# How to beat “Blue Monday”

So, another Blue Monday is upon us. It’s not clear exactly when Blue Monday is, but we do know it’s upon us. The Daily Mail has gone with last Monday; The Training Room, one of the four billion companies who have used it for marketing, have gone with next Monday. But we can work it out, because we have the equation:

$Misery = \frac{(W + (D-d)) \times TQ}{M \times NA}$

…unless it’s this one

$D = N + M (T+1) C R \frac{B-S}{J}$

but nobody uses that one. Anyway, it’s definitely a Monday, and it’s definitely in January because $T$ is time, which increases with time and so is highest in December, and $Q$ is how many new year’s resolutions you’ve given up on which is also highest in December look don’t think about it shut up.

Anyway, we know these formulæ are real because they make predictions. One intrepid PR man compiled a formula for the perfect marriage which results in thirty-some pre-specified romantic gestures you have to make every month. Since months are of different lengths, that means you need be less romantic in the longer ones.

This formula about a marriage clearly makes the unrelated prediction that February should be the most romantic month; that there should be some kind of festival of romance smack in the middle of it. Since every restaurant I’ve been in lately has taken great pains to confirm that this is indeed the case, the only rational, skeptical or scientific conclusion is that these formulæ represent the very real cutting edge of science.

While it is obviously bad news that we are all scientifically depressed either last or next Monday, it does offer a ray of hope. Here, you see, is the formula for the perfect Christmas:

I’m assuming that the second “divided by 3D” on the bottom is a typo. Firstly because this formula otherwise defines some kind of festive acceleration, which even a cursory analysis of the Twelve Days Of Christmas song teaches us is dangerous, but mostly because if it’s a real fraction then the numerator has an equals in it.

The point of this equation is—

Actually, first I should point out that $W$ appears twice: once to represent a walk, and once to represent a glass of wine. This might be an error, but I prefer to assume it is a deliberate simplification introduced because walking and wine are somehow equal. I say this because this is the Times’ “Offset Your Carbs” wallchart:

It quite clearly shows that going for a walk is equal to garlic bread:

It also shows (although I haven’t got a close-up photo of this) that a glass of wine is equal to some sex. Taking the new result that wine equals walking,

$Garlic Bread = Walking = Wine = Sex$

The strangest thing here is that mathematically, Peter Kay is now the filthiest comedian in Britain.

Anyway, the point is that the $D$ in the formula for misery is Christmas debt. If we can reduce that value we can all-but eliminate Blue Monday. So how do we do that? Well, the formula for the perfect Christmas is:

$P_\chi = \frac{8F \times (4P + £23)}{3D} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$

Christmas debt is $8F \times 4P \times £23 = £736$. Quite a whack. But we can reduce it without affecting $P_\chi$ — I’m generously assuming what is probably an $X$ is a $\chi$ — because it’s in a fraction. Dividing top and bottom by 4, we get

$P_\chi = \frac{8F \times (1P + £5.75)}{18 hours} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$

That gets us below £50, but that’s still a lot. Let’s dispense with seven family members and divide through by eight.

$P_\chi = \frac{1F \times (1P + £5.75)}{135 minutes} + \frac{3G}{3D} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{2W}{3D} + \frac{5T}{3D \times 1NR}$

Now our only problem is that the times are inconsistent: 135 minutes in the first term, and three days thereafter. Never mind, just divide all the fractions by 32, top and bottom:

$P_\chi = \frac{1F \times (1P + £5.75) + \frac{3}{32}G}{135 minutes} + \left(1+\frac{1}{4C}\right)\frac{\frac{1}{16}W \times 32NR + 5T}{135 minutes \times 32NR}$

This new, abbreviated Christmas is interesting. $G$, for example, represents a nice family game, of which we must play three thirty-second fractions, and while the formula for the perfect family game (obviously there is one) doesn’t readily divide by 32, there is a game that does.

Three Chess Over Thirty Two features six squares with three pieces on them, and luckily for anyone wanting to knock out Christmas in a little over two hours, requires only one move for checkmate.

But however dull a game Three Chess Over Thirty Two can be, however unsatisfactory one sixteenth of a glass of wine (or walk), and however overfilling you find the 32 portions of nut roast you are forced to consume because it was inexplicably on the denominator, the cold, mathematical reality is that $P_\chi$ has not changed and therefore Christmas has been totally and objectively perfect, while costing less than six pounds. This, in turn, means that our formula for misery loses much of its sting, and that is how you beat Blue Monday.

