The danger of unwarranted reverence: the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and Charles Windsor

You know that there is a problem in a country when personality cult is so obvious that everybody considers it normal for the object of this cult to wander in areas it shouldn’t. I’m not talking about the usual suspects here: Russia or North-Korea. No, my concern here is the UK, where a prince publishes an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, despite the fact that he has no credentials in medicine —or life sciences. Yet, this isn’t the first time that this snake-oil salesman peddle his anti-science, evidence-free drivel. What’s new is that he is doing that in a journal that should be wary of such things.

But the shame isn’t resting with Charles Windsor here: the one who should be ashamed of himself is Dr Abbasi, the editor of the JRSM who finds Charles views about medicine “engaging”, which, to me reads as “I abdicated any critical thinking in front of royalty”. And Dr Abbasi ignores an important thing here: by allowing Charles to publish his bullshit in the JRSM, he gives credence to any charlatan out there. It is even worse when you call views of a loon (whose only achievement in life has been to be born in the right family) “engaging”.

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Atheism +: a chance to widen the scope of american atheism

The recent months (or should I say years) have seen a bitter feud developing among atheists — American atheists first and foremost. As far as I understand, the divide lies between those who think that atheism should limit itself to the critic of religions and those who assert that a coherent atheist movement is bound to concern itself with social justice, feminism and gender issues. In short, “atheism +” ambitions to be more than a philosophical movement: it wants to be a social one.
I do think this is a good thing: atheism seems to me to be a pretty narrow subject. In fact, born and raised in France, I always associated scepticism and atheism with the Left, and I always thought that an atheist discourse without any political consideration on social justice was missing something. Dawkins wrote in “The God Delusion” that instead of looking for explanations in a deity, people should marvel at what life is and enjoy the fact of being alive (I won’t bother to browse it, if you want to find the exact quote, read it). I read this book in 2007 and since then this type of affirmation always annoyed me: I find it quite hard for the vast majority of the population of the planet to “enjoy life”. This sentence struck me as typical from someone quite remote from everyday struggle. And indeed it is: as an Oxford professor, Dawkins certainly cannot complain about his life. He certainly has little to worry about and enjoys  it. Good for him.
His point, though, is moot for most of the people on the planet: for them, life is anything but enjoyable. This is certainly true of the Afghan population, stuck between the Taliban hammer and the NATO anvil, but there is no need to go that far: Brixton and Stockwell show all too well that life isn’t necessarily a day at the beach in the UK either. While Dawkins’ argument is rational, it is not really audible for this reason. In fact, even for me, who cannot really complain about life, it seemed weird, a bit like the word of a bearded hermit in its ivory tower. This is what “pure atheists” don’t seem to understand: the evil influence of religions in society isn’t that obvious for most of the people. In fact, given the actions of some charities, a lot of people, even unbelievers, do actually think that religions hold a moral high ground. Nevermind the child molesters or murderous fanatics. Most of the people don’t actually see that the principal supporters of social conservatism — which help to maintain them in poverty or a kind of submissive state — are religions. Therefore, holding an atheist discourse without defending social justice won’t help atheism to spread, quite the contrary: it will limit it to close, sectarian circles which will end up like an army retirement house: all old, all white, all male. This is all the more true when a part of this movement works hard to dismiss the concerns of some of its members on harassment or the way they feel at conferences.
The aspiration of social justice and religions always clashed because social justice threatens the privileged churches and their members. I’m surprised that some atheists don’t see that. Then again, religion isn’t the only undercurrent of society, sexism is another. And while atheists are supposed to be devoid of religion, the account of Rebecca Watson clearly shows that some of them can count themselves among the worst bigots when it comes to feminism. The set-up of anti-harassment policies at conferences seems to have sparked another wave of unabated douchery. Now, on harassment, there is one take I find particularly interesting: that of Dawkins. Here’s what he had to write when Rebecca Watson decided to tell guys to behave at conferences:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

