Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Do not read!

If you're a *cough* regular *cough* reader, you might notice a new totally clickable button to the right - "So you've had a threatening letter". This is a new initiative from the Libel Reform Campaign, a U.K. organisation campaigning, oddly enough, for libel reform. The problem lies in the rather draconian libel laws in England, where costs for a court case can easily be hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds, and the odds are stacked way in favour of the claimant (accuser). People and organisations around the world now use the threat of libel in England - regardless of whether the material was written in England or whether either party is English - to silence any criticism of them, as most people will cave and remove the offending material and/or make a public apology rather than risk the horror of the English courts.
Our libel laws allow people accused of funding terrorism or dumping toxic waste in Africa to silence their critics whilst ‘super-injunctions’ stop the public from even knowing that such allegations exist. We need to reform our libel laws now, and that’s why we’re launching a national campaign to persuade our politicians to do so. Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN
This sucks, and Sense about Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN have taken it upon themselves to get the law changed, so that the outcomes are fairer and the costs are reduced. It seems to be working too, and it will truly be a great day when I can call someone a cocksucker* with impunity; I'm making a list for just such an occasion. In the meantime, bloggers, journalists, scientists and others will continue to sweat over whether to publish valid criticisms at the risk of being financially ruined by a stupid system in an otherwise lovely country. Hence the "Bloggers and libel law" guide, which is a handy information source for anyone accused of libel, and also a great heads-up for anyone who writes on the web.

Seeing as though I regularly criticise people on this very website, and having followed the cases of Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh with interest, I admit that I was a little concerned for my own skin. I feel much better after reading the guide, however, because I now know that I am fully protected from all risk of libel by the fact that nobody actually reads this blog.
Limitation period is the time limit after you publish something that someone can bring an action for defamation against you. Currently this is one year. In the case of writing published on the Internet the limitation period of one year begins again every time someone clicks on the blog post or online article. This is known as the multiple publication rule.
If you have read this far, please leave a comment along the lines of "I promise not to sue Daryl under any circumstances, even if he accuses me of orally interfering with male chickens. Infact, I will forget everything I just read for a period of exactly one year." Just to be sure.

*the word "cocksucker" may not be considered "fair comment" when the libel reform bill is finally passed, but we can all pray that it will.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

CHOICE Shonkys

The latest edition of CHOICE magazine features the 2010 Shonkys, "the year's dodgiest products, services and companies". This is yet another example of why I wish I worked for CHOICE, dagnammit. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Nurofen - for producing a range of caplets (for migraine, period pain, back pain etc.) that are in fact, identical, and which cost almost twice as much as Nurofen Zavance, also identical.
  • Coles - for their Curtis Stone MasterCreations $10 meals, including the $7.76 Coq au Vin, the price of which includes the Coq but not the Vin. CHOICE calls this "The CHOICE Shonky Ten buck blow-out", but I think they should have called it "The CHOICE Shonky for being a coq".
  • Power Balance - for, well, doing nothing, for $60.
  • LG - for rigging their fridges so that they went into energy saving mode under official testing conditions, artificially improving their energy star-rating.

Good work CHOICE. Always looking out for the little guy... by kicking the big guy in the nuts just as he's about to stick the little guy's head in the toilet.

Sometimes, however, the little guy doesn't want to be saved, and sticks his own head in the toilet and presses flush. As CHOICE says of Power Balance
After the Australian Skeptics demonstrated on national TV that it didn't do anything, sales skyrocketed.
Can I recommend a Placebo Band instead. Identical, only $2 and 100% guaranteed to work just as well as a Power Balance Bracelet.

Monday, 22 November 2010

For sale: Doubt.

"Doubt is our product"  Internal memo, Brown & Williamson (subsidiary of British American Tobacco), 1969.
Science is hard! I know, dude, from experience. And climate science is really hard! It takes thousands of clever people and huge expense, but great work is being done. Uncertainties remain, however, and they always will.

Denying, or casting doubt on, science is a piece of piss in comparison. Whether it is the health effects of tobacco or DDT, or the severity of acid rain, the ozone hole or anthropogenic global warming, doubt is a commodity, and it is serious business.

U.S. science historian Naomi Oreskes, currently on an Australian tour promoting her new book Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to Global Warming (coauthored with Eric Conway), laid out the tricks in a few simple dot points at her recent presentation at the State Library of Victoria. She calls this "the tobacco strategy", as it was in the arena of big tobacco vs science that these skills were honed by men such as those who founded the George C. Marshall institute and later became key players in the climate change denialist industry. She lists five simple tricks:
  1. Cherry picking
  2. Using data out of context
  3. Personal attacks
  4. Pressuring journalists to "publish the other side"
  5. Finding the tiny handful of dissenting scientists and promoting the hell out of them
And that pretty much covers every argument you will ever hear a global warming denialist make, although I would add a sixth: lying.