This is adapted from part of my Stupid Formulæ Talk which can come to your local Skeptics in the Pub or similar event if you think your audience would enjoy hearing me be approximately this silly for the better (or at least longer) part of an hour.

# I can’t believe I have to explain to the Guardian that the moon is larger than a jogger.

The tedious and ridiculous “Supermoon” is back.

The Guardian call it “one of the natural world’s most spectacular light shows”. In fact, the moon is at the closest point to the Earth in its orbit, and it also happens to be a full moon. According to both the Guardian and the BBC,

The phenomenon, known as a perigee full moon, means the Moon appears up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than when it is furthest from the planet.

Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society, told the BBC that although the phenomenon makes the moon appear 30% brighter, it is the apparent 14% increase in size … that is most striking. “The eye is so good at compensating for changes in brightness that you simply don’t notice so much,”

No, the reason we don’t notice the moon appearing 30% brighter is that it doesn’t.

The amount of light that hits the moon depends on the distance from the sun. Light leaves the sun equally in all directions, and if you imagine a load of photons leaving it at the same moment, you get a sphere, and as they fly through space they get more and more spread out. If you move the moon further away, more of them will miss it. The difference in light hitting the moon, between its closest and furthest points, is roughly 0.03%. That only accounts for a .05% change in brightness (and in fact, it’s dwarfed by variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun) so where does the other 29.95% come from?

Ah, but the distance to the Earth changes by more, right? Yes — by 14% if you go by the newspapers’ figures. Wolfram|Alpha puts it at nearer 12%. It’s not important. The important point is that once again the nearer the moon is to the Earth, the more light we get — but the more of the sky it takes up. And because both the amount of light and the area of moon in the sky increase at the same rate (the square of the distance) the actual brightness of the moon remains exactly constant. The brightness of the night, on the other hand, increases by a factor of (114%)² = 129.96%. I think it’s pretty clear what’s happened here.

It’s a coincidence that those numbers work out so neatly, obviously, but it does mean we can quantify the accuracy of the “30% brighter” claim: it is 0.17% truth and 99.83% misunderstanding of basic physics. Here’s that data as a graph:

Ah, but look! They have photos! How can I pooh-pooh it when they have photos? Here’s the Guardian’s shot:

That’s a pretty big moon, but not because of the “supermoon”. That’s because of perspective. We all know the moon is larger than a jogger. It shouldn’t be impressive if it seems that way in a photo.

If you doubt me, here is that information presented as a graph:

I mean, I think this is a pretty epic moon:

That was taken on 21 October 2005, when the moon was a little further away than normal. All you have to do to get this effect is to walk backwards and zoom in. Think about it: you can walk backwards for ages and the distance between you and the moon will basically stay the same. The distance between you and the jogger or the building in front of the moon will change a lot. So you can control the relative size of moon and jogger really easily, just like you can take a photo of your giant kid holding up a tiny Tower of Pisa if you really feel you must. And if you make the jogger small, then crop the image around the moon, the moon looks massive.

Because it is. Of course it is, it’s the sodding moon.

I suppose what annoys me about this story is that the ‘supermoon’ is too pathetic to be of interest to photographers, too banal to be of interest to astronomers, and arbitrarily not of interest to astrologers. So who cares? Nobody. Nobody cares. And yet it’s been in every newspaper going, two years on the trot. And it’s one thing when a newspaper does it, because it’s cheaper than doing journalism. But the BBC should be above it.

# Can a simple mouth rinse help Muslims win Olympic gold?

Lester Sawicki is a dentist from Austin, who specialises mainly in spamming Amazon affiliate links across Blogger, Digg, Twitter, and generally whatever other site he can find a ‘submit’ button on. It’s hard to tell if his blog is intended as a real blog that he simply happens to have plastered with more adverts than a multi-bus pileup in Times Square during the Superbowl, or if he just shoves content there from time to time to give Google that impression, but I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It took me so long to find the bit about Muslim athletes that I started to suspect the tweet I used as the title of this post was generated by something like the Daily Mail-o-Matic. (In fact, it’s an energy-packed mouthrinse for use during the Ramadan fast.) He also writes sells ridiculous books with names like Yin Ain’t Yang: the ancient way to better health that only a Texan could come up with.