What strikes me here is the common way of thinking we can find whenever we read critics of social movements: people shouldn’t complain about spending cuts, frozen wages and the like because “it is worse in Africa” (or everywhere you might find it convenient to point out). Well… That’s just the kind of stuff a person in a dominating position would say, no? This goes along the lines of: “Be happy with what you’ve got, because it’s worse, much worse, somewhere else; don’t you dare complain about your situation”.
That’s nothing else than a way to try to silence people who point out that there may be some problems with an underlying sexism at skeptics conferences (an underlying sexism no doubt imported from the wider society). If you do so, you’re just admitting that to you this isn’t much of a problem, or not a problem at all. Maybe because you’re a man, maybe because you’ve been brainwashed into justifying the bullying of women as a way to help them “grow up” (ironically the author doesn’t seem to see that an appeal to men to help women to “grow up” is sexist: this means that men are — by default — “grown-ups” but women aren’t). Or maybe you’re just a flaming misogynist moron who thinks women should submit to whatever “project” a man has for them, as harassment, or rape and deaths threats to some feminists in the atheist movement made clear. Jen McGreith isn’t the only one who  had to put up which such a despicable attitude: Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, Greta Christina and a 15 year old girl had to undergo the “jokes” or the ire of scumbags for being women. And women, mind you, who dare to think and speak for themselves.
Sexism has been infused in the western societies for a very long time, indeed, in Europe or in North-America, it used to be justified by the Bible, much like the Qu’ran or the Torah justify it elsewhere. It is a direct product of religiosity. Yet, some atheists refuse to see that as a problem. To such an extend that anti-harassment policies sparked a controversy in the American atheist movement (here is a timeline). Given the links above, I came to the conclusion that most of those who oppose these anti-harassment policies are indeed misogynists who seek to exploit women by any means necessary. No need to deny it folks: your actions speak for themselves. A civilised debate about how best to put anti-harassment policies in place would have been acceptable, but as soon as you threaten women to rape them, kill them or try to trigger a rape survivor (an account here, mild compared to the full thing), that’s it, you’re a sexist moron. No need to deny it.
Now, most of the controversy, especially the one on the creation of the ‘Atheism +’ network happened on the other side of the pond, I read one opinion piece here branding Atheism + as “divisive”. An opinion piece that is flaming with hypocrisy, in my opinion: while citing Jen McGreith reasons to call for a third wave of atheism, the author omits to explain why there is a passion about that among A+ members: the abuse that some feminists underwent when they wanted to voice their concerns. This was the reason to found A+ in the first place. Refusing to acknowledge that, forgetting the reasons why A+ has been founded; and, mostly denouncing atheism+ members as “rude” without examining the behaviour that caused some atheists to look for a place where people would have more in common than just atheism is just hypocrite. At best. There is another interpretation, less indulgent to this author, but I’m not really financially able to sustain a libel suit in the U.K. Well… You get the gist, anyway.
People might say — in fact some did — that they’re “just about atheism” and call for atheists just to concern themselves with it, and forget all the rest. To be clear, while an atheist myself, I do not feel closer to an atheist who would be homophobic, sexist, racist and conservative than to a liberal theist. My atheism isn’t the cause of my social views but a consequence of them. Being a proud leftist led me to reflect on power as means to maintain the working class under the thumb. And while the courts, the army and the police are certainly one edge of the sword (together with a more sophisticated domination system encompassing the media, the property market, etc…), religion is definitely another. In every country where the state and the churches have not been separated, there has been suppression of gay and women rights. More broadly, churches allied themselves with right-wing dictatorships almost systematically. This has been the case in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, to name but a few… Some libertarian atheists might even recognise that, while they won’t buy in religion, it might be a good tool to maintain the population under the leash.
I don’t really get the problem with the creation of ‘Atheism +’. Atheists have already plenty of organisations across the U.S., one more won’t change much about that. Besides, there is kind of a freedom of association principle here, and I do get that Jen McGreith or Rebecca Watson do not want to be in the same room (however big) or on the same network than people calling them names or, worse, threatening to rape and kill them.
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Vested interests in science: a problem not likely to go away quietly

Examples of scientists who bent their results to make them fit their theories are countless. Mengele in Nazi Germany or Lyssenko in stalinist USSR are prime examples. The anthropogenic global warming “controversy” also has its wealth of scientists doing away with scientific principles (shameless self-citation). This, sadly, isn’t limited to anthropogenic global warming. Nearly every scientific result of importance to the economy or the society is scrutinised. And this is good, as long as it doesn’t lead to distortion of these results, manipulation of the public or threats to scientists raising an issue of public interest. The tendency to make scientific results stick to whatever ideology is around is strong, as the behaviour of the Reagan and Bush II administration showed (Oreskes and Conway have a few examples of this in their book “The Merchants of Doubt”), but there seem to be more actors arising on this front. The “debate” on climate change is an example of this: while the Bush II administration did everything it could to silence the scientists, going as far as modifying one of their reports, other organisations tried to obscure the science of climate change. As such, Freedom of Information bills are abusively used by right-wing think tanks to harass –and try to discredit– scientists working on anthropogenic climate change, and the journalists who report on this issue. Continue reading

