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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Boots and Homeopathy: Reading the Small-print

Yesterday about 300 people took an "overdose" of homeopathic remedies in city and town centres across the United Kingdom.

I was one of them, standing with Dave Gorman, Simon Singh, Evan Harris MP and many others in a frosty Red Lion Square in London.




This event was part of the 10:23 campaign, seeking both to promote a better public understanding of homeopathy and to put an end to the marketing of homeopathic products as medicinal products.

My "overdose" was of 30c Arnica.

(They were supplied to me on the day by comedian and Westminster Skeptic, the estimable Chris Coltrane.)

The label on the tube was revealing.

It expressly states that it is a Boots product.

After the Boots logo, it says "A Homeopathic Medicinal Product".

But, of course, as a matter of simple fact, only three of those words are meaningful.

Nonetheless, Boots formally and deliberately hold this out to be a medicinal product.

There is then the lengthy label small-print.

Without even reading it, without even holding the tube close enough to focus on what the small-print says, the blurb of small-print gives one an overall impression.

And the overall impression which it gives, and is undoubtedly intended to give, is that this is a regulated medicinal product: the sort of which requires all this legalistic waffle.

The small-print actually goes 40% around the circumference of the tube.

So, the consumer is told that this a medicinal product, and the consumer can see there is lots of small-print: all this must serve as a reassurance to the average consumer.

As one's eyes focus on the small-print, certain words and phrases begin to stand out, and are intended to do so because they are in bold, in red font, or block capitals.

In bold are: How to use, Dosage, and Advice.

In red font are: "The 30c Homeopathic potency of Arnica montana" and "Handle carefully, homoeopathic medicine in an inner glass vial".

And in block capitals: "KEEP OUT OF THE REACH AND SIGHT OF CHILDREN".

In such legalistic small-print, one emphasises particular statements because they are more important for the consumer to realise. Sometimes such emphasis is legally required; but sometimes it comes down to the simple good sense or good intentions of the vendor or manufacturer.

So it is telling what Boots chose to emphasise, and what not to emphasise.

In respect of my tube of 30c Arnica, Boots chose to emphasise what would give the average consumer the impression that Arnica 30c is a genuine medicinal product.

Furthermore, Boots carry on with this charade even in the non-emphasised small-print. In particular, there is the astonishing statement: "If symptoms worsen or persist consult a doctor".

The necessary implication of this sentence is that this medicinal product will treat (unstated) symptoms. The words "if" and "persist" can only be read in this way.

It is only with the last sentence, some twelve lines down, and after all the bold, red font, and bock capitals, that Boots finally state:

"A homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications."

Boots could have put his in bold, red font, or block capitals. Nothing was stopping them.

But, for some reason, this is the least emphasised statement on the tube...



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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Lucifee on Libel Reform

Anyone interested in the debate over libel reform should pop over to Lucifee's excellent blog for part one of her analysis of the current state of libel law.

Lucifee is a lawyer (though not a media lawyer) and a geek (and attendee of Westminster Skeptics), but she takes a refreshingly different view on the need for libel reform.

In particular, she poses some probing and hard questions of the conventional wisdom of libel reformers such as myself, and she rightly demands an evidence-based approach to the reform debate.

I plan to respond in detail when part two of her analysis is posted.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

On "International Law"

I respect greatly the principles and intellectual calibre of the Foreign Office lawyers who today gave evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry.

I am afraid, however, I largely view "international law" as a well-meaning fiction.

As Elizabeth Wilmshurst correctly conceded, it is not enforceable, at least as it stands.

I share fully the liberal - but normative view - that it should be enforceable, but as a positive statement of law (in any meaningful way), "international law" does not exist.

If you say softly it should exist, I will agree.

If you demand loudly that it should exist, I am with you.

But, if you say it does exist, then I will have to ask you where and how it is enforceable.

For, to adapt Tim Minchin in Storm, what do you call "international law" which is actually enforceable before a court or tribunal?

Law.




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Sunday, 24 January 2010

A Bible Without Verses?

From time to time I blog about Christianity from a secularist perspective...

One can become accustomed to certain features of modern Christianity.

For example, take bible verses.

One sees them on garish posters:


And also, it would seem, on gun sights:


Indeed, sometimes with the very same verse.

Bible verses, however, are relatively new: the versification of the New Testament, in particular, dates back only to the 1500s. For one and a half millennia, the Christian churches managed happily without any such organising method to their sacred texts.

Of course, the priests and the pious would know various passages, often by heart, just as we can quote Shakespeare without any express regard to the scene and line number.

But there was not this - in effect - deification of the convenient quotation.

Versification may have accompanied the rise of printing and Protestantism; but, as with all human cultural developments, it was not inevitable.

We could, even today, have Christianity and the bible without verses, or chapters.

I suspect that Protestantism may have taken a markedly different form; but there was no necessity that versification would catch on.

And without versification, then that other relatively recent (as well as intellectually absurd) phenomenon - the literal interpretation of the bible - may not have become so popular.

There would then be a bias in favour of treating all the constituent books of the bible (themselves an arbitrary selection of the texts available) as the literary narratives and brilliant stories which they really are.

A lack of versification would also tend to undermine the idiotic wrenching out of context by many Evangelicals of certain passages in Leviticus and elsewhere.

Christian fundamentalists would probably be at a loss without this (artificial) versification: they would actually have to take the books of the bible seriously, and not just their favourite sentences.

The bible is a wonderful collection of ancient texts, each with significant literary and historical value.

The pick-and-mix approach of many Christians to various verses does the bible a great disservice.

An ambitious publisher would do well to commission an edition of the bible without verses, or even chapters: a retelling of the stories without the straight-jacket imposed by having to sequence all the sentences by the usual numbers.

And then the stories of the bible can take their rightful place along Homer and Gilgamesh.


"By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures."

-Proverbs 24:3-4



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Friday, 22 January 2010

Leaked Boots Legal Advice on the 10:23 Homeopathic Overdose

In advance of the 10:23 mass "overdose" of homeopathic remedies on Saturday 30 January 2010, I thought it time to publish this leaked internal memorandum...


Alliance Boots plc

To: Board of Directors

From: Legal & Regulatory


You have asked for a memorandum setting out potential liability for Alliance Boots (“AllBoo”) in respect of the threatened homeopathic overdose by the 10:23 campaign on 30 January 2010.

In particular, you wish to know the liability which AllBoo and its directors may have if the overdose injures or kills any of the campaigners if the products used are provided by AllBoo.