This came to my attention, anyway, because said ridiculous book was recently highlighted in the British Dental Journal, which is part of the Nature publishing group and therefore should know better. Here is the news story in its entirety. The first paragraph is a textbook case of “technically true” and it goes downhill from there.

A book written by a dentist in Austin, Texas reveals how the teeth, tongue and jaws are powerful tools that can unlock ‘vital energy that may improve overall health, fitness and longevity’.

According to Dr Lester Sawicki, author of Yin ain’t yang, the ancient way to better health, modern science is beginning to understand ancient wisdom about the link between healthy teeth, gums and jaw function and boosting general fitness, health, and longevity. New evidence proves that teeth are joined to vital organs by way of energy channels and when the teeth, tongue and jaws are included in a regular meditative exercise routine you can access and refine the body’s ‘chakras’ to promote a long, healthy, strong existence.

Dr Sawicki believes that meditative exercise using your teeth, body, and mind can relieve stress, improve cardiovascular function and flexibility, increase bone density, balance hormones, circulate lymph, detoxify organs, increase brain function and induce happiness.

The book offers a series of energy-building visualisations and physical exercises aimed at strengthening and aligning the ‘chi centre’ of the oral cavity with the ‘power centres’ of the body.

This was in their “news” section, which accepts press releases, so I can only assume he did that. Which is a bit sad – I expect this sort of thing from tabloids, I’m a bit disappointed when the Guardian do it, and now here it is in a scientific journal, listed as “news”. And the second sentence in the second paragraph is missing the phrase “Dr Sawicki believes”.

It’s just a bit sad when you’re jumping through hoops trying to get a paper through someone’s review system, if they’re publishing just any old shit in the news and comment sections.

# Judge Bans Thinking

Hello!

I just saw this news story on singingbanana’s Tumblr:

The footwear expert made what the judge believed were poor calculations about the likelihood of the match, compounded by a bad explanation of how he reached his opinion. The conviction was quashed. But more importantly, as far as mathematicians are concerned, the judge also ruled against using [Bayes' theorem] in the courts in future.

What?

In case you don’t know, Bayes’ Theorem is a formula from the days when mathematicians could get away with just naming bits of common sense after themselves, and states:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) × P(A) ÷ P(B)

That is,

(probability A is true given evidence B) = (probability of finding B if A is true) × (probability of A being true) ÷ (probability of finding B)

Obviously that’s pretty useful in court, and it’s also pretty easy to understand: clearly, (probability of finding B) = (probability of finding B if A is true) × (probability of A being true) + (probability of finding B if A is false) × (probability of A being false). That’s all the options: A must be true or false. All Bayes’ theorem does is work out in what the proportion of the cases in which B is found, A is true. It’s almost obvious, in an informal kind of way, if you have the right kind of brain.

Point is, you’re now not allowed to use that reasoning in court, which means if your defence depends on any evidence more subtle than “fifteen people saw me across town” then you’d better find another way of phrasing it than this. It’s basically maths, so you ought to be able to work round it and find a more circuitous way of showing the same thing.

Strictly, the ruling was that you can’t use Bayes’ theroem “unless the underlying statistics are firm” but that doesn’t help a lot. In qualitative terms, all the theory says is that something is more likely if you have evidence for it — so I think we can safely assume it’s the use of maths that the judge objected to. It’s the same reasoning behind the Drake equation: people are bad at guessing big, complicated things like “how many aliens might there be” or “how likely is this guy to be guilty given we found this footprint”, but pretty good at estimating simple things like “how long might an alien race beam signals into space” or “how likely is it there’d be a footprint like this just here”. You can do the same thing if you get to the tie-break in a pub quiz: come up with a way to work out the answer from easier to estimate quantities and crunch the numbers. You’ll almost certainly do better than the team that guesses the final answer directly.

And that is why this ruling is worrying: because not only has a judge fallen foul of the natural but wrong tendency for humans to overestimate their own judgement and distrust logic and reason, but they’ve ruled that all other judges and lawyers have to make the same error. It’s a shame, because while any large group tends to be a bit rubbish at thinking, judges are usually pretty good — as, I think, is anyone impartial with the time and inclination to look into things.

