Sexist rubbish

February 23, 2009

I’m writting this whilst watching the University Challenge final I started writing this whilst watching UC, but failed dismally to ignore the gripping final! This is the usual Daily Mail sexist trite:

Before reaching the grand final – to be screened tonight – her team trounced Exeter University 350-15, a victory described by host Jeremy Paxman as ‘less like a general knowledge quiz and more like a cull’.

But, rather than celebrating Miss Trimble’s success, many viewers have subjected her to vicious abuse. Some experts say this behaviour exposes the sinister hostility to brainpower in our dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed age.

While some have praised the 26-year-old as ‘very sexy with a gorgeous smile’, others call her ‘a hateful know-it-all’ and an ‘ annoying bitch’.

So she’s either “very sexy with a gorgeous smile”, or a “hateful know-it-all and an annoying bitch”?  Could it not be possible that she’s actually very fucking smart? The outrageous sexism that pervades the Mail comes through in this piece in buckets:

They have taken particular exception to her saying ‘Oh, well done’, ‘Of course’ and ‘Quite’ to her teammates.

One said she was a ‘horse-toothed snob’ who ‘ruins University Challenge every time she is on it with her “better than thou” attitude’.

Another said Miss Trimble was ‘so brain-rupturingly irritating and smug’ that they hoped science would come up with ‘a screen that you can reach through and punch those inside’.

‘She could easily win University Challenge on her own, but I get the feeling she may well celebrate alone as well.’

So she’s smart, she does her job as the Captain of the team, and she has the temerity to be female?  Yeah, there’s nothing sexist going on here.  “Smart women dine alone”? Give me a break.

And their clincher?

Her breadth of general knowledge is truly impressive but when it comes to the kind of questions regularly posed in pub quizzes, gaps in Gail Trimble’s knowledge appear.

A series of questions put to her by The Sun newspaper left her stumped. Here they are….

1) Who won the Brit Award for Best Female last week?

Gail: ‘I don’t know’

2) What was the name of the 13-year-old dad whose story was broken by The Sun and caused a global storm?

Gail: ‘I read the article, but I can’t remember the boy’s name.’

3) What is the name of the British lead actor in the Oscar-nominated film, Slumdog Millionaire?

Gail: ‘I have no idea.’

4) Who is the new manager of Chelsea FC?

Gail: ‘I don’t know.’

5) Who won the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother?

Gail: ‘I don’t know. These aren’t academic questions.’

If you, too, are stumped then here are the answers.

1: Duffy. 2: Alfie Patten. 3: Dev Patel. 4: Guus Hiddink. 5: Ulrika Jonsson.

On a good day, I will get may be 5-10 questions right on University Challenge.  And by good day, I mean phenomenaly good day.  I would not be able to answer a single one of the Sun’s questions as quoted by the Daily Mail.  I can only imagine what conclusions the Sun would make of that.

Congrats though to Corpus Christi Cambridge.  And f*ck you Daily Mail.


Jeni Barnett looses the internets.

February 11, 2009

Until a few days ago I’d never heard of Jeni Barnett.  But now she has had her name plastered all over the internet as an excellent example of How To Loose The Internets.

Briefly, Jeni Barnett is a radio and television broadcaster who hosted a three-hour phone-in broadcast stating that vaccines cause autism.  Ben Goldacre at caught wind of it and used a 40-minute clip of the show to play a quick game of Bad Science Bingo.  Normally this would have been left at that, and life would continue as normal, and most people outside of London would have remained blissfully unaware as to who Jeni Barnett was and how woefully ill-informed she is on the current state of vaccine research.  Unfortunately it didn’t end there.

LBC – the company who pays Jeni to broadcast to Londoners – decided to send in the lawyer attack-dogs to Ben Goldacre claiming copyright infringement on the clip he’d posted on his blog.

Now whether you agree with the lawyers or not, this is a monumentally dumb thing to do.  Ben Goldacre is an extremely popular blogger, and his posts regarding the piss-poor state of science journalism in the UK is both frightening and enlightening in equal measures.

Can you guess what happened?

The clip in quesion is now on Wikileaks, and pretty much every corner of the internet.  It is now being discussed in everything from the most obscure blog (which I think is officially this one) to the most popular.  Pretty much everyone with the most vaguest interest in good science is now aware of LBC and Jeni Barnett.

And do you think it stops there?

Does it hell.  Ms Barnett later decided that she was only interested in a health debate, and posted a comment to this effect on her blog, whilst calling Ben a “Bad Scientist”.  As she’d invited comment, people – informed people – commented.  Of course, being interested in debate, she removed the comments and closed comments on her blog.


The comments are freely available here.

Jeni Barnett: EPIC FAIL,

He said…What?

