah yes” they say, “the Daily Mail NORMALLY is a bastion of right wing, anti-women, homophobic, race-bating but on THIS occasion it’s really presented the arguments fairly and accurately”. Well, as you wish.

Now let’s remind ourselves of the headline – Britain sold nerve gas chemicals to Syria 10 months after civil unrest. 

So did the UK sell chemical weapons? No. And if you are one of the 1000s of people retweeting  otherwise, go and buy yourself a new tinfoil hat. 

The newspaper described them as “nerve gas chemicals”. That certainly sounds like chemical weapons, but reading on, the paper is referring to sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride, saying that the chemicals are capable of being used to make weapons such as sarin. Hmm. We’re already quite a few steps back from the headline. But that’s how tabloid works, right? The agreed rule is that the headline is to draw you in and doesn’t necessarily have to be completely correct. Whatever.

Even well-known New Scientist consultant and science author Marcus Chown (who should totally have known better) merrily confused the difference between a chemical weapon and a possible chemical weapon raw material and retweeted that “the UK sold nerve gas to Syria”, using the Sunday Mail  as a primary source. He appears to now have quietly deleted these tweets.

In any case, it’s true – sodium fluoride can be used to make chemical weapons. But here’s the stink. It can also be used to make a zillion other things and is a bulk commodity base chemical. If you want to know how scary and dangerous it is, have a look at your toothpaste ingredients – one of sodium fluoride’s main uses is in fluoridation of water supplies and toothpastes. There are millions of tonnes of this chemical made every year. Sodium fluoride is used to make fluorocarbons, a type of which PTFE, better known by DuPont’s brand TEFLON® - that’s how ubiquitous this stuff is. It’s also why chemistry is so fascinating because these raw materials can be used for myriad things and depending on the other chemicals in the pot you can make medicines, toothpaste, frying pan coatings, treat metal surfaces, make wood preservatives, making fire fighting foams, plumbers tape and, yes, sarin.

A fantastically useful base chemical can also be used to make bad things as well as good things – so whaddydo? 
In the UK, there are export licences for things we’d like to keep tabs on. You can download the whole list – it’s 275 pages long, so rather than read it out, I’ll get James to put a link in the show notes.
As it turns out, the EU (as we as part of it) has already cottoned on to the idea that some things (not just chemicals, but electronics, Navigation equipment and a host of other things) are fantastically useful but also have the potential to be used by bad people, and so, Annex 1 on page 45 and for the following 230 pages,  is the list of items that are referred to as Dual Use. And there on page 108 is Sodium Fluoride. 

To get an export license, you need to apply to the UK government with details of what the chemicals is, how much of it, where it is going, what its going to be used for and lots of other useful information. For countries like Syria there will be some sort of investigation by the authorities to satisfy themselves that everything is legit and the license is granted. This way the UK knows exactly what’s going where and can revoke the licences at any time if it needs to. 

Getting back to our story – the Sunday Mail made the claim that Britain sold nerve gas chemicals to Syria 10 months after civil unrest. We’ve already seen that the headline is misleading at best but the indignation had begun – MPs began to get on their high horses “At best the government has been negligent and at worst reckless to export material that could have been used to create chemical weapons” said Labour MP Thomas Docherty. Others chimed in similarly. 

And then late on Sun night, seemingly unnoticed by The Independent, a weary government spokesperson presented the facts – “In January 2012, we issued licences for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride. The exporter and recipient company demonstrated that the chemicals were for a legitimate civilian end use - which was for metal finishing of aluminium profiles used in making aluminium showers and aluminium window frames.

"Before any of the chemicals were exported, the licences were revoked following a revision to the sanctions regime which came into force on 17 June 2012."

So the Sunday Mail story was wrong in nearly every aspect. No chemicals had been exported, the dual-use system had been followed meticulously and everyone had done their job satisfactorily well. No story. Maybe just a lesson in why you shouldn’t read tabloids, and that despite what science writers tells you, the UK has one of the most rigorous export control systems in the world. 

This is Dr*T, praising red tape, for the Pod Delusion.