I didn’t know they could do that. (I actually suspect they can’t and the story is overblown, but I wouldn’t know enough to decide.) What’s next — a judge commits the prosecutor’s fallacy and then rules that everyone else has to do it as well? Idunno, seems a bit dangerous to me.

It just seems like it’d be fairly easy to set someone up if there’s a big list of thought processes their defence lawyer isn’t allowed to invoke. Or design a crime that could be easily proven but not with the limited methods of thinking allowed in the courtroom.

There are some interesting mental exercises there — coming up with crimes or frames for differently handicapped justice systems — but not ones actual lawyers should have to bother with.

# Can we not save herbal medicine?

A bit ago, Avaaz sent me a somewhat hyperbolic email asking me to help them “save herbal medicines”. I tend to distrust anybody who uses the phrases “ban” and “big Pharma” in their very first sentence:

Dear friends,

In 3 days, the EU will ban much of herbal medicine, pressing more of us to take pharmaceutical drugs that drive the profits of big Pharma.

The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn’t been on the market for 30 years — including virtually all Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicine. It’s a draconian move that helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge.

We need a massive outcry against this. Together, our voices can press the EU Commission to fix the directive, push our national governments to refuse to implement it, and give legitimacy to a legal case before the courts. Sign below, forward this email to everyone, and let’s get to 1 million voices to save herbal medicine:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_herbal_medicine_ban/?vl

It’s hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, it may be impossible to find that remedy.

On May 1st the Directive will create major barriers to manufactured herbal remedies, requiring enormous costs, years of effort, and endless expert processes to get each and every product approved. Pharmaceutical companies have the resources to jump through these hoops but hundreds of small- and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses, across Europe and worldwide, will go bust.

We can stop this. The directive has been passed in the shadows of the bureaucracy, and it cannot stand under the light of democratic scrutiny. The EU Commission can withdraw or amend it, and a court case is currently challenging it to do so. If European citizens everywhere come together now, it will give legitimacy to the legal case, and add to growing pressure on the Commission. Sign below, and forward this email to everyone:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_herbal_medicine_ban/?vl

There are arguments for better regulation of natural medicine, but this draconian directive harms the ability of Europeans to make safe and healthy choices. Let’s stand up for our health, and our right to choose safe herbal medicine.

With hope and determination,

Ricken, Iain, Giulia, Benjamin, Alex, Alice, Pascal, Luis and the rest of the Avaaz team.

I thought they were being a bit silly, so I sent them this email:

You do a lot of great campaigns, but this isn’t one of them. Why shouldn’t herbal medicines be subject to the same rules as, well, real medicines? Herbal medicines are not being banned. And no future regulations will ever affect any remedies that have been proven to be safe and effective. If the medicines are as safe and effective as you say, they’re quite safe forever.

What the status quo represents is a huge loophole for selling dangerous or useless medicines, endangering lives for profit, simply because the remedies are “traditional”.

What we need a huge outrcy against is that quacks are allowed to sell vulnerable people false promises.

Andrew

This is the email I got back:

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for writing in about the EU Herbals campaign.

You may not believe in herbal medicines as a remedy, but that is not what is on trial here, and Avaaz hasn’t endorsed herbals as an alternative or proven from of medication, nor have we said that these products should not be subjected to regulation. What we are calling for is for this Directive to be amended, because it’s heavy-handed regulation that undermines consumer choice and will force small producers out of business.

We have written a more detailed response here: http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_herbal_response_to_concerns

Avaaz weighs every campaign decision closely. In this instance, we polled a random 10,000 person sample of our EU list, and found that 79% of responders supported the campaign. We also carefully monitor feedback from our members on every issue and this one in particular seems to have drawn a very heated response. Our small team cannot answer every single email we receive, which is why we’ve attempted to answer concerns publicly.

We hope these answers help clarify what we’ve said and why, and that even if you still cannot agree with this campaign, you will continue to support other Avaaz campaigns in the future.

Thanks,

Dominick

Okay, but one question:

What I believe is irrelevant. Would you start an email with “herbal remedies do not work, but…”

You say Avaaz hasn’t endorsed herbals as proven medication, but plainly it has: sending out an email to all your subscribers with hyperbolic language like “it’s hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, as of this week it may be impossible to find that cure” is reckless and irresponsible.