September 12, 2008

Reading through today’s headline over at the National Secular Society, there’s a few headlines all dealing with one question: Creationism.  The Times, in particular, issues the headline, “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools“.  Later, over at the BBC, was the headline, “Call for creationism in science“.  A Times editorial on “Unintelligent design“, an Independent article stating, “One in 10 pupils believes in creationism“. A bizarre analysis, again from the Times stating, “You need to understand your opponents’ argument“.  What’s with the sudden interest in creationsim?

Well, it all leads to one thing: a scientist – the Prof./Rev. Michael Reiss – is saying that creationism should be taught in schools.  And not just any scientist: Scientist, ordained minister, and member of the Royal Society.  We are in very muddy territory indeed if a member of the Royal Society – and a biologist at that – is endorsing creationism.  The Times actually went further, proclaiming that:

Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.

If this is true, then we really are in deep do-do.  The position of the Royal Society, when it was last embroiled in this farce of a “controversy”, was categorically that creationism is not science.  Have they suddenly performed an about face?

Well. No.

What the Prof./Rev. actually wrote can be found here, and this appears to be the crux of his argument:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

Now, if I’m reading this correctly, he’s not saying, “side must be set aside to discuss creationism in the science classroom”, he’s instead saying, “if a child asks, or mentions, creationism, the correct response is not to say, ‘we can’t discuss that at all’, but to say, ‘okay, defend that statement'”.  And I think he’s right.  Especially as he goes on to clarify:

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationsim or intelligent design observe equal time.

He’s not saying, in any way, shape or form, that either intelligent design or creationism are valid scientfic viewpoints, or represent any form of challenge to evolution. Rather he’s saying, “let’s show how science works“.  Simply hand-waving and dismissing the idea does not teach children anything: instead, he’s saying, show them how there pre-conceptions differ from the way science works. And he’s right: this is hardly novel. Take physics as an example.

Almost all of modern physics is counter-intuitive, yet it is by far the best description of the world we see.  We are taught in schools that two objects of different weights – a feather and a lead weight, say – when dropped in a vacum will drop at the same rate.  This runs counter to our every-day observation that the lead weight will fall faster.  Similarly, we are taught that an object at motion will remain in motion unless a force is appled against it.  But if you roll a ball along a straight plane, it will eventually stop – the physical truth runs counter to normal experience.  It has to be explained that the discrepency is air-resistence.  In many respects, it could be argued that if a person has not experienced the “huh?” moment when newtonian physics is explained to them then they probably haven’t understood the implications, and probably never felt the, “Oh!” feeling of exaltation when they finally do get it.  I regularly meet people who, even in adult-hood, still don’t understand that an object in orbit, whilst aparently weightless, is not mass-less, and make eroneous assumptions based on this.

Evolution is the same.  Evolution – just like modern physics, and all good science – is overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and is overwhemingly backed by predictive power, but is overwhelmingly counter-intuitive.  Humans and apes share a common ancestor.  And, in fact, we’ve got common ancestors with every mammal.  Huh?  On the face of it, it makes no sense. Yet it is absolutely true.  The kids coming into the classrooms to be fed these apparently nonsensical viewpoints may well believe that humanity was created, because they have no other frame of reference.  They haven’t learnt what science is.  Surely nothing could be better for the teaching of evolution – and the teaching of science in general – than to point out why creationism isn’t scientific, and why intelligent design isn’t scientific.  All this guy is saying is, “teach kids critical thinking”. Otherwise, all you’re doing is teaching them a bunch of facts they don’t understand, and can never connect to their own lives.

And he’s appropriately cautious too:

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said.

I’m deeply dissapointed that an honest assesment of how to explain evolution in the classroom is distorted and grossly misrepresented by the media in an attempt to garner a few newspaper sales.  I can imagine the glee with which creationists, on both sides of the pond, will look at these headlines and shout, “See!  Even the Royal Society agree with us”, when they, most profoundly, do not.

One story, seven reports

July 23, 2008

I’ve recently started reading the book, “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies, about why most news seems to be such rubbish.  In the book, Nick Davies discusses a number of problems with the modern “news industry” (or “churnalism” as he calls it) such as increasing output whilst cutting back on reporters, over-dependence on press wire agencies, re-writting other people’s stories in a game of one-up-manship-meets-chinese-whispers, and so forth. So it was with these issues in mind that I came across this story by an un-named source in the BBC:

A woman has been awarded more than £800,000 after she suffered permanent brain damage while on a detox diet.

The story goes on to explain that Dawn Page was told to drink large amounts of water – later clarified as four pints – and eventually had “an epileptic seizure which damaged her memory, speech and concentration”.  What started my brain buzzing however was the closing statement in the article. After having gone in to some detail as to how drinking too much water is not good for you, the article finishes with:

But others believe detoxing can beneficial [sic] if done property. Ellie Kopiel, 55, detoxes about once a year by limiting her food intake, eating lots of fruit and vegetables and drinking about two litres of water a day.