The starting point is that AllBoo would indeed face a range of civil and criminal liabilities if we did provide something capable of injuring or killing the campaigners in this way, especially as we are aware of the threatened overdose by reason of the spirited press campaign by the campaigners.

There are an estimated 300 campaigners who have announced that they are going to take an overdose of an AllBoo product. That would usually expose AllBoo to a potential liability of at least £60,000,000 - possibly more if they have any lawyers amongst them.

In normal circumstances we would thereby review the product and possibly take it off the shelves in the week leading up to the date of the overdose. We would also advise our insurers of the prospect of such a substantial claim. We would even engage experienced criminal defence solicitors to advise us on any potential charges because our branches knowingly sold the products in the vicinity of where the demonstrations are taking place.

Indeed, AllBoo would normally put into place a complete civil and criminal defence strategy to minimise or eliminate the risk of prosecution or civil suit.

As AllBoo know this overdose is to take place, it would simply be our duty of care to act to prevent the supply of these products in these circumstances.

However, there is no need for AllBoo to do anything at all in this case.

We may sit back and just benefit from this welcome boost in consumer demand.

We can just rest easy.

For I am delighted to advise the board that, as the products in question actually contain no active ingredient, the planned “overdose” will be nothing of the kind. Other than perhaps the effects of a sugar rush (we use sugar pills else we may suffer customer hostility to selling what is really just water), the protesters will not suffer any ill-effects at all.

Because there is no active ingredient then - as a matter of law - we are completely safe.

In support of this conclusion, we can even refer in court to both medical science and the laws of physics.

Should we be prosecuted or sued for knowingly – or even recklessly – providing a product which was to be used in such a mass attempt at an overdose, we can safely point the court to undisputed, overwhelming scientific evidence that we sold nothing which could have caused any adverse reaction - indeed any reaction at all.

In conclusion, the board of directors can be happily assured that in respect of the risk of death or injury for an homeopathy overdose by our customers, the science is firmly on our side.

So no reason to worry on this one: there is nothing in it.

Regards

A. Parody
Legal Adviser
AllBoo





Click here to find out more about the 10:23 Campaign.

Homeopathy: There's Nothing In It.



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Thursday, 21 January 2010

George Orwell: Sixty Years On


George Orwell died sixty years ago today; he was only forty-six.

He seems so fixed in time and place, it is perhaps disconcerting to realise many of his contemporaries - including some also notable in the literary and political battles of the 1930s and 1940s - were alive until fairly recently. Some are with us even today.

Of the recently departed, one can think of Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003); A. L. Rowse (1903-1997); Orwell's fellow pupil at Eton, the historian Steven Runciman (1903-2000); and Stephen Spender (1909-1995).

The leftwing poet Edward Upward, born like Orwell in 1903, died just last year.

And with us still is Orwell's friend and Tribune colleague Michael Foot (1913- ).

It would have been unlikely for the sickly George Orwell to have survived to our own times.

Nonetheless, almost every reflective person interested in liberal and democratic politics would like to think that, if Orwell were alive today, he would share their views, and endorse their concerns.

This would go for the neo-conservative urging "regime change" in "fascist" states, as well as for the radical disgusted with such latter-day "imperialism" and all the official "obfuscation" attending it.

It is probably not difficult to identify one's own supposed liberal and democratic politics - whatever they are - with those of George Orwell.

We would like to think that he too would be horrified by the very same abuses of power which we find horrific; and that he would also be bitterly scornful of those abuses of political language which we detest.

But I think Orwell would be rather disappointed with this outcome.

He would not want to be used as a convenient reinforcement of any political views which one would have anyway.

On the contrary, Orwell always sought to challenge conventional thinking about politics, especially amongst liberals and democrats.

It seems to me that, if one is to take Orwell seriously as a political influence, one should try and identify the views that one holds which Orwell would contest, the assumptions which he would seek to undermine, and the prejudices he would want to expose.

Reading Orwell should be incredibly unsettling, forcing one to consider questions such as these:-

What habits of thought and language do you have which could lead to cruelty and abuse?

When do your purported progressive opinions slide into mere justifications for inhumane treatment?

Why, like Winston Smith, do you find O'Brien so attractive and want to believe in him?

Who, for you, is the Snowball or Goldstein that you always want to blame?

How do you seek to try and limit the vocabulary and free expression of those with whom you disagree?

Are you really intellectually and morally honest?



Any supposed liberal can - and should - claim George Orwell as their champion; but reading Orwell's major novels and essays should not be a comforting experience for a reflective person.

Orwell may well have agreed with you on any given subject; but it is that moment when you realise he might not have done - and why he would not have done - which makes him the most valuable of all modern political writers.




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Monday, 18 January 2010

Sex and Skepticism...in a Pub

On Tuesday 19 January, blogger and academic Dr Petra Boynton will be speaking at Westminster Skeptics on Sex and the Media.


Details are here and (on Facebook) here.

Petra is not only my favourite blogger (sorry, Crispian); she is doing valuable ongoing work in combating misreporting by newspapers of sex and relationships issues. Explore her website here.

In preparation for the talk, she has asked me to post this quiz:

Sex can
- Make you look 10 years younger?
- Reduce wrinkles?
- Make your hair more glossy?
- Give you more energy?

Men think about sex
- every three seconds?
- every sixty seconds?
- twice an hour?

To qualify as a 'sex guru' a journalist must
- Have written a bestselling book about sex?
- Have written a sex feature for a magazine?
- Have had lots of sexual partners?

The right amount of sex for a couple to have is
- twice a week?
- three times a week?
- five times a week?

Desire is boosted by
- Goji berries?
- Tuna fish?
- Pumpkin seeds?

What's the best way to get a woman to want sex?
- buy her lingerie
- run her a scented bath and light some candles for a romantic glow
- stroke her when you see her brushing her teeth in the morning



Answers will be revealed during the evening, and will be added to this blogpost in a few days.

If you are not coming along, however, do suggest your answers below...



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Interesting Blogpost on BCA v Singh

Anyone following the misconceived libel case brought by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, or interested in the debate about libel reform more generally, should read an excellent blogpost by Lucifee, a fellow lawyer and blogger, here.

Her blogpost is entitled (provocatively) "In defence of Mr Justice Eady".

You may thereby be surprised to read that I agree with her; but for the reasons she sets out, you will see why I have never criticise that particular judge directly. Indeed, like Lucifee, I also strongly support his rulings on privacy law.

For me, the fault has always been with libel law itself, and not with any single judge.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

So What Is Good Policy-Making?

Following on from post yesterday on what constitutes a policy, I set out below what are - for me - the attributes of a good policy.

1. Precision and Clarity

A very general aim can be too vague to be a policy; there has to be a certain exactness to what one wants to achieve.