Sunday Mail article:

Chemical Weapons Convention:

UK Strategic Export Control List

Inkredulous! Episode 22

Podcast: Download (Duration: 1:25:48 — 29.5MB)

Once again, I was kindly invited to be on as a panel guy on Inkredulous! the satirical comedy podcast from the Merseyside Skeptics Society and once again, some exquisite editing by host and chairman Andy Wilson (@Inkredulosi) made me sound much funnier than I remember. Which is great. Having an Andy in real life would be awesome.

Appearing this time are: Rob Darby of the Dumbed Down Atheist and Brian Thompson (@AmSci) Owner of the pan-galactic comedy podcasting empire at

Here is my script for the Round One question:

Andy, it turns out that an organisation in the US called Exodus International has decided to close its anus, sorry, doors and has publicly apologised for all the penis ... sorry hurt it has caused the people that came to its minge ... sorry ministry looking for vagina...

actually, yes vagina.

I think that’s right.

Exodus International was a renowned organisation for gays and ex-gays who wanted to adhere to their Christian truths  and thus limit or eradicate their homosexual desires.

So as quick overview, you have ex-gays (i.e gay men and women who because of the society/upbringing religion etc have prayed away the gay and are now DEFINITELY NOT GAY) congregating to spend long weekends all talking to each other about how God is amazing and that they are DEFINITELY NOT GAY.

No way. And as a demonstration of how they DEFINITELY AREN’T GAY, they spend loads of time telling people how to deal with definitely not being gay and how to convert people who might think they are gay but DEFINITELY AREN’T ANYMORE.

Now as it happens, one of the founders of Exodus, Michael Bussee and one of the ministry leaders,  Gary Cooper, both of whom were gay but then God took away their gayness – CAN I GET AN AMEN? Eh, men? Eh? It turns out that despite the creator of the universe removing the dreaded evil of homosexuality from their lives, they left Exodus a few years later to be with each other. Somehow they got their gay back.

Look at it cynically. Let’s say you were a Christian who fancies a bit of same-sex spice, it’s like Old Spice but fruitier, what better than to go to an organisation where EVERYONE IS DEFINITELY GAY so you can all get together and talk about the thing that you DEFINITELY AREN’T. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but I’m pretty sure plenty of gay men and women found this a great opportunity to show a hot and sweaty weakness of faith and then pray forgiveness. Obviously, ignoring the imensely painful sense of self-loathing experienced afterwards.

In January 2012 the current President Alan Chambers admitted that 99,9% of conversion therapy patients do not experience any change in their sexuality much to the outrage of other pray-away-the-gay type groups.

As an extension of that Exodus decided on June 19 to close its doors and included a very direct apology from Alan Chambers outlining the hurt the organisation had caused in its 37 year existence. Awkwardly, he maintains “any sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamous marriage is sin”, so by trying to maintain that the organisation was right but also apologising because it was entirely wrong, the apology is pretty tortured. Obviously, no one is really thrilled at the demise – how do apologise for making thousands of people live in misery in themselves? Whoops sorry. 


 And this new organisation that Alan Chambers has started in Exodus place  – has similar aims, but appears to be a bit fluffier. And on the other side, other ex-gay Christian organisations have accused Exodus of compromise – a word that isn’t in God’s Dictionary, according  to ex-gay Stephen Bennet.  I haven’t figured out why God would need a dictionary tho. Maybe he plays scrabble.

Anyway, Exodus, one of the most well-known gay conversion Christian organisations has decided to close. Hopefully more will follow suit – and that particular brand of Christianity can stop adding to some total of human misery.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Royal Institution: Is this Building for the future? (Pod Delusion Ep. 172)

Podcast: Download

Following on from a report in Pod Delusion Episode 171 as to why we should save the Royal Institution, following the story that it was to sell its home in Albemarle St, London, I wanted to present a case on why (primarily from a science communication point of view) we shouldn't - at least - not at any cost.

To get the full flavour of the arguments for and against, here is the advised reading list:
Here is the script (with a touch of advice from @kashfarooq)

On last week’s Pod Delusion, James interviewed Mary Perkins regarding her campaign to save 21 Albemarle Street, the home of the Royal Institution.