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An epic fail of the EU commission and a victory for tweeter “citizens”

Last Friday, there was an uproar in Europe about an overtly sexist –and therefore stupid– video posted by the European Commission Office for blahblah. According to the PR surrounding the launch of this campaign and the ad posted on Youtube (it has been taken down since then), this video was aimed at creating a buzz (link, twitter). It certainly did, as the #sciencegirlthing hashtag shows. If you consider negative coverage as a positive buzz, that is. It even got scientists from other parts of the world involved. The uproar was so loud that it even caught the attention of a LA times blog. And it all boils down to one thing: how a sexist ad could ever interest women to do science? The people at the EU commission answer that this ad was aimed at girls aged 13 to 17. This makes sense if you wanted to promote a career path among teenagers. Yet, promoting this path by presenting a completely irrealistic view of a career science, full of clichés about how women should look and behave in society is probably not the best way to do so. In fact, the evidence shows it is not. The implicit message carried by this ad is plain wrong, in my view: it implies that to be a happy successful female scientist, you need to look good… This message is wrong because the way careers are recognized in science has more to do with the relevance one has as a scientist: is the science you are doing sound? Are your hypotheses reasonable when the available evidence is considered? Are the experiments well conducted, with the appropriate controls? The way you look shouldn’t play a role at all in this, but this ad suggests otherwise. In a society where a lot of pressure is put on the appearances, to such an extent that some teachers think it might become a problem for youngsters, recapitulating the clichés of submissive women hell bent on seduction rather than competence is unfortunate… At best.

Given the kind of stuff that the company hired by the EU commission to advertise for this campaign did before, the disgraceful video shouldn’t come as a surprise. Obviously the EU Commission didn’t really do their homework on this agency. Still, it bears most of the responsibility in my view: it’s hard to think that such an ad could be posted on Youtube without the assent of at least a European Commission official. It is to be noted, however, that a “gender experts” panel was set up by the EU Commission. One of them, Curt Rice, tweeted (see the top of the list) that the advertisement company completely ignored their advice.

The EU Commission caved in, eventually, and vowed to get inspiration from another tweeter thread (#realwomenofscience) to continue their campaign. This might prove a good inspiration: who can better talk about science and the experience of being a female scientist than, well… female scientists?

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Two French journalists awarded for their fight against AGW deniers

Stéphane Foucart (I couldn’t find a blog for him but here’s a search for his articles in Le Monde) and Sylvestre Huet (his blog, in French, is here) have been awarded a price for their exposure of Anthropogenic Global Warming deniers’ lies on the 30th of May. I don’t have much to comment on this award: it is well deserved in my opinion. However, the comments of the president of the jury, the physicist Étienne Klein are worth noting for their hindsights on how science is at risk from the type of behaviour displayed by AGW deniers. Here’s a rough translation:

Moreover, I would have liked to make a live [this is a written comment as Étienne Klein had to give a lecture] comment on the fact that this year, the Diderot-Curien Award was given to a pair of scientific journalists. You probably have read, like I did, a book entitled ‘1984’ in which the author –George Orwell– shows that the truth is always questioned in totalitarian regimes. It’s not only that politicians from these regimes lie more often than anywhere else: it’s more that the difference between truth and lies becomes fuzzy in the face of pragmatism and convenience. Orwell adds that in this regimes, even science isn’t immune to ideological attacks and the idea of an objective information loses its meaning: recent history is rewritten with the current needs in mind, and discoveries in biology or physics can be negated if they are judged inconvenient. When this happens, this state of things constitutes what one may call the “cognitive triumph of totalitarianism”: one cannot even accuse the regime of lying: it succeeded in abrogating the idea of truth in the first place…

Some time ago, I was thinking that this danger was only threatening totalitarian regimes. But recent developments, in the United States and in Europe, made me doubt –for instance the fallacy of the debate on climate change– because they just illustrated the fragility of the scientific discourse in democracies. This was due to two phenomenons: first, scientific truth can fall victim to what the philosopher Alexandre Koyré called the “broad daylight conspirations” (Alexandre Koyré, Réflexions sur le mensonge, (1943), Éditions Allia, 2004, p. 31), or lies pronounced in public; second, it seems that we are ready to use a host of strategies to be able to refuse to believe what we know, especially if the intellectual implications of this knowledge bothers us… Fortunately –and this reassures me– there are some courageous and competent scientific journalists who, tirelessly, track and expose the lies. I am happy that two of them, whose work is remarkable, are honoured this evening.