Closing this article in this way immedeatly reminded me of Nick Davies’ “Rules of Production”, especially Rule 5: Always give both sides of the story.

Rule 5 essentially says that the press, when venturing out of their safe zones, will always pick someone to show the “other side of the story” – even when it can objectively be shown that there is no other legitimate side – just to cover their arse. (I am, of course, crudely paraphrasing Nick Davies).  Having read this article alongside the BBC’s article “The dangers of too much detox“, by Martin Hutchinson – which contains no such cop-out – and bearing in mind the lessons in Nick Davie’s book, I placed a small wager with myself that the story had been re-written from a Press wire agency.  So I had to wonder: how many different ways can one seemingly innocuous news story be reported.

I picked six other sites, all of which also sell newspapers, to see what could be gleened from them. I chose:

Of these, two sources (the BBC and Metro) did not name a source for the article; three named a reporter as the apparent source (Guardian, Telegraph and Evening Standard), whereas only one identified that the story came from a press wire agency: the Northern Echo name the Press Association as being the source.  This is not in itself unusual, but those are the statistics.

All of the seven sources agree on the basic facts: Dawn Page is 52, she has received over £800,000, shortly after starting the detox diet she started vomitting, she suffered had an epileptic fit, and now suffers from some form of brain damage.

Importantly, however, the sources do not agree as to what happened when Mrs Page reported her vomitting to her nutritionist, Ms Nash.  They all report that Mrs Page was told by Ms Nash that vomitting was a perfectly normal part of the process.  The Telegraph gives more details stating:

After a few days she started vomiting but was allegedly assured by Mrs Nash that it was “all part of the detoxification process”. Mrs Page, who weighed 12 stone (76kg), was even urged to increase her water intake to six pints a day and cut her salt intake further.(emphasis mine).

Similarly, the Evening Standard states:

Mrs Nash even urged Mrs Page – who weighed 12 stone – to increase the amount of water she drank to six pints per day and eat fewer salty foods.

And the Mirror:

Mrs Nash suggested Dawn, from Faringdon, near Oxford, increase the amount of water she drank to six pints a day and eat fewer salty foods.

And the Metro:

Mrs Page fell ill days after starting the diet in 2001 but Ms Nash – who denied all liability in the High Court settlement – told her to drink even more water and the dieter suffered a severe epileptic fit.

Four sources out of seven reported that, when complaining of vomitting, Mrs Nash urged Mrs Page to increase her water intake from four-pints of water (over and above her normal liquid intake) to six, and of those three state Mrs Page was advised to reduce salt intake further still. The remaining four don’t report either of these facts.  In fact two – the BBC, and the Northern Echo, implicitly contradict this finding.  The statement by the lawyer acting for the nutritionist is reported on the BBC as saying:

“On behalf of our client we wish to make it clear that all allegations of substandard practice made on behalf of Mrs Page in the litigation have always been and continue to remain firmly denied.

“Equally, the information contained in the medical records suggesting that Mrs Page appeared to have drunk five litres of water on the day that she was admitted to hospital, and therefore disregarded advice given by our client, were also denied by Mrs Page.

In our view as a recognition of this, the settlement amount agreed to be paid was less than half the total amount claimed and the compromise which was offered and accepted was on the basis of no admission of liability.”

The Northern Echo concurs.  If the settlement sum was reduced by half, based on the disputed fact that Mrs Page had allegedly drunk five pints of water on the day she was admitted to hospital, how could it be that Mrs Nash had advised Mrs Page to drink six?  I cannot honestly believe that a settlement of this type would have been reached because Mrs Page had drunk less than she was advised, only that she’d drunk more.

Neither the Telegraph, the Evening Standard, or the Mirror reporting of the statement made by Mrs Nash’s lawyer covers the disputed five pints of water.  Only that she was allegedly told to drink six pints a day.  Either some important detail has been missed, or that’s simply been made up.

Now this is not – by any stretch of the imagination – to defend the self-styled nutritionist. Based upon what I’ve read on the problems caused by drinking too much water, I think she offered some extraordinarialy dangerous advise, irrespective as to whether she advised her client to drink four or six pints.  What’s interesting here is that this is – on the surface – a relatively uncomplicated story, and yet the facts can still get screwed around. The BBC story – by covering their own arses with the “balanced” approach – leave you feeling that detox diets may be okay, even though the article points out what a load of rubbish the nutritionist was spouting.  The Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Mirror and the Metro are apparently making stuff up, whilst failing to provide the nutritionists statement that would cast doubt on their additional statements.

I don’t really know what further conclusion to reach from this.  I don’t know what really happened in this case, but I am fairly convinced that the national press don’t either, and that bothers me.