The proposed rules include a generous grandfathering scheme for established traditions, but I just can’t accept that a quack’s right to profit from vulnerable, sick people is important, or that “consumer choice” should include the choice to be conned by them.

I think this sort of thing is always really complicated and reducing it to bans and petitions is more damaging than it is useful.

Andrew

That was a couple of months ago. They haven’t replied, but they did email me asking for my help freeing a lesbian blogger who never existed. I should have asked about that, see if I got a response saying “you may not believe in Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari, but…”

There’s a case to be made that herbal medicine is an area where it’s possible to make an effective product on a small scale even when you haven’t the resources to perform proper trials — but by the same token it’s impossible to know if your product works or not if you haven’t the resources to perform a trial, so it would be a tricky case to present coherently.

Since Avaaz did not bother to explain properly, preferring a tabloidesque “ban this draconian ban” approach, the regulation in question is the European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products, and was passed on 30 March 2004. Avaaz (established January 2007) alerted the world to it on 29 April 2011, fully three days before the seven-year grandfathering period ended.

Generally, to be honest, I find the tone of many campaigns annoying: they start with the assumption that I agree with them and then try to spur me into action, and I think they would be more effective if they started with the assumption that I didn’t know or care about the issue in question, inform me, enrage me, and then ask me to help. If nothing else, it would force them to explain their position more fully.

In this case I think it would have undermined their argument a bit had they had to send an email saying “in three days, a ban on unproven and/or dangerous medicines passed in 2004 will come into affect and the quacks who sell it could go out of business”, which is of course exactly why I’d like them to at least draft that email before badgering me with their silly concerns.

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/eu_herbal_medicine_ban/?rc=fb

# Homeopathy in the British Dental Journal

A while ago, the British Dental Journal published a quite good opinion piece entitled Unethical Aspects of Homeopathic Dentistry. The following issue was full of angry homeopaths, livid that someone would have the temerity to point out that homeopathy is perhaps a little bit silly, of which the most irritating was a lengthy opinion piece entitled Homeopathy and its Ethical Use in Dentistry. I wrote a letter in reply to this, and apparently so did a couple of other readers, because the current issue is full of letters from actual scientists, laced with varying degrees of sarcasm. I think my favourite line is from R Levy’s letter:

On the positive side, however, I am always happy to be reminded of the tale of the homeopath who forgot to take his medicine and died of an overdose.

Here is the full text of my letter:

There is an interesting and ongoing debate about the ethics of using placebos in medicine, so I was disappointed that the response to Unethical aspects of homeopathic dentistry has focused instead on disputing the overwhelming scientific consensus that homeopathy is baseless and unproven.

It is well known that people are prone to trust experiences and evidence that support their preconceptions. It is therefore inappropriate to challenge such an established consensus in the letters and opinion pages, particularly by citing personal experiences, individual studies and one’s own website. To make a convincing case, a large, unbiased systematic review is needed. The Cochrane Collaboration has already done this for several conditions, but has yet to find compelling evidence of any benefit. Usually, few or no well-conducted trials exist.

In the absence of evidence that homeopathy works, one is forced to estimate its priori plausibility as the homeopaths do – by comparing it to experience. The two founding principles of homeopathy are that a patient presenting with a given symptom is best cured by a substance known to cause that symptom, and that diluting medicine makes it stronger – including well beyond the point where no medicine remains. I wonder how your readers’ clinical experiences compare to these principles.

References are included on the journal’s webpage, including links to all the silly pro-homeopathy letters and articles. Here are links to the other responses:

• Quackery Risk, R Levy (quoted above)
• Ethically Unacceptable, K G Icaacson (“Lest your readers begin to think that there may be possible benefits of homeopathy…”)
• A Substantial Gap, G Chapman (“Any ethical practice involving homeopathy must necessarily begin by telling the patient that it is scientifically implausible…”)

There was also one letter praising the silly pro-homeopathy article.

I like this kind of thing. You do see pseudoscience sneaking into places where it really shouldn’t be, but for all that nonsense does seem to be everywhere, people are actually pleasingly good at spotting and laughing at it.

# Pass me the Brain Protector™.

Manchester University publish a magazine thing called “UniLife”. I unsubscribed from the print version because I find that sort of thing rather distracting, but I still read the online version. And the latest issue has an article (page ten, left column) entitled

Colour purple sees off Alzheimer’s

Well, that explains the new logo.