I should start by saying that I’m pretty sure the Ri and Albemarle Street will survive - together and intact. Many famous and eminent scientists who I love and respect are fighting for it and it feels odd for me not to be joining them & giving it my support.  

I listened with interest and attentively to Mary’s report but remain entirely unconvinced that saving the current residence of the RI is something I feel  I can support, and in the next few minutes I want to lay out my arguments.

Firstly, we need to separate the argument for saving the RI from the argument for saving its home in Mayfair. The RI’s strapline is “connecting people with the world of science”. A few hundred years ago it may well have been a necessity to have an open access institute where people could come and share their science and research, but today? Who was the last ground-breaking scientist who felt the need to go to Mayfair in London to communicate their ideas with the public - (think of how much of the UK demographic in terms of geography and socio-economics that excludes). Just to be clear, the main issue isn’t about saving the RI. In reality, it seems to me that most of the good work that the RI do could be done more efficiently in a purpose built location.

Here are main reasons that Mary put forward as to why the location needed to be kept:

Faraday Research Labs  - Having a research lab in the one of the most expensive areas in London is not essential. The quality of research would be no different in another part of London or elsewhere in the UK. That’s not to denigrate the awesome work that goes on there, just that if it didn’t happen at Albemarle Street, it would still happen.

The Christmas Lectures – These could be done from anywhere, surely if the RI was genuinely interested in communicating science to kids outside of London they would take it round various UK cities rather than continually hold it in the famous if uncomfortable Faraday Lecture Theatre in wst London.  Even if the RI moved to another location, there is no reason why the lecture theatre couldn’t be painstakingly moved too, for those who feel somewhat religious about it, as if the essence of Faraday is somehow with them in that holy place, in the Cathedral of Science.

Ri Channel – This is collection of online videos of previous Christmas Lectures and the like which by its very definition does not require a giant expensive event space in London. 

These are things that people know the RI for, but none of them rely on the building. Science isn’t the hot topic in the heart of Mayfair, but it is on blogs, tweets, papers and pub meet ups which are happening all over the country without a dusty institute at the helm…

The main proponents for keeping Albemarle St argue from a sense of history and historical scientific value, but I’m not convinced that its place in history alone is enough to warrant survival at any cost. Perhaps a comparison to Bletchley Park is apposite – it was in dire need of funding and came close to collapsing, but successfully negotiated funding from public and private purses, not only out of sense of historic entitlement, but by laying out clearly its plan for the future and its plan for survival.

Secondly, Is the Ri doing what it’s supposed to be doing? My answer is – I’m not sure. I have a PhD, as does my wife yet neither of us during all our combined 3 decades of science education and work life came across the Ri in any format except the Christmas Lectures.  Maybe a sample of 2 is not enough, but I have a hunch we’re not alone. From my experience, UK science hasn’t needed the Ri for decades  - the Ri has continued “to be” but this is all it seems to do. It exists purely with the aim of existing. As if because it can throw some famous names on the table, it has a right to survive at all costs.  It was a once world-renowned important scientific keystone, but how relevant is it today?  If the RI sold off its premises and closed itself down would there be a loss to UK science education? In my opinion, nothing that couldn’t be taken up elsewhere. The main jewel in the RI crown ,The Christmas Lectures, could easily continue without it.

Mary skipped over the finer details of why the RI suddenly finds itself selling off the family silver in order to survive. Baroness Susan Greenfield was director of the RI. You may remember her for having some ideas about 
 "the damage that the gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains."
But ideas were all they were, as she refused to publish any evidence for her ideas, instead using her access to media to promote them and bypass scrutiny. This is completely at odds with the scientific method and how science works - demeans science to the level of untested ideas and uncritical relativism. This from a person who is supposed to be the head of an institute which claims to “connect people with the world of science”. (Have a listen to Episode 96 of the Pod Delusion for more of her antics). Any credible science promotion organisation should have been  embarrassed to have such an opposing force to robust scientific testing at its helm. I guess with Prince Charles as Vice-Patron, the RI has never insisted on their top brass being too on-message. 