Libertarianism or socialism are principles or ideologies, rather than a policy. However, the reduction of police power and the alleviation of child poverty are both sufficiently precise and clear to be policies, as well as being respective applications of libertarian and socialist principles/ideology.


2. Evidence-based

A policy which disregards the appropriate evidence base is misconceived; a good policy is based as far as possible on the relevant evidence.

Of course, there are questions as to what constitutes the relevant evidence. But when there is evidence - for example, in respect of the danger of drugs, the evidence of global warming, the need for testing on animals, or the need to control foxes in the countryside - then this evidence must play a role in the formulation of policy.

This is not to say that such evidence comprises the policy or even determines the shape of the policy (as there can be other factors), but the evidence must be acknowledged and, if a policy (for any reason) appears to be contrary to the relevant evidence, then it is the duty of a policymaker to acknowledge this and explain the apparent discrepancy.


3. Transparency and Accountability

The formulation and implementation of any policy must be a transparent process, and as participatory as possible, and there must be some person who is accountable for the content and the success of the policy.

These attributes are not only likely to make a policy more legitimate (see 4 below), but they are good in themselves. Sunlight is an excellent disinfectant and policy-making is likely to be more biased and less well-informed with a closed group of policy-makers.


4. Practicality and Legitimacy

A policy must be capable of working in practice.

There is no point asking the state, or the market, or the "third" sector, to effect certain outcomes which are not possible. The history of post-war Britain is littered with both market and public sector failures.

There is also no point seeking to implement a policy which is unacceptable to the relevant constituency, especially if the policy includes financial burdens (for example, higher taxes or lower benefits) or restrictions on autonomy (for example, greater police power, or restricting the possibility of travel). In such instances, the constituency affected may simply reverse the policy before it can have any effect.

An adversely affected constituency may, however, accept burdens or restrictions if they are seen as legitimate; and so here the role of the policy-maker includes public engagement.


4. Non-reliance on Coercion

Although a policy may require legal coercion, this should always be kept to the minimum.

Legal coercion - the use of prohibitions and sanctions - is a necessary part of regulating society, but it is a blunt method of policy implementation when used by itself.

As I mentioned yesterday, law is only one of many means for implementing a policy: others include decision-making, rule-making, guidance, circulars, advertising, campaigning, persuasion, allocating resources, prioritisation, showing leadership, and so on.


5. Proportionality

A policy should go no further than necessary to achieve the desired outcome, and the policy-maker should be mindful of the potential wider impact of a policy.

For example, a policy regarding terrorism or anti-social behaviour should not infringe on the rights of individuals more than is required than to achieve the policy.


6. Contestability

There should always be the means of contesting a policy, and one should never seek to close down a debate about policy.

Policies are simply not like peer-reviewed scientific papers. The consensus of experts will not make a policy either workable or successful, even if there is an entirely valid consensus as to the relevant evidence.

Policy-makers can - and do - get things wrong. The policy thereby should always be open to challenge, and even rejection, even if the relevant evidence cannot itself be sensibly disputed. This is especially so when the implementation of the policy involves burdens and restrictions on individuals.


My intention is not to put forward vaporous "apple pie" criteria; instead, I am seeking to open up a discussion about what is good (and bad) policy-making.

And, as blogging and web-based participation becomes more popular, I am also trying to see whether there can be any useful influence by bloggers and others on policy-making (and thereby law-making) rather than the (for me) often inconsequential struggles between various pundits and politicians.


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Saturday, 16 January 2010

What Is Policy? And What Is Evidence-Based Policy-Making?

It is sometimes amusing to ask some earnest "policy advisor" or "public policy" lobbyist what they actually mean by the word policy.

(It is often the same blank or hapless response one gets with many management consultants when faced with a challenge to differentiate between "aims" and "objectives".)

A little unfair, perhaps, with such easy targets; but from time to time it is useful to ask what certain common terms mean.

And what we mean by the word policy is curiously difficult to define.

Does it matter?

Well, given the emphasis which is (in my view, correctly) placed on "evidence-based policy-making" in areas such as drugs policy, regulation of prostitution, public health, climate change, etc, it is important to be clear not only what the evidence is, but what it means for a policy to be "based" on the evidence.

There are a couple of things which do not (for me) constitute a policy.

First, evidence by itself does not equal policy.

This must be true in respect of the term "evidence-based policy-making", as evidence is explicitly stated only to be the basis of policy and not the policy itself.

Second, law does not equal policy.

Passing legislation, including banning some things and creating enforceable entitlements to others, may be part of a policy; but it is not the policy itself.

For example, using a legal prohibition and coercive sanctions to bring fox-hunting to a stop may well be the application of a policy to end fox-hunting; but the law is being used as means to a policy end.

Similarly, the reduction of crime and the prevention of anti-social behaviour can require criminal justice legislation; but it is misconceived to think that passing legislation in itself constitutes a policy.

Law is in fact only one of many means for implementing policy: others include decision-making, rule-making, guidance, circulars, advertising, campaigning, persuasion, allocating resources, prioritisation, showing leadership, and so on.

Both evidence and (sometimes) law are related to policy; the former should provide a basis, the latter providing one way amongst others of implementing a policy.

But what is policy?

Policy was defined by Samuel Johnson as "the art of government" (though in the eighteenth century, this meant usually in foreign affairs) and "Art; prudence; management of affairs; stratagem".

The relevant definitions in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary are:

"Government; the conduct of public affairs; political science"
"Political sagacity or diplomacy; prudence or skill in the conduct of public affairs"
"A course of action or principle adopted or proposed by a government, party, individual, etc; any course of action adopted as advantageous or expedient"


(I notice in passing, rather bizarrely, that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary quotes Carl Sagan - of all writers - to illustrate an alternative and mundane meaning of policy as an insurance policy.)

If policy means a course of action, evidence should provide its basis. As one very skilled policy-maker and politician - RA Butler, who introduced the 1944 Education Act - may have put it: policy is the art of the possible.

A disregard for the appropriate evidence-base will tend to lead to policy failure.

And in areas of social and economic concern, public health, or in respect of climate change, the prejudices and assumptions of politicians or indeed voters do not constitute an evidence base.

However, the prejudices and asumptions of politicians and voters can be relevant, at least in a democratic and liberal society, to the shaping of policy.

If a policy is unacceptable to an electorate, then the policy may simply not be sustainable, whatever its other merits.

In my view, the correct function of the policy-maker is to take the appropriate evidence and to fashion courses of action which are realistically capable of implementation.

It may be that such courses of action do not need legislation.