This struck me immediately as bullshit. Quack nutritionists have been extolling the virtues of brightly coloured fruit ever since that weekend when everyone thought anti-oxidants were really good for you, and whenever new research apparently confirms something that a quack just made up my default reaction is both scepticism and skepticism. Sometimes even skeptikism. But I read on.

Eating purple fruits such as blueberries and drinking green tea can help ward off diseases including Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s, a University of Manchester report claims.

Claims about more than one disease are another classic quack hallmark.

Ground-breaking research from Professor Douglas Kell has found that the majority of debilitating illnesses are in part caused by poorly-bound iron…

This is going to be about anti-oxidants, I thought, isn’t it?

…which causes the production of dangerous toxins that can react with the components of living systems.

“Toxins”? This article has more canards than Sarkozy’s duck island. It still may be totally legitimate, of course, but my finely-tuned bullshit-detection heuristics are all lighting up like the BBC switchboard after Jan Moir forgets to Sky+ something and assumes it must have been offensive.

In order to protect the body from these dangerous varieties of poorly-bound iron, it is vital to take on nutrients, known as iron chelators, which can bind the iron tightly.

This caught me off-guard. I was expecting anti-oxidants, and suddenly here are chelators. Chelation therapy is already an established form of quackery, and already touted to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also very dangerous (in its more common, non fruit-based form).

I guess there must have been a press-release, because the same article appears word-for word on PhysOrg, with approving comments from a chelation quack, and on HealthNewsTrackByron J Richards’ Wellness Resources, a website that sets off more of my alarm bells than anything in UniLife ever could, has a copy of the article, adding

I believe that Dr. Kell has hit upon a basic principle of health with far reaching application for prevention of diseases that are at epidemic levels. … I have recently highlighted the importance of blueberries for the protection of your brain and this is another important angle on this issue.

Richards’ website also sells a \$80/month dietary supplement called “Brain Protector™” which, he says, “contains key nutrients to enhance protection of the brain and nervous system. Includes blueberry and more!” Radio nutritionist and chiropractor Alan Pressman has also written about the article, in almost so glowing terms as those he reserves for Deepak Chopra. Apparently nobody that Google News indexes picked up the story.

UniLife didn’t link to the original research, but the version of the article on the chemistry department website did. It’s a review article. Well, two review articles. They’re both very long, and packed with something like two thousand references each (along with some weirdly amateurish diagrams, “figures” that are really just paragraphs of text, and dodgy-looking underlined sections, often including only the “anti” in “antioxidants” — journals really need to stop trusting scientists to format articles). I profess no knowledge at all about biochemistry, but I came away from them with the impression that yeah, maybe this was a process present in quite a few diseases, and if so then slowing it down could help a bit, but nothing that would justify the claims in the UniLife article. A review article — even two review articles — isn’t really “ground-breaking research” to me. It’s a way of pointing out a connection you’ve spotted. It hypothesises. It should be followed with a systematic review, a meta-analysis, to show if there is evidence for the hypothesis. A regular review has no explicit inclusion or exclusion criteria for the papers it cites, and shouldn’t be seen as an unbiased snapshot of the evidence.

I think promoting early research findings too heavily is a risky game, especially where there are already dangerous quacks trading on the same ideas. You can’t retract from these people — even after he was struck off, they still cling to Andrew Wakefield’s debunked and retracted ‘study’. I think the claims in this press release are hugely overblown, as is the overall impact of the research, and I think singling out Alzheimer’s disease in the headline misrepresents the original articles. And even if it’s a totally legitimate bit of well-conducted research discovering something genuinely novel and useful, writing it up in the form of cargo-cult quackery probably wasn’t a great idea.

So is this article proper research? I hardly even care. If it’s quackery, I’m appalled. But if genuine science is now indistinguishable from quackery even to seasoned veterans, well surely that’s even worse?

# My New Star Sign

The attention astrology receives amazes me. I’m told that around a quarter of people genuinely believe that the positions of celestial bodies can be used to divine the future, but nobody actually acts like they believe it. They just say they do in surveys. I’m therefore surprised when, say, a dating website works out my starsign from my date of birth and sticks it up on my profile as if someone will care. It does presumably filter out eleven twelfths of girls thick enough to base their romantic endeavours on the zodiac, so that’s arguably useful, and I suppose it also allows me to search for partners with birthdays that don’t clash with mine or with Christmas, but basically I’d turn it off given the choice.