Greenfield oversaw a refurbishment (with support of the governing council) of the RI home at cost of £22 million. The idea was to create an “event space” and “a fine dining experience”.  Nothing says inclusivity and the dissemination of science to the public like a fine dining event space in the middle of Mayfair.  As the downturn kicked in, the “event space” didn’t bring the expected cash, and the Ri is now saddled with £7m of debt and can’t currently pay its running costs. Albemarle Street doesn’t need rescuing because of underfunding, it needs it because of a failed renovation involving millions of pounds of charity money. 

So back to Mary’s Pod Delusion piece. She is asking us to sign a petition to get the government to bail out the RI for their risky financial project that went wrong so that it can continue to exist (nothing about the future, just to exist). Having spent the last number of years grumbling about bank bailouts, I would be a tremendous hypocrite to argue that it’s ok for the RI to be bailed out and not banks because science. More irritatingly, Albemarle Street is estimated at £60m – way more than their trifling £7m debts. They would still have a huge warchest to put towards actually engaging the public in science rather than maintaining a white elephant in the middle of London. Remember it’s a charity – value for money should be paramount out of respect to your donors.  Eminent Scientists like Bruce Hood have pressed the importance of inspiring buildings, a sense of history and places of science wonder which play a valuable part in the societal role of science, but ugly economics have to come in to play at some point.

Of course, I don’t want to see the RI fail or the site sold off, I want the RI to reinvent itself and for people to have the same awe and respect for the building as they did back during its heyday, but it can’t expect that of the public, it needs to do the graft and fulfil its desire of informing the public about science.

Mary asked us to help by joining the RI at a cost of £28 as associate member. Sure. Pay £28 so that the RI which burned through its own cash can continue to rent out space below cost and feed posh food to people in Mayfair under the guise of science communication? Ok so maybe that’s trolling a bit, but...

If you actually care about science communication to the public, rather than dewy-eyed history dressed up as scicomms, I’m willing to bet that pound for pound, your 28 quid would go a lot further if you donated it to the Pod Delusion. Last week’s show had a piece on upside down backbones in tetrapods and the ethics of cloning Neanderthals. One episode of the Pod Delusion introduced me to more novel scientific ideas than a lifetime of the RI. And it doesn’t have a holy building.

This is Dr*T, running for cover from angry scientists, for the Pod Delusion.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Pod Delusion: MAYA-POCALYPT-AGEDDON! (but I feel fine)

Podcast: Download

In an odd turn of events, I've ended up singing a sparkling one-off theme tune for this week's END OF THE WORLD SPECIAL Pod Delusion.

I wrote the lyrics and Professor Music himself, Milton Mermikedes slapped them onto a backing track of R.E.M's "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".

As it was all done in a last minute rush, with sub-optimal equipment ..*cough*.. the lyrics aren't as clear as they could have been had I had a decent piece of software. As a result, a few have asked what all the lyrics are, and so I've put them here for posterity.

A new thing for me - and a fun thing. Hopefully, it will be considered less preferable to the apocalypse. Apologies to Berry, Mills, Buck and Stipe.


ITEOTWAWKI (AIFF) - Pod Delusion Version

It’s great, a lefty liberal, podcast, award-winning and not afraid
Partnered with the BHA

Sally Morgan. Psychic test. This week’s special guest.
Pussy riot sent down. Solar System Marcus Chown.

40 days for life, dead, Simon Singh, Libel Win.
Human cyborg clatter with Science Thing, Girl Thing

Faith in your face, represent Michael Gove in a government for
hire in a bad twitter joke.

Pineapple prophet, Robin Ince, threat of libel
breathing down your neck.

Crowd sourced reporting, Ayn Rand, begging slot. Look at that bold

Assange. Rape.

Uh oh, Jeez and Mo, let the GM crops grow, creationism.
Jesus saves, Starbucks save.
Workfare its shirkfare, listen to the Tory chair.
Tell me of the rapture and the Snoopers on the right.