The original article is here.

I like this text because it sums up the challenges faced by science and scientific thinking nowadays. A worrying trend…

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Open-source in academia and research charities

I discovered GNU/Linux in 2005, by attempting to install Ubuntu in a dual-boot with Windows XP. Windows got wiped out in the process and I was left with Ubuntu. This was kind of a fortunate mistake, because I never looked back. Since then, the only OS running on my personal computer is based on GNU/Linux and it is highly unlikely that I will ever go back to MS OSes. And since then, I’ve been puzzled by the dominance of proprietary softwares in laboratories.
The GNU/Linux ecosystem offers a handful of applications that can be used –or are used in some cases– in laboratories. This is mostly the case in specialised applications used for example to solve protein structures, or to do powerful statistics. In fact, there even is GNU/Linux distributions out there dedicated to the biological sciences or nuclear physics. These two distributions offer a handful of tools pre-installed and you normally do not need to install anything else. Or if you do, the software “package” is just one click away, a time-saving system when you consider that on Mac OS X or Windows you need to browse the internet, download the package and then install it.

GNU/Linux systems are nowadays widespread in structural biology laboratories, some companies or laboratories make the ability to use GNU/Linux systems a desirable or an essential skill when they look to appoint someone. And yet, most academia labs I’ve visited run on proprietary OSes. GNU/Linux systems have the reputation to be complicated to administer, with a lot of tinkering in configuration files or the requirement to use the command line. While these systems do offer a lot more possibility to the savvy user and the command line being not so complicated after all, and far more faster than clicking your way through the desktop, they are by no means too complicated for a non-technical user. All you need is the will to change your habits. When I installed Ubuntu, I couldn’t consider myself a geek and I certainly had not much knowledge about computers. I did have a shot at programming with AMOS Basic on an Amiga 500 when I was a teenager (I still have fond memories of this machine), and I did know about DOS. But this was long buried under a more or less consumerist approach to computing. In 2005, Ubuntu was a bit rough around the edges, and I did have to tinker to install a proper driver for my graphic card, or to get the WiFi card running. But I managed, thanks to the very extensive documentation available online and the community forums. Nowadays, I only tweak my computer when I want to. Either to test a new distribution or bleeding edge softwares. Furthermore, there is no reason not to run a GNU/Linux based system: you want novelty in desktop concepts ? Gnome 3 or Unity are using a new paradigm in desktop environment (DE) and layout since one year; and if you don’t like this paradigm, you can always install an another DE (all the DEs in this gallery are open-source). In fact, both Mountain Lion or Windows 8 are copying ideas from the open-source community. You think that the 3D effects in Windows 8 or Mac OS X are cool ? They exist in Linux since 2006. Microsoft is copying Apple’s app store ? No, they are both copying the concept of repositories and package managers that are the very foundation of any GNU/Linux systems –since their beginnings in 1991.
The reason why I am puzzled by this low profile of GNU/Linux systems in Academia is that, you would think that people in this community would be more interesting in the technical solutions out there. I worked in a charity where the software we used was imposed: I had to use Microsoft Office instead of Libreoffice, Endnote instead of Zotero, Photoshop instead of The Gimp, Adobe Illustrator instead of Inkscape,Canvas instead of Scribus. It seemed to me that there was a lot of money put into licences that could have been spent in hiring more people or funding more research. Worse still, the IT crowd decided that their servers would run under Windows. When one considers the security issues faced by Windows, it seems a bad idea to a server version of it. At the very least, a debian-based server would have been more secure.It seems to me that the big problem with the adoption of open-source operating systems isn’t born on their difficulty. This was true, but this isn’t anymore. Nowadays, when you go to PC World (in the UK), FNAC (in France, Spain and Portugal) Mediamarkt (Germany, Spain and Portugal) or Saturn (Germany), you will have hard time finding a PC without an operating system. The problem is that you are not buying only the computer, with a free Windows on it. You are actually buying the computer and the operating system, the latter is discounted, but you are still buying it (or rent it, given the type of the licence). Most people don’t know about this and they often think that Windows comes for free and no salesman will ever explain them that they have to pay for that. This is a case of tying that flies in the face of consumers’ rights: not only do they not know that they are paying for a product, if they know about it, they will have hard time getting Windows removed from their computer without losing the guarantee (this depends on the manufacturer) and get refunded. And this is illegal, at least in France, where Acer has been forced to reimburse someone for unwanted MS “racketwares” (fr).Another problem is the widespread, and unjustifiable, use of proprietary formats such as .doc or .docx in human resources or by scientific journals. Try to apply to a position by sending your CV as a .odt, or to publish in a journal by sending the manuscript in the same format. This won’t work, they won’t accept it on the grounds that they “cannot read it”. This isn’t true, though, as the latests MS Office suite© is able to read .odt files. Better still, open-source softwares such as Libreoffice or Abiword can be installed –for free– to read it. Not to mention the widespread use of MS Office© by the academic staff, which forces the students to buy (or acquire illegaly) a licence for this software. Again, there is no justification for that. I know that some administrations have turn to GNU/Linux or open-source softwares for their operations. This is the case for the French Assemblée Nationale, why couldn’t it be the case for universities, charities and even scientific journals?