For example, in respect of criminal conduct and anti-social behaviour, more criminal justice legislation is probably less important than changes in policing and developing non-coercive forms of constructive engagement with offending individuals. Indeed, a successful policy may some times require the repeal or abolition of certain laws, for example (in my view) with drugs policy.

Neither those who concentrate only on the evidence base nor those who want to pass ever more legislation are primarily concerned with policy.

Policy is the link between the evidence and the range of means ultimately adopted; but it is distinct from both.

Policy-making is a difficult job, at least if done properly. There are conflicting priorities, and the limitations of legal and non-legal approaches can be stark; most of all, policy-making requires a realistic sense of what is achievable.

It is in the nature of human affairs that regulating human conduct for some desirable purpose will generally tend to fail; only skilled and realistic policy-making avoids this outcome.

And so good policy-making is, for me as a skeptic, based as far as possible on sound evidence and, for me as a liberal, resorts as little as possible to legal coercion.

But evidence and law do not a policy make.

However, the nature of politics - of seeking and securing power - does not necessarily mean that a good politician is a good policy-maker.

Politicians too often promote bad policies just because of political expediency.

It is therefore important that anyone who wants to achieve certain desirable ends engage with the political and policy-making processes, so to make it harder for politicans to make bad policy by using bad evidence and passing bad laws.

Policy-making should not be left to politicians.



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Friday, 15 January 2010

Podcasting...

I am not a natural podcaster; I prefer writing.

Nonetheless, I have now done my first podcast panel discussion, on the political House of Comments podcast. This follows my interview on episode 61 of the Skeptic Zone.

I have also done a couple of pieces for The Pod Delusion.

I am unsure whether this is something I will carry on with, but the other contributors to these podcasts do make them well worth listening to.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Next Step For Libel Reform

I was asked today by a journalist for a quote on UK Justice Minister Jack Straw's proposal for a libel "working group".

I gave this quote:

"One must be concerned that this working group is just a political manoeuvre for Straw to buy time without commitment. Libel reform requires not a working group, but government time and civil service buy-in. The Straw approach, by itself, is likely to be a libel reform fail."

Was that too cynical?

It is in the nature of politicians to attempt to satisfy political demands with as little as possible.

And I cannot see the point of a "working group": it always seems a low-cost gesture to try and close or delay any potential issue.

The announced working group, just like manifesto commitments or Early Day Motion signatures, is simply not enough: these are shallow and initial responses to a deep problem.

In my opinion, a working group, a manifesto commitment, or the signing of an EDM, should be applauded only if it really brings libel reform nearer.

Indeed, such apparent "achievements" can even make any reform more difficult, for politicians may think that such responses are sufficient to quench the thirst for reform.

In fact, reform of English libel law requires substantial Parliamentary intervention; such intervention in turn requires valuable Parliamentary time and equally valuable civil service resources.

That is the desired final result from which we need to work backwards.

Therefore, a libel reform "campaign" is not an end in itself: it is only a good campaign if it ultimately secures libel reform, not in the mere promises of politicians.

The libel reform campaign must thereby reach beyond the next General Election; it must ensure that the next government actually provides time and resource for there to be effective legislative reform.

And that is what we in the UK should be demanding of our politicans as we approach the next General Election.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Section 44 and All That

I used to be a political partisan, with instincts to laud one political party and to damn all the others.

However, as I watched the course of domestic and international politics, I began to realise the force of George Orwell's observation at the very end of Animal Farm:

"No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Party politicians have a great deal in common with each other: those whose careers consist only of seeking and, if possible, obtaining political power tend to do similar things once they have power.

There is actually little that the UK Labour government has done since 1997 in respect of criminal law and policy which would have been inconceivable coming from a Conservative government.

In particular, in respect of my own civil libertarian interests, the record of the Home Office shows no break at 1997 or at any other time: it still urges ID cards and a database state; and it still takes its political function to be the meeting of police demands for further power.

It does not matter whatsoever if the Home Secretary calls themself a Tory or a socialist, New Labour or Notting Hill Conservative.


Imagine a Martian, quite unaware of the supposed "political parties", being invited to observe British politics.

Imagine now that Martian being supplied with Edmund Burke's classic definition of a party:

"Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed."

Putting aside the sexist implication of this maxim, what would the Martian see as constituting the parties in contemporary politics?

I suspect the Martian would see a "Law and Order Party", consisting of the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police, the various constabularies, the secret services, and the government ministers of the day, of whatever purported political affiliation.

I hope that the Martian would also see a "Liberal" party, formed of those of any political affiliation, or none: those who who adopt a principle-based approach to questioning the use of the coercive power of the State, and those whose presumption is against the acquisition and exercise of powers by State agents against individuals.

I would further trust the Martian would be able to separate this "Liberal" party from those "Libertarians" who maintain that there is no role for the State, rather than there being a firm presumption against the State's use of coercive power.


The contest between this "Law and Order Party" and the "Liberal Party" can be seen, for example, in the controversy about section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

As a modern Madame Roland could say:

"Oh Anti-Terrorism, what crimes are committed in thy name!"

Section 44 stop and search powers are routinely used - and in my view, abused - by police constables. They treat it almost like a formidable spell, invoking and chanting the magic word "terrorism" just so as to invade the privacy and autonomy of pedestrians, ranging from train spotters to architectural photographers.

Thousands of people have been stopped using this power: individuals who simply would not have been otherwise lawfully stopped.

What was most alarming was that this power can and is exercised by constables without any real accountability or control.

Today, however, there was a blow to the "Law and Order Party" in their ongoing abuse of section 44 powers.

The European Court of Human Rights, in a powerful judgment, held that section 44 was contrary to the individual's right to privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR.

The Court noted:

"84. In this connection the Court is struck by the statistical and other evidence showing the extent to which resort is had by police officers to the powers of stop and search under section 44 of the Act. The Ministry of Justice recorded a total of 33,177 searches in 2004/5, 44,545 in 2005/6, 37,000 in 2006/7 and 117,278 in 2007/8 (see paragraphs 44-46 above). In his Report into the operation of the Act in 2007, Lord Carlile noted that while arrests for other crimes had followed searches under section 44, none of the many thousands of searches had ever related to a terrorism offence; in his 2008 Report Lord Carlile noted that examples of poor and unnecessary use of section 44 abounded, there being evidence of cases where the person stopped was so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there was not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop.