Al-Khalili, Lovelace, Drew Rae, fail whale
Fuck You Daily Mail.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

The other side. Hitchens died. Continent is secularised.
Darwin. Obscenity. JAMES O-MALL-EY.
Elizabeth Lutgendorf, Stephen Fry and Hugh Grant.
Ban the burka, council prayers, Richard Dawkins, boom!
Use censorship. Membership.
More Pod Delusions, right? Right.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Inkredulous : Episode 16

Podcast: Download (Duration: 1:25:48 — 29.5MB)

Back again with another Inkredulous podcast, this time with George Hrab from the Geologic podcast, and MC of QEDcon 2011 and Jay Novella from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast.
Jay Novella

George Hrab
You may have come across these rational heroes before - they are SO FAMOUS that they each have their own Wiki page, (I know!) so you can imagine it was a pretty daunting for a shmo like me.

Still, it was a total blast and, as seems to happen every time I record one of these things, immediately afterwards I have the fear that I was rubbish, but when the edit comes out, Andy (@inkredulosi) somehow makes it seem not so bad..... Here's a line from Jay that made me feel all warm and wanted :)

As always, the text is below, although the Honey Blues are greatly enhanced by George and his demon guitar-fingered noodling.




Here is my "Honey" blurb for Question 1:

This is the story of the weird coloured honey appearing and proof IF PROOF BE NEEDED that all women love chocolate…and it goes something like this.

I woke up this morning
Doing what I do
I went to my beehive
And all my honey was blue
I got the blues so bad baby,
All my honey has turned blue
And even stranger than what I’d seen
Some of my honey had turned green…

Andy, French farmers have recently been finding that their honey, which normally consists of sweet sticky sugary honey goodness, currently consists of sweet sticky sugary honey goodness and a large amount of highly coloured contamination. Cries of “Sacre Bleu LITTERALEMENT” could be heard throughout the town of Ribeauvillé as honey farmers stared in amazement at their jars of blue, green, and turquoise honey. For European listeners, Ribeauvillé is near Strasbourg and for the US listeners it is …like…. near Iraq.
Andy, honey is a natural product and bees, of one form or another, have been making honey for about 30 million years.  Which is about 30 million years (give or take a few thousand) before man was created by God, if US Senate Candidate Todd Akin (who sits on the House Committee of Science, Space & Tech) is to be believed. Indeed Mr Akin, won’t believe evolution, but probably would believe that Samson off of the Bible ate some honey which bees had made inside a Lion’s carcass, a lion which he had killed with his own bare hands a few verses earlier. No really, he did. Judges 14 – all true.
As I know you know, I keep bees myself and the honey bee life cycle is phenomenally interesting and, you’ll be surprised to know, very different from our human one  – for instance, it is matriarchal society made up of a Queen bee at the top, and worker bees lower down, all of whom are female. Fancy having a workplace with women at the top and all the workers women! It’s institutionalised misandry, is what it is. Every hive has a handful of drone bees whose only real purpose is to mate – they are effectively dungeon sex-slaves. After a drone has had sex with a queen, which happens mid-flight, his tiny little bee-cock detaches inside the queen and pulls out his abdomen, causing the male bee to die.
This has almost never happened to me.
So all the worker bees – and in this newstory, most importantly the ones who go flying about looking for nectar, - are all women. Their plan is to go out into the big bad world, using a combination of ultraviolet and coloured light, smell and random chance to find their food – pollen for now and nectar to make honey for winter. Once they find a good source, they can convey this information to other bees. If those bees also find the good source, they will tell more bees and so on so forth. If the source is big enough eventually, a high percentage of the foraging bees will end up at that source.
When the French honeyfarmers near Ribeauvillé came to collect their honey, it was various shades of blues and green. This meant that was a fairly big source of highly coloured nectar or nectar like product.
And so it turned out that the source was a biomass plant processing waste from a local M&M’s production facility, who had left the waste from the Mars factory uncovered, and the sticky, sugary chocolately mess had been hovered up by the hungry bees.  The bees then regurgitated this highly-coloured pre-honey, into the honeycomb and then fanned it with their wings to evaporate off some of the water to leave blue honey.
So there you have it. Weird coloured honey and proof all women love chocolate.