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Apr 16 2010


As you’ve probably already heard, the British Chiropractic Association has dropped its court case against Simon Singh following the overturning on appeal of the previous ruling against him, marking the end of an expensive and mostly pointless legal battle. Mostly pointless, because it has at least served to focus national attention on Britain’s hideously illiberal and outdated libel laws; it was only earlier this week at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub that MPs from all three major parties were present to pledge their support for libel reform.

The battle is over, though the war continues. And thanks to the BCA’s poorly-considered legal action, the smart money is on our side.

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Nov 04 2009

Keep your pesky science out of our policy

Category: Politics,The Law Author:

The laughable state of drug laws in the UK has been getting some play recently, with the news that Prof. David Nutt has been sacked for daring to intimate that perhaps placing cannabis in the same broad category as amphetamine and codeine is somewhat unreasonable. Understandably, his colleagues have begun resigning in a show of solidarity; most people don’t take kindly to bluntly being told their job is a sham and that they are required to act merely as yes-men.

It’s rather perplexing to witness the government admitting so openly that they 1) create and enforce policy based on nothing more than gut instincts and uninformed opinions, and 2) are in possession of instincts and opinions in direct contradiction to considered scientific evidence. And moreover, that they are so invested in these assertions that they must engage in peculiar twists of argument in order to keep them propped up against all the evidence, rather than graciously acknowledge the results and change policy accordingly. The result, our misinformation-based antidrug laws and propaganda seem to me to be taking on characteristics all too similar to rituals and traditions based on fear and legends instead of any rational base.

Prof. Nutt has written an interesting response in the Guardian, which highlights not only the massively overstated risk from cannabis, but also the incredibly biased way in which drugs are reported in the media. We’ve had the evidence of cannabis’ low-risk status for a couple of years now; I remember when the BBC first reported on Nutt’s Lancet paper in 2007 with its telling graph ranking drugs by actual harm rather than popular opinion.

I’m optimistic, however; more and more people are taking cannabis and discovering for themselves how absurd the tales spun by the government are, and I believe the pro-science angle this story has been given reflects on a population mature enough to being seriously reconsidering the rationale for keeping it illegal. America is ahead of the game on this one – the town of Breckenridge in Colorado recently voted to decriminalise cannabis; although a largely token gesture due to its illegality at a state level, it’s a posture that is gaining traction across the US.

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Aug 20 2009

Five News breaks the law on air

Category: Bad News,The Law Author:

I just happened to stumble on a report being broadcast on Five News in which they discussed the leak of the latest pop ditty by Justin Timberlake and Leona Lewis (and the hilariously futile attempts by the IFPI to remove the file from the internet). Towards the end of the segment, the reporter remarked “Now, we’ve just downloaded a copy of the song”, put in some headphones, and continued, “Yes, that certainly sounds like them”.

Now pardon me for my naïveté, but I was not aware that broadcasting an illegal activity (and commenting on how trivial it is to commit) grants an immunity from the law. Of course, as he mentioned, they weren’t allowed to broadcast the song on-air, presumably as they’d be breaking the law, or encouraging others to do so. Er…

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Jul 15 2009

For God’s sake, Ireland

Category: The Law Author:

I may be a bit late to the party on this one, but I recently found out about Ireland’s passing of a law creating penalties for blasphemy. For a modern democratic nation, this is pretty embarrasing. It’s also a very stupid idea, as others have been quicker than I to point out. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this will encourage hostility not only between religious and non-religious groups, but between different denominations of religions as well. And beyond the immediate (and very valid) concerns over freedom of speech, the inevitable legal wrangling will waste time and money; although perhaps in the end the furore will result in the entire ridiculous section of legal code regarding blasphemy finally being removed.

I’m keen to see the legal response to the deliberate blasphemous statement from Atheist Ireland in protest of this law.


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Jul 13 2009

A convenient case study in media spin

Category: Bad News Author:

It might not be fair to pick on the Daily Mail for this sort of thing; it’s unsurprising to the point of being expected at this point for the emotionally-charged paper to lay objectivity and rational analysis aside in favour of support for the current populist opinion. But the fact remains that the paper has a circulation of 2.4 million, and there is at least a chance that some of the people reading it, believe it. As an exercise in critical thinking, then, consider these two articles written by the paper on the same subject, separated by only two years:

Continue reading “A convenient case study in media spin” »

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Jul 03 2009

Statistics misuse in BBC News magazine

Category: Bad News Author:

It’s far from the most egregious failure of statistics reporting, but this article in the BBC News’ Magazine section is really rather pointless. It’s clearly not meant as any sort of serious commentary on the appropriateness of the prison time given for various offences, but why even include crimes where the probable offender was killed before he could be sentenced (the 1990 City bonds robbery) or where no person or group was even charged (the 2004 Northern Bank robbery)? Instead, the graphic for the 1990 crime displays the prison time given to the launderer of the funds, which is hardly the same as committing the robbery.

Even for those crimes where suspects were actually put away, the scoring doesn’t seem to make much sense. “The prison terms cited represent the combined length of sentences” (bold in source) – so you’d expect crimes with more people behind them to score ‘higher’ on this metric, even if each individual involved received a somewhat lesser sentence. For the stated aim of giving a visualization of prison years per stolen sterling, this measure is useless.

As I said, not very important in the grander scheme of things, but just an example of the automatic, reflexive misuse of statistics by the media whenever a fancy graphic is desired.

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Jun 02 2009

Welcome to BrainJunk

Category: BrainJunk Author:

Gosh, look at you digging through the archives. Hello, and welcome to BrainJunk; a blog I intend to update with news, commentary, and other whimsical notions I may have about science, skepticism, the role of the media, and the state of modern society. Yes, it’s going to be one of those blogs. Sorry.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it, and I have no doubt I’ll hear about it if it’s struck a nerve or a chord with anybody.