"85. In the Court's view, there is a clear risk of arbitrariness in the grant of such a broad discretion to the police officer. While the present cases do not concern black applicants or those of Asian origin, the risks of the discriminatory use of the powers against such persons is a very real consideration, as the judgments of Lord Hope, Lord Scott and Lord Brown recognised. The available statistics show that black and Asian persons are disproportionately affected by the powers, although the Independent Reviewer has also noted, in his most recent report, that there has also been a practice of stopping and searching white people purely to produce greater racial balance in the statistics (see paragraphs 43-44 above). There is, furthermore, a risk that such a widely framed power could be misused against demonstrators and protesters in breach of Article 10 and/or 11 of the Convention.

"86. The Government argue that safeguards against abuse are provided by the right of an individual to challenge a stop and search by way of judicial review or an action in damages. But the limitations of both actions are clearly demonstrated by the present case. In particular, in the absence of any obligation on the part of the officer to show a reasonable suspicion, it is likely to be difficult if not impossible to prove that the power was improperly exercised.

"87. In conclusion, the Court considers that the powers of authorisation and confirmation as well as those of stop and search under sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 Act are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse. They are not, therefore, “in accordance with the law” and it follows that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention."



That 2007/8 figure is startling, and presents one with a stark choice: either 117,278 stops were made on genuine terrorism grounds in one year, or the police were (as I suggest) routinely abusing their power.

The European Court rightly focused on the lack of legal safeguards. But there are many other human rights grounds for opposing such an illiberal provision, but the Court did not feel the need to decide these once it had determined the illegality of section 44 on Article 8 grounds.


I do not take terrorism lightly: indeed, a member of my family could have been easily killed in the Birmingham Pub bombing.

However, section 44 really has nothing to do with terrorism, but a grab for further power by the police and the Home Office in the name of anti-terrorism.

I would go so far to say that the relationship of the police and the Home Office to "terror" is similar to that the old Military-Industrial complex to communism. It is an excuse and not a reason.

Burke and Roland spotted that things done in the name of a good cause are not necessarily good; and Orwell showed how the pigs in Animal Farm and the Party in Nineteen Eighty-four sought ever more power on the back of contrived scares.

Nonetheless, today saw a victory for the "Liberal" Party.

It is sadly a rare victory, and one whch may have little practical effect; but it was a good victory all the same, in a real party battle which still continues.

And it is a party battle well worth fighting.


______________

For an excellent blogpost prompted by Sir Ian Blair's pathetic reponse to the European Court judgment, see The Heresiarch.



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Monday, 11 January 2010

Legal Advice in Storm v Minchin

To tie in with the release of the promotional video for Tim Minchin's Storm (produced by my friend Tracy King), I thought it about time to disclose the legal advice that Storm herself received when the poem first came to light.




Dear Ms. Storm

Thank you for visiting our offices today.

You are seeking advice as to the legal actions available to you in respect of the so-called “beat poem” called Storm by a Mr Timothy Minchin. Thank you for confirming that your trust fund will cover all our legal expenses: please see attached an initial invoice.

We first discussed a claim for invasion for privacy. Here you will be helped by the potential defendant clearly reporting a private conversation at a dinner party in an inner North London flat.

In accordance with the principles set out by the European Court of Human Rights in the Hannover case, as followed by the High Court in Max Mosley, you had a reasonable expectation of privacy in such surroundings.

The question then becomes whether Mr Minchin has misused your private information.

There is clearly reference to your physical characteristics which appear entirely irrelevant to any serious point which Mr Minchin may be seeking to make.

The mention of “the tip of the wing of a fairy tattooed on that popular area just above the derrière” combined with “fairies on their spines and butterflies on their titties” is both gratuitous and sexist. They certainly would undermine any attempt by the potential defendant to justify the work as a rational contribution to a debate about science.

Mr Minchin also reports, without your permission, your private conversation, including opinions which you hold on controversial matters. In particular, you are quoted as saying the following. I have added my own comments in brackets.

I’m Sagittarian

You can’t know anything, knowledge is merely opinion

[Thank you for confirming this particular comment is absolutely correct.]

But the human body is a mystery! Science just falls in a hole when it tries to explain the nature of the soul.”

[Mr Minchin interestingly fails to respond to this particular "soul" point.]

Pharmaceutical companies are the enemy. They promote drug dependency at the cost of the natural remedies that are all our bodies need. They are immoral and driven by greed. Why take drugs when herbs can solve it? Why use chemicals when homeopathic solvents can resolve it? It’s time we all return-to-live with natural medical alternatives.”

[Again, it is significant that Mr Minchin does not deal directly with the point about Big Pharma, which of course - as you say - may be because of a conflict of interest. This evasion tells against any fair comment defence he may wish to adopt.]

So you don’t believe in any natural remedies?”

Shakespeare said it first: “There are more things in heaven and earth than exist in your philosophy…”. Science is just how we’re trained to look at reality,it can’t explain love or spirituality. How does science explain psychics; auras; the afterlife; the power of prayer?”

You’re so sure of your position but you’re just closed-minded. I think you’ll find your faith in Science and Tests is just as blind as the faith of any fundamentalist

[Here you are helped by Mr Minchin just resorting to repeated swearing and aggressive vulgarity: “What, are we fucking two”, “Wiki-fucking-pedia”, “Is it not totally fucked in the head”, “I’ll spin on a fucking dime” and “I will take a compass and carve Fancy That on the side of my cock.”]

Even on his own account, it is evident that Mr Minchin either misses the points which you are making or is adopting a confrontational and intimidating approach. He also admits to the influence of some eight glasses of wine.

Accordingly, Mr Minchin will find it difficult to legally justify his use of the private information about your appearance and your opinions in publishing his beat poem for financial profit.

We also discussed a claim for libel.

It is your view that the potential defendant’s characterisation of you in Storm means that you are ridiculed and shunned by right-thinking members of our society.

In particular, you are concerned by the description of your opinions as “vacuous crap” and that people who also hold your views are “either lying or mentally ill”, “fundamentally sick”, “pricks like John Edward”, and “using bollocks for ammunition”.

I can confirm that such allegations would indeed be classed as defamatory.

It would then fall on Mr Minchin to justify the statements as fact or the opinions as fair. In respect of the latter, the evidence of his boorishness in the poem itself suggest malice: there will probably be no defence of fair comment available to him.

Mr Minchin will thereby need to justify the factual statements as true: see the High Court ruling in BCA v Singh.

He will thereby need to show that, as a matter of fact:
• your opinions are vacuous;
• your opinions are crap;
• psychics either are knowingly dishonest or have mental health problems;
• your opinions are not only sick, but fundamentally so;
• psychics are not only all pricks, but actually pricks like John Edward; and
• bollocks can and are being used for ammunition.