To be clear, the facts of global warming are pretty much beyond reasonable doubt, and many of them are not at all new: 1850s, John Tyndall establishes that CO2 is a greenhouse gas; early 1900s, Svante Arrhenius postulates that burning fossil fuels could increase atmospheric CO2 and lead to global warming; 1960s, confirmation that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing; 1979, a consensus position of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that
Climate change will result from man's combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.
And that statement holds true to this day (although it should be changed to "climate change is resulting..."), even though many of the details are still a little vague. As Oreskes puts it
There are big trees of uncertainty in a forest of robust scientific certainty.
What can you see?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Online polls. Seriously?

"Online poll sends message to Brumby" was the headline on theage.com.au last Friday, followed by the rather startling results of a Victorian election poll, showing the Coalition on 40% support, the Greens on 36% and the Labor party trailing badly on 18%. This seemed odd, given that the Labor party have led every poll I can remember since they came to power over a decade ago, and the Greens never get more than about 15%. What had suddenly changed so much?
An online poll on theage.com.au has sent a message to the Brumby government, with Labor heavily trailing both the Coalition and the Greens.
An online poll? On theage.com.au? This is newsworthy?

I find them incredibly irritating, but The Age loves online polls; it feels like every second article has a poll attached. A quick glance just now shows the following polls linked from their front page
  • Which party will get your vote in the November 27 Victorian State Election? (still there, 40,000 votes later, with Labor still on 18%)
  • Do you support Labor's plan to send Year 9 students away from home for two weeks? (50:50)
  • Do how-to-vote cards influence where you send your preferences? (No)
and from the story of the day
  • Should Steve be disciplined for his actions? (No)
The Age rightly adds the following disclaimer to each of these polls
These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.
Polls like this serve no purpose other than to give readers the opportunity to participate in some kind of debate, or at least give them the impression that they are participating. They do not even necessarily represent the opinion of the general readership of the site. Poll crashing; when a well-known blogger or such instructs their (potentially) tens of thousands of readers to vote in a particular way, en masse, can devestate polls. Essentially, online polls are a bit of fun for those that are into that kind of thing. There is, however, no excuse for publishing them in an article as if they have a bearing on the coming election.
While not a scientific survey of voters' intentions on November 27, the results of the online poll will concern many Labor supporters as the party attempts to gain a record fourth term in government. 
Tomorrow's edition of The Age will feature the latest Nielsen poll, which will give a clear indication of the thoughts of the voting public.
These results are meaningless but we just wanted to scare you a bit, ha ha. Oh, and don't forget to buy our paper tomorrow. I guess they had to do something while they waited an entire day for the results of the real, scientific poll. And what did the latest Nielson poll show? Labor 38%, Coalition 40%, Greens 16%, with Labor leading the Coalition 52% to 48% on a two-party preferred basis.

Professional pollsters use sophisticated techniques to ensure that those they poll cover a representative cross-section of the electorate. Online polls require that participants have the ability to click on a small, round button. They don't even need to know how to read.

I think the best thing we can all do is just ignore these online polls, and they will, quite literally, go away. But this is just my opinion. What do you think? Have your say in the comments, or vote now on the poll on the right.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Publish or Perish

The above phrase strikes both fear and loathing into the hearts of any scientist, especially one *sob* who is not yet established and does not have a reputation to precede them. Scientists are largely judged on their publication output: the number, quality and impact of these publications is probably the key determinant of career progression. Needless to say, the pressure to publish is immense, and the temptation to cut corners is omnipresent. One way to cut corners is to avoid peer-review, a problematic but “the best we’ve got” process whereby experts in the field review research papers and give their opinions on the quality of the work, and any changes that they think need to be made before it should be published. This is supposed to improve the finished publication and weed out poor quality work or outright wrong work.

How does one avoid this process? Publish in a journal or newsletter that doesn’t have peer review, or write a book, or publish original research on a blog. The problem is, employers aren’t stupid, and other scientists aren’t stupid. If you publish original research in low quality or non-peer-reviewed literature, your research will be either ignored or belittled, as will your reputation. This is what I like to call (ever since I just made it up) WOT publishing: Waste of Time publishing. I’ll give you a few examples that I've come across recently.