In any case, while I might have some understanding for someone buying a computer as they would buy any other appliance, I still have problems to understand why IT services in universities or research charities waste millions of pounds on proprietary OSes and insecure servers while there are professional, free alternatives out there. Even more so nowadays that we are facing financial hardships translating in reduction of fundings or donations.

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On the Green Party and the scientists: An answer to Sunny Hundal.

This letter on the Guardian raises some points, notably the one that says that scientists shouldn’t expect that politicians will follow every advice they give. This is clear, while scientists might provide advices, it’s up to the society to follow it, or not. I think so, and I’m pretty sure other scientists do as well. Sadly, this is the only good point made by this text. The rest sounds like it has been written by someone whose judgement has been clouded by anger. To support his case, Sunny Hundal (his blog is here), writes that UKIP and conservatives are probably more illiterate about science than the Greens because of their denial of global warming. The Green Party supports the scientists on this issue. Later in the text, the author claims that the backing –or lack thereof– of some technologies by the conservatives and the UKIP on the one hand and the Greens on the other is ideological. That’s exactly that! And therefore, while the conservatives behave as ignorant witch-hunters when it comes to climate science, the Greens are no better when it comes to experiments on animals or GM food. Anti-GM activism is a lot more active in France than it is here. There, I heard countless arguments that were tantamount to fearmongering. A practise that I personally find despicable. And while I might be slightly more sympathetic to the Greens’ or environmentalists’ view of the world, their behaviour regarding GM is that of Luddites. In my opinion, it makes no sense to go after some experiments that are here to produce knowledge, like the one hosted at Rothamstead Research. I’d have somewhat less of a problem if the attack would have been directed against a corporation such as Monsanto. In fact, environmentalists have a lot of interesting things to say about patenting of technology or genes. Sadly, it seems that building a coherent position around these issues involves a lot more work –understanding the scientific and legal bases of the problem, mainly– that calling on people to go about destroying experiments. The other point raised by Sunny Hundal is that scientists are bad at communication. It is in general true that scientists are not very good at PR. Then again, this isn’t their job. Maybe it should, maybe not; in any event, as for global warming, the debate about GM crops is loaded with ideology –as Sunny Hundal himself pointed out. It is then somewhat unfair to blame the lack of success of their attempt at communicating solely on the scientists. For a dialog to occur, both parties must be ready to listen. And in both cases, global warming and GM crops, their “opponents” simply don’t want to listen. “Take the flour back” made it clear refusing to debate with the researchers from Rothamstead Research.

Eventually, there seems to be some confusion in the mind of this author, as is illustrated by the following:

Given that scientists are utterly failing to engage or lead the debate on climate change – why not spend more time dealing with that bigger problem than attacking Greens over small things? Our planet is dying thanks to global warming and some scientists think this GM outrage should be a top priority? Really?

Do I really need to remind him that climate scientists and plant biologists are not exactly the same people? While some climate scientist –despite what Sunny Hundal seems to infer– do engage the public on climate science, they do not have the knowledge to do so when it comes to GM technology. And, conversely, molecular biologists are not exactly experts in climate science. Therefore, they’d rather engage in debates about the technology they master. This is called intellectual honesty. As for the occasional climate scientist that might voice his support to the researchers at Rothamstead, why shouldn’t he? The problems that both type of scientists face stem from the very same science illiteracy that, sadly, seems widespread in society. Who, besides a scientist, can explain the scientific method? And yet, this isn’t something very hard to understand…

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