Although Mr Minchin may well be able to do this (unfortunately it would appear science will be on his side on all these, apart from the bollocks as ammunition point, which we hope the court will take literally), the costs of trying to do so will surely encourage him into an early settlement and an apology. (That said, these skeptic sorts can be resilient and not east to intimidate: see what happened after the High Court ruling in BCA v Singh.)

Please thereby confirm your trust will pay our next five invoices whilst we threaten litigation; for, as discussed, with your positive energy (and monies) channelling through all our team of lawyers, we can cross our fingers and see what happens.

Yours etc…


ps
See Crispian Jago's blog for an account of what also went on in the flat on that fateful evening...

_____

Full authorised audio version below



And a transcription is at the site of the lovely PodBlack Cat.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Can Reiki Affect Court Hearings?

With a hat tip to the ever-amazing Blue Wode, here is an astonishing claim that the power of Reiki can affect the outcome of court hearings.

"A very mainstream event such as a court hearing or trial can benefit greatly from the subtle influence of Reiki energy.

"Can Reiki influence the result of the proceedings? Absolutely. The intent of all Reiki sessions would be for the “highest and best” outcome...

"What if one wants energy directed to the whole courtroom, from the judge, to the clerks, to the attending officers? In fact, what if you want Reiki directed to every soul in that courtroom?

...

"A way to adhere to the ethics of Reiki while still positively affecting the events of the proceeding would be to send Reiki energy to “the situation”. In doing so the whole room would be filled with Reiki energy.

...

"There have been many court outcomes that have been discreetly influenced by the power of Reiki. It is reassuring to know that in those instances, the highest and best did prevail for all those involved."



Read the claim in full here.

Wonderful stuff.

I wonder if there are any cases or hearings in particular where this effect can be seen to have worked...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Homeopathy: There's Nothing In It

I have no deep interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

If it was not for the propensity of some of its misguided practitioners to sue (or threaten to sue) critics for libel, I suspect CAM would not often feature on this Blog at all.

What concerns me about some chiropractors and homeopaths is that their natural impulse is to get a lawyer involved and send a nasty letter, rather than actually producing evidence.

Of all the matters which have arisen out of the misconceived libel case brought by the BCA against Simon Singh, perhaps the most damning is the contrast between the speed of the libel claim and the tardiness in then producing the "plethora" of evidence.

I have never had any doubt that the BCA could have brought a libel claim; but I have always maintained that they should not have done so.

And events continue to prove this view correct.

Like chiropractors, homeopaths are sometime quick to threaten libel: the Society of Homeopaths tried to sue Quackometer and its webhosts for defamation, whilst the dangerously misguided and unethical Jeremy Sherr also bandied libel threats.

I remember when I first read about homeopathy.

I sort of could see what the like treats like principle was all about, though it seemed hopelessly irrational; but I was flabbergasted when I read about extreme dilution.

Did these people really believe in this?

I cannot express my bewilderment any better than to refer you to my friend Crispian Jago's practical demonstration.

I have no objection to anyone making an informed choice to drink water with lets pretend but non-existent ingredients.

However, it must be wrong for homeopathy to be sold as if it is an effective and efficacious treatment.

I thereby support an excellent new campaign to raise awareness about homeopathy generally and to challenge its availability at Boots the Chemist in particular.

Please go and have a look at the Ten23 site and, if you agree, do sign their open letter.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

BCA v Singh: the Heroes...so far

The new year brings both the formal appeal hearing of British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh and the intensification of the Libel Reform campaign in the run up to the UK general election.

But regardless of the result of the appeal hearing and further hearings, and regardless of the achievements to come of the Libel Reform campaign, it is clear that the activity in and around the BCA v Singh case has already accomplished an impressive amount.

So I would like to set out here my personal and subjective views on who have so far been the heroes of this case: by heroes, I mean people whose exertions have made a substantial and favourable difference to the case and to related issues.

In doing this, I have been lucky in being a close observer of the case from an early stage, and what follows is based on the information known to me. Those listed are in a broadly logical sequence and it is through their contributions that one can piece together the fascinating story so far of this case.

Some of these will be well known to those following the case; others less so, including some unsung heroes.


10. Dave Gorman, Prof Brian Cox, and Evan Harris MP

Back in May 2009, following the dreadfully adverse ruling at the preliminary hearing at the High Court, a support meeting for Simon was organised at the Penderel's Oak in London.

Initially this was going to be addressed by Simon and Nick Cohen (see below); I remember Simon genuinely worrying that hardly any one would turn up.

His worries were misconceived.

Moreover, the celebrities Dave Gorman, Brian Cox, and Evan Harris - all of whom were deeply concerned at the ruling and its implications - agreed also to speak at very short notice.

In part thanks to their contributions, the event turned out to be a tremendous success, and Simon received emphatic and loud support from a packed and enthusiastic audience. It gave the campaign the push which still carries it forward.

Soon after this Simon decided to apply for permission to appeal the adverse ruling.

The speeches at this event, all of whom fully warrant re-watching, are at Crispian Jago's Blog.

If you came along to this event and cheered Simon then count yourself under this heading too!


9. Blue Wode, Mojo, Chris Kavanagh, and Crispian Jago

At a very early stage in this case it became obvious that the effective acquisition and sharing of information was crucial.

Relevant information about the efficacy of chiropractic was diffused and not easy to collect and consider.

Here the internet activists Mojo and Blue Wode (neither of whom really have their own website, though you can follow Mojo best on the JREF Thread on the case and Blue Wode can be followed on Twitter) made invaluable contributions to the case; indeed, contributions which are still ongoing.

Once the case became widely known on the web, then a further problem arose of organising the ever-increasing amount of web-based information. This role was wonderfully performed (until the amount of information became far too much for any one person to sift) by the anthropologist Chris Kavanagh. His site - an extraordinary labour - remains the best source for internet materials up to September 2009.

Another challenge was for the technical side of the case to be explained in straight-forward language. To an extent my own blog sought to this, but it was quickly eclipsed in doing this by the blog of my friend Crispian Jago.

In particular, his case report deftly captured the essence of the permission hearing, and his Ladybird Book of Chiropractic Treatment and English Libel Law is the best single digest of the case so far.


8. Nick Cohen and Padraig Reidy

Nick Cohen was the first and (for some time) only mainstream journalist (other than science journalists) to grasp the free speech implications of the Simon Singh case. He correctly placed the case in the context of a number of illiberal and counter-intuitive libel rulings by the High Court on libel and, more than anyone else, he has ensured that the campaign in support of Simon Singh was harnessed in the direction of addressing the problems of libel law more generally.