VDM verlag is a German publisher that describes itself thus
VDM publishes academic research worldwide - at no cost to our authors. We specialize in publishing theses, dissertations, and research projects. From the large number of research papers that are continuously being completed in higher education, we identify those which - due to their quality and practical relevance - are suitable for publication. In this way, the latest research is conveyed quickly and tailored to the needs of the respective specialist audience.
They also spam researchers offering to publish their books. Recently, my university circulated an email to all researchers with the following warnings about this organisations:
  1. The quality of these books is very low.
  2. They encourage academics to purchase copies of their own text, and appear to gain most of their income from this (“at no cost to our authors”, eh?).
  3. They are not peer reviewed.
  4. They pay abysmal royalties.
  5. This company is becoming more well known and publishing with them makes you (and the university) look like a fool.
InTech - “Open Access publisher in the fields of Science, Technology and Medicine”, uses a slightly different method. It charges an upfront fee of €470 for each “book chapter”, using the open-access model, which is a perfectly legitimate publishing model – where the author pays to allow free access to their research papers – increasingly used in the traditional, peer-reviewed publishing system, that is being bastardised by companies such as this into a form of vanity publishing. I, myself, recently received a rather flattering invitation to publish with them:
You are invited to participate in this book project based on your paper "Digital recordings of gas-vesicle collapse used to measure turgor pressure and cell-water relations of cyanobacterial cells", your publishing history and the quality of your research.
I knew nothing about this company then, and was a little suspicious, having written exactly one paper that mentions hydraulic conductivity, and even then it was only mentioned in a small section, and the results were inconclusive. I ignored the email and moved on with my life. Exactly one week later, a reminder came:
I contacted you by email last week, and since we have not as yet received a response from you, I am taking the liberty of resending as we are aware that you may be engaged in other activities or my message may not have successfully reached you. If you are interested in participating, may I respectfully ask that you respond at your convenience in order to secure your participation in this project.
Which I duly ignored. Then, exactly one week later, I received yet another reminder with the subject “Feedback required”. This time I was a little peeved and did a little snooping into InTech and found a fascinating article by Richard Poynder featuring an interview with the CEO of InTech, or is it Sciyo, or are they the same company? Regardless of that odd situation, the article confirmed my fears that this is not a publisher that I should be submitting articles too, let along paying to take my articles. I then looked into them a bit further, found some interesting titbits, and, somewhat cheekily, perhaps naively, wrote an email reply.
Dear X,
Thank you for your continued invitations to write a chapter for the book "Hydraulic Conductivity". Before I accept this offer, I have a few concerns that I am hoping that you can clear up. I was previously unaware of your organisation, InTech, and I hope that you understand that I need to be fully convinced that I should take the time to write a scientific article to publish with you. No editor is listed for this book. I will need to know the name of the editor so that I can form an opinion of the likely quality of this book. Also, your website says my paper will be indexed and abstracted in major repositories and scientific search engines, yet I searched for a random article from one of your books (Zhiwei Zhao and Helong Jiang (2010). Enzyme-based Electrochemical Biosensors, Biosensors, Pier Andrea Serra (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-7619-99-2, InTech), and it did not appear on Google Scholar, Web of Science or Scirus. Can you explain this? Also, the lack of peer review concerns me. I am a firm advocate of open access, but only when it also adheres to the highest scientific standards. I note that your company does not appear to be a member of OASPA, and therefore there appears to be no independent verification of the standard of your publications. Perhaps I am being presumptive, but it appears to me that this is simply a way for researchers to easily publish poor quality research, for a price, and simply a money making exercise on the part of your company.
If you are able to allay my fears, I would be happy to consider preparing an article for you book. If not, please stop pestering me, and please remove my email address from your database.
Daryl Holland.
P.S. The article I mentioned above has a spelling mistake in the first sentence, and the first 17 words are copied word-for-word from the cited article.
And that was that. Well, at least I thought it was, until exactly one week later (yes, it is starting to get a bit creepy), I received a reply.
Dear Dr. Holland,

I will gladly answer Your questions.
And he does answer a couple of them, badly. Apparently the editor is not, and will not be named because
In the past, we have had some organizational difficulties when each of potential author would contact the editor directly.
Like there is something wrong with an author or potential author wanting to talk to the editor of their book. Regarding the quality of the book
...once the abstract will be reviewed and in case there will be a need to make changes, the Book Editor will give You clear instructions
i.e. no proper peer review. Regarding the indexing of articles
All the content from the Sciyo platform is currently being shifted to the main websites of the publishing group – intechweb.org and intechopen.com (our reading platform). That is the main reason why You could not "locate" the mentioned articles.
And I was sent the following two links to prove that they are indexed. The first was simply a Google search for “site:sciyo.com pdf” and was therefore irrelevant, and the second was a Google Scholar search for “Search within articles citing Iwahashi: Robots that learn language: A developmental approach to situated human-robot conversations” which, as far as I could tell, did not refer to a single InTech publication.