Late last year LiveScience published an article about how the precession of the Earth causes the constellations to drift around the sky over thousands of years, and this meant that the signs of the zodiac were now out of step with the constellations whose names they carry. For example, the usual “tropical” zodiac makes me an Aries, but here’s (roughly) where the sun was when I was born:

The Star Tribune published a comment, which included a calendar so you could work out your new starsign without looking up the sky map. This included the constellation Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) which was dropped by the Babylonians because dividing a circle into 13 bits is too hard (or something; I don’t know how the Babylonians rolled). This went viral, because people love a good ‘they changed it’ story. It’s like when ‘they’ got rid of Pluto, or when ‘they’ abolished limbo — “they” in these cases being the International Astronomical Union and the Catholic Church respectively (although the latter story is mostly false even before you start questioning whether the Pope gets to choose what hypothetical planes of reality exist). However, according to a delightfully pointless article in Toronto’s Star entitled “Relax, says astrologer. You’re still a Virgo”:

It’s all in the planets, and the names of the signs are just a handy convenience that is a lot easier than saying, “when the sun is in the second house,” [Toronto astrologer Milada Sakic] told the Star on Friday.

Sakic, an astrologer for 20 years and teacher with the Canadian Association for Astrological Education, explains, “Astrology does not look at the relationship between the constellations and the Earth. We study the relationship with the Sun and the Earth and the planets.

The constellations, she reminds us, are “many light years away, illusions in our night sky. Their effect on us is very secondary.”

Quite.

So not only has nothing changed, but astrology has no governing body any more than English does, so there is no ‘they’ who can change it in the first place. Nobody can tell Milada Sakic she’s doing it wrong except by pointing out that her predictions might as well be based on the positions of the stars she sees when you wallop her on the head with an encyclopædia of actual facts for all that they have anything to do with future events. That both Sakic and Jacqueline Bigar, the Star’s resident astrologer, will have to do 8.3% more work if Serpentarius catches on is not mentioned.

But I still don’t really feel like Pisces either truly represents me or actually looks very much like any number of fish, so I took another look at the sky map:

Then I started adding my own lines:

And suddenly I realised what my new, true starsign is:

Here, therefore, is my horoscope:

Dawkins (March 14th — April 28th) — You are a British ethologist and evolutionary biologist. You are an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and were the University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.

You came to prominence with your 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularised the gene-centered view of evolution and introduced the term ‘meme’. In 1982, you introduced into evolutionary biology an influential concept, presented in your book The Extended Phenotype, that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can stretch far into the environment, including the bodies of other organisms.

You are an atheist and humanist, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association and supporter of the Brights movement. You are well-known for your criticism of creationism and intelligent design.

Notable Dawkinses include Professor Richard Dawkins (born 26 March 1941).

It’s not bang-on, but it’s better than anything the old system gave. And it does work very well for at least one person.

I don’t normally do this sort of mass-blog thing, but I’ll make an exception for this: today is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The cost of a libel case is staggering, even compared to fighting other sorts of court case and especially compared to libel cases in other countries. In fact, the cost can be 140 times that of a similar case in Europe. This wouldn’t be so bad, but (in part because the onus in an English libel case is on the defendant to prove what they say is true) a libel case brought against you is very difficult to win, and even if you do then you’re only likely to recover 70% of your costs. Simon Singh’s recent libel victory cost him personally £60,000, and prevented him from working for a full year. Most bloggers, who aren’t backed by publishers, simply can’t afford to win these cases, much less lose them, and can therefore be effectively silenced by the mere threat of a libel case — even when they’re obviously and demonstrably right. There is no right to free speech under these laws, and large organisations both know and exploit that fact.

This worries me as an English blogger, but the internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, which gives the High Court in London a global reach. Anyone can be sued in London if their writing is available in England, and they routinely are — why bring a libel case anywhere but the most claimant-friendly court available? Had president Obama not signed the SPEECH Act into law, blocking oppressive foreign libel rulings from being enforced in the US, American newspapers would probably have blocked British readers from their websites rather than risk being sued here.

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

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

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

The above is adapted from, and contains big, unedited chunks of, a template sent to bloggers a few days ago.