The other journalist critical to the case becoming seen as hugely significant in a free speech context is Padraig Reidy, the brilliant News Editor of Index on Censorship. It was following a conversation with Padraig that I sat down and wrote the (now it seems famous) blogpost on the adverse ruling: a blogpost which now has had 18,321 direct hits, and firmly framed the case in terms of its implications for free speech.


7. Ben Goldacre

It is easy to take Ben Goldacre for granted in this campaign; he selflessly attends meeting after meeting to speak on the case and in respect of wider libel reform; and all this on top of a demanding full time post and his prolific journalism.

However, Ben has made a massive contribution in ensuring that as many people as possible realise the awful public health implications of the current libel laws. As he points out, medicine has the potential of doing great harm even when the intention is to do great benefit: accordingly there needs to be frank and uninhibited discussion in the field of public health.

Of course, Ben is here drawing on his own experience of the libel case brought by Matthias Rath; but he is now free of that case (and it would be quite reasonable for him to never hear the word libel again). And so it is to his immense credit that he is using his fame and time campaigning for Simon and libel reform.


6. The "Bad Science" Bloggers: Prof David Colquhoun, Gimpy, Andy Lewis, Dr Aust, Dr Petra Boynton, Martin Robbins, and many others

The case has been extraordinary for the participation of bloggers: it is difficult to think of any legal case which has had such sustained scrutiny by the blogosphere.

The key contribution of the "Bad Science" bloggers was the destruction, in less than twenty-four hours, of the purported plethora of the BCA's supporting evidence.

The tale of this amazing exercise has been best told by Ben Goldacre in a Guardian piece here; but the involvement of bloggers has been striking in the case from the very beginning (for example, see this Quackometer post from back in August 2008, the comments to which are interesting in hindsight).

The "Bad Science" bloggers I mention here are just a selection: they are the ones which come most readily to this non-scientist's mind. That said, a special word must be said for the polymath Dr Aust, whose quasi-legal analyses of the case are excellent.


5. Prof Edzard Ernst

If the Bad Science bloggers destroyed the plethora on the internet, it was Edzard Ernst who fatally undermined it in a more traditional medium: the British Medical Journal.

This review in turn led to a devastating BMJ editorial, which concluded:

"His demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete."

And with that sentence, the scientific and intellectual credibility of the BCA was extinguished, regardless of the "reputation" they are happily litigating to, er, protect.

From this point it was both justifiable and more than fair comment to describe the BCA as "the now discredited British Chiropractic Association", and so I have done so.


4. Alan Henness and Simon Perry

Whilst the interest in the case developed into a broad libel reform campaign, and whilst the BCA undermined their own scientific reputation, two blogger-activists (working independently of each other and anyone else) set out to hold the entire British chiropractic profession to account. I dubbed this "the Quacklash".

Alan Henness and Simon Perry knew that chiropractors themselves had legal and professional duties, both under trading standards and advertising rules, and indeed under the statutory public body, the General Chiropractic Council. Furthermore, complaints of breaches of these obligations would be properly investigated by independent third parties.

This process is still continuing; but the early results show that chiropractors are now being reined in from making misleading and unevidenced claims for their treatments.

If this leads to a permanent shift in how chiropractors portray themselves in the UK, it may well be that Alan Henness and Simon Perry will have achieved more for the better regulation of chiropractic than the profession could have ever done for itself.


3. The Legal Team: Robert Dougans, Adrienne Page QC, and William McCormick

I wondered whether I should include these in this list, which consists primarily of activists and campaigners; but I thought it misleading to miss them out, for without their contribution Simon simply would not have been able to have secured permission to appeal what is (to my mind) a perverse preliminary ruling.

It will be in the hearings yet to come that their input will become more obvious to those following the case. Given their respective reputations, it will make any full trial one of the best tickets in London next summer.


2. Tracey Brown and Síle Lane of Sense About Science

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates.

Tracey Brown and Síle Lane of Sense About Science took an internet-based campaign in support of Simon and libel reform, and transformed it into a major and sleek public campaign, launching a petition of over 20,000 signatures (including, remarkably, the Astronomer Royal and the Poet Laureate). It was an incredible and highly-professional piece of campaigning and public relations

They furthermore ensured national media attention when they were instrumental, with Prof Richard Dawkins, in getting the Liberal Democrats to commit to libel reform after a powerful speech by Dawkins at the national conference.

Sense About Science have now joined Index on Censorship and English PEN in a coalition for libel reform: a campaign which, thanks to the skill of Tracey and Síle, has extremely sound foundations.


1. Simon Singh and Anita Anand

At the May campaign meeting, Nick Cohen turned to Simon and (in the manner of Chris Tarrant) asked, "you've already spent £100,000; but are you up to the full million?".

The sheer financial exposure of any libel defendant, and their family, especially when the case may involve detailed examination of lengthy scientific evidence, is terrifying. It is easy for onlookers, activists, and campaigners to be "armchair litigants", safely away from the legal battlefield and protected from any costs risks. However, Simon and his delightful wife, the journalist Anita Anand, face a severe financial hit - even if he wins.

For them to face this with cheerfulness and good spirits is wonderful and inspiring: there is not a single person on this list - or any where else - who would mind if Simon decided to end this case and settle on any terms he could get.

And Simon has done more than just brave the case, he is using it to raise important questions about the role of libel in science and public discourse generally.


The case is at an early stage: there has not yet been a full trial, and Simon could still lose. The campaign for libel reform is only getting started, and it may not succeed. The Quacklash will take some time to have any substantial effects, and ultimately these may be minimal.

However, what has been achieved so far has been significant, and some of it will endure regardless of what now follows.


And so this blogpost is merely a milestone on various journeys: in a year's time it will be interesting to reflect on what will be the heroics of 2010...


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Saturday, 2 January 2010

Is Christianity A Mild Form Of Atheism?

My Christmas Day blogpost prompted a civilised and interesting discussion about the nature of atheism.

Particularly interesting contributions came from Woolly Minded Liberal and these provoked me into the following thoughts.

Atheism does not so much mean disbelief in any particular god but disbelief in gods generally.

Here I note my copy of Encyclopedia of Gods states that it lists over 2,500 deities.

These include, almost at random, Lupurcus the Roman god of wolves, Gobineau the Irish beer god, and Kades, a Canaanite fertility goddess depicted as naked carrying a snake and usually standing on a lion.

It is with some reluctance that I do not believe in such fine-sounding deities.

But, as an atheist, I disbelieve in these gods and all the other ones listed in my book. And so, with only one exception, will a Christian.