In conclusion (unless I receive another email reminder in exactly one week, in which case I may well be killed by a pale, dark-haired Japanese girl), avoid at all costs (especially if that cost is €470), and make that spam filter work for you. I really cannot summarise the situation any better than Phil Davis
Most of the journals in which I aspire to publish never ask me for a manuscript. They don’t need to. They receive thousands of voluntary contributions each year and turn most away.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Dog food

Recently I sent my dog to a commercial kennel, and as I was chatting with the owner, he asked what kind of dog food I used. The conversation went pretty much like this:
"Mostly dry stuff, with a few leftovers thrown in occasionally"

"What kind of dry food?"

"Whatever's cheap. Usually Pedigree I guess"

"Do you eat McDonald's everyday?"


"Well that's what you're feeding your dog. Dogs fed on that stuff end up with all kinds of problems as they get older, like liver disease. If you are using dry dog food, buy the most expensive stuff you can find. It still works out pretty cheap in the end. Frankly, you make me sick!"
(I may have made up that last sentence). So I left my dog and went on holiday feeling like a prick and a cheapskate. But then I started to think about it and wondered, is there any evidence that the pricey dog foods are actually any better for dogs than the cheaper one's? I figured a couple of hours of research to justify my tight-arseiness would be time well spent, and if it turned out I was the worst dog parent in the world, well, I suppose I could fix that.

Compare the brand I currently buy from Kmart, Pedigree Real Mince and Vegies (approx. $20 for 12 kg, on special, of course - less than $2/kg), with the one they sell at my local Vet, Hill's Science Diet Adult Lamb Meal & Rice Recipe (about $120 for 15 kg - $8/kg).

First, let's see what they say about their own products.

"... our Adult Complete Nutrition recipe is specially formulated to provide adult dogs with the complete and balanced nourishment they need to live long and healthy lives."

"Hill's® Science Diet® Adult Lamb Meal & Rice Recipe dog food provides precisely balanced nutrition to maintain lean muscle and promote digestive health."
Both make pretty much the same claims regarding balanced nutrition, so no help there. What about the ingredients list?

Meat & meat by-products (beef, poultry & lamb); wheat &/or sorghum &/or barley; wheat bran, glycerol, sunflower oil; beet pulp; salt; minerals (including calcium, zinc, iron, potassium); safflower seed; vitamins (including A, C, D3, E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B5, B6, folic acid, B12); preservatives; antioxidants and food colourings

Lamb Meal, Brewers Rice, Brown Rice, Whole Grain Wheat, Whole Grain Sorghum, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid), Cracked Pearled Barley, Chicken Liver Flavor, Flaxseed, Dried Beet Pulp, Soybean Oil, Potassium Chloride, Iodized Salt, L-Lysine, Choline Chloride, Vitamin E Supplement, vitamins (L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement), Taurine, minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), L-Tryptophan, preserved with Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid, L-Threonine, Phosphoric Acid, Beta-Carotene, Rosemary Extract
Fairly similar, with meat products first, followed by grains, fats/oils, salt, minerals and vitamins. Hill's certainly has more ingredients listed, but is that better?

Any other claims I should know about?

Omega 3 + 6: Shiny Coat
Dental Kibble: Healthy Teeth and Gums
Beet Pulp: Healthy Digestion
Antioxidants: Immune Support

Vitamin C + E: Healthy immune function
High quality ingredients, such as lamb meal: easy to digest
Omega-3 and Omega-6: Healthy skin and radiant coat
High quality lean proteins: lean muscle and ideal body weight
Controlled levels of minerals including sodium, magnesium and phosphorus. Supplemented with taurine and soluble and insoluble fiber: Healthy vital organs
Pretty much the same, yet again. How about the nutritional information

Protein 22.0 %
Fat 10.0 %
Protein 24.6 %
Fat 16.8 %
and a bunch of other stuff (carbohydrates, sodium etc.). Interestingly, neither mentions anything about % of recommended daily allowance, because I guess there is no such thing for dogs.

Hill's sells itself as scientific, but what's to say that's not just a marketing gimmick. After all, Mars Inc. (maker of Pedigree) funds the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, "unarguably the world's leading authority on pet care and nutrition", so I can't even separate them on the sciencey stuff.

Interestingly, neither of these companies publicise any actual research publications that give details into their food development, and I couldn't find any using Google Scholar, so we basically have to accept their word for it, or do we. Thankfully, the good people at Choice have looked into the independent research, and they conclude:
Do we need to buy premium pet food? Unless your pet has specific dietary problems, probably not. Any pet food that says it's 'complete and balanced' contains all the required nutrients at appropriate levels for the maintenance of healthy pets.
That'll do me.

Some call me a cheapskate, I call them suckers. Both are probably right.