Moreover, a Christian will disbelieve in all these gods even though there can be arguments and evidences from design or from revelation which are remarkably similar to the ones which the Christians readily deploy for their own god.

In terms of sheer quantity of disbelieved-in gods, there is no significant difference between a Christian and an atheist. In terms of quality, the atheist is at least consistent in not accepting arguments and evidences for just one god which he or she dismisses in hundreds or thousands of others.

In fact, Christianity is a fairly recent religion in the context of human history, a mere two thousand years against a far longer period of (arguably) discernible evidence of human beliefs in afterlife and beliefs in distinctive deities. It is also a very local religion, limited in human terms to the Mediterranean basin and Europe for most of its brief history, even though humans had already spread to every continent (except Antarctica) before it was even developed.

There is no good reason why Christianity should be accorded some inherent priority over any other religion in debates about the merits of atheism; atheism is simply not about denying the Christian god directly.

However, a Christian dismisses (invariably without any inspection or reflection) thousands of other gods but often seems aghast and defensive when a full atheist goes that one slight step further and dismisses their god too. But the Christian position is not logically defensible.

Atheists should ask of Christians why they accept such a mild - and imperfect - form of atheism.

And when doing so, Christians should then be invited to take that one final step and become complete and satisfied atheists.



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What Is Good Blogging?

My award by Crispian Jago as Pod Delusion Blogger of 2009 is as good excuse as any for me to put down some personal and subjective thoughts as to what constitutes good blogging.

(By the way, one should treat Crispian's kind and unwarranted gesture with more than a pinch of sodium chloride. I regard each of the bloggers I mention below, and all the others on Crispian's list, as more deserving of the Pod Delusion award.)

In putting down these thoughts, I will draw primarily from the skeptical bloggers I know and admire, but I believe my points are of more general application.

My starting point is that many good bloggers would also excel in other media.

For example, Crispian Jago himself is simply an outstanding satirist and should be snapped up by Private Eye, whilst the respective writers of Gimpyblog and The Quackometer should be hired to do investigative writing by any quality newspaper.

Similarly, Graeme Archer of Centre Right is a thoughtful and elegant prose stylist and would grace any serious publication, as would the relentlessly analytic The Heresiarch.

In all these cases - and many others - it can be fairly said that these are good writers and creators who happen also to be good bloggers.

In this respect they complement bloggers such as Ben Goldacre and Petra Boynton, who are established and skilled writers in other media.

However, in my view, not all good writers are capable of being good bloggers. And, if I am correct, the qualities of good blogging must thereby be different from good writing generally.

So, as well as good writing, I think good blogging tends to have one or more of three particular qualities.

First, good blogs are independent.

This independence means that one can, for example, provide a timely and thorough response to some new piece of information, or give an insight into a breaking story, or gloss or analyse a matter of widening concern.

Independence is the benefit (most) blogs have from not being tied to the publication cycles of mainstream media; and such blogs benefit also from not being subject to internal editorial, advertising, and (indeed) legal considerations.

As soon as something is worth blogging about, it can simply be blogged about.

This goes for Gimpyblog having patiently unearthed and sourced some scandal regarding CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), or for Crispian getting a new idea about how to satirise the world around him, or for Petra responding to some silliness in the media on reporting sex and relationships.

Independence - or autonomy - from editorial or commercial pressures also means that one does not have to blog if the blogpost is not worth the effort or would not add anything new; bloggers are free to blog or not to blog, and so are never reduced to "churnalism".

Of course, the speediness of blogging is not an entirely new phenomenon: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pamphleteers such as William Cobbett or William Hazlitt also quickly self-published their reactions and critiques.

What to my mind differentiates modern bloggers from being merely regenerated pamphleteers is what I see as the second quality of good blogging: sourcing and linking.

Linking to the source information to which one is referring effectively elevates the good blogger from being a mere internet pamphleteer: the reader can go and check for themselves.

Again, sourcing and linking are not novel: they are the hallmarks of any competent scholarship. The links of a good blogpost should stand up to as much scrutiny as the footnotes of an academic monograph.

However, instead of being footnotes at the source of a printed page, and having efficacy only if one also happened to have access to an appropriate research library to check them, sourcing and linking brings the hard tests of scholarship to non-academic writing.

It is for this reason that I think phenomena as different as "churnalism" and CAM have been found wanting as written communication becomes more internet based: both will tend to suffer once assertions can be tested against original material.

Accordingly, there can be no real surprise that, whilst skeptical bloggers thrive (with writers of the calibre of Ben Goldacre, Gimpy, Andy Lewis (of the Quackometer), Professor David Colquhoun, Martin Robbins (of Lay Science), and so on), the entire complementary and alternative health communities have not produced a single blogger of any note.

In my opinion, the combination of speediness and linking explains why skeptics naturally gravitate towards blogging: independent and source-based writing will always attract the intelligent and deter the credulous.

For me, the third and ultimate quality of good blogging is originality.

Regardless of independence, and regardless of any sourcing and linking, the best blogs do things not to be found in mainstream media: if they were, there would probably be no need to blog.

My two favourite bloggers (er, after Crispian, of course) are Petra Boynton and Jourdemayne, both of whom feature on Crispian's list.

Petra draws from her background as an academic and mainstream media writer to provide compelling and highly-interesting blogs on sex and relationships - issues which are usually badly dealt with by squeamish, sensationalist, or smirking journalists. Until I came across Petra's Blog, I had no idea that these fundamental subjects could be written about in such an intelligent and constructive way.

Jourdemayne (whose blog is not as well known as it should be) draws her insights from a different background: profound historical knowledge of the extraordinary things people have believed in. She then uses this to contextualise more contemporary matters.

But all the bloggers I have mentioned have the quality of originality: providing new information or new insights, and often both.

Indeed, many bad science and skeptic bloggers are necessarily original, as they are consciously correcting the omissions of mainstream media in covering science and other issues.

Originality, like good writing, is not the preserve of bloggers; but each good blogger is, in my view, someone who adds something new: informing the interested reader, or forcing the reader to reflect.


Of course in all this I am biased: I am a blogger; I know personally many (but not all) of the bloggers I mention above; and I share many of their concerns and have learned much from their insights and the knowledge they have shared.

But if this blogpost is just an exercise in bias, the reader can simply decide never to visit this site again; if the links do not stand up to my assertions, then the reader can discount what I have to say; and if this blogpost says nothing new or original, then the reader knows that I have failed against my own ultimate criterion.

And in each of these cases, the reader can just move on - free of any charge and obligation - to other bloggers who are independent and original, and whose sources do stand up to scrutiny, for - in my opinion - such bloggers are the good bloggers, and should always be preferred.



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