Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018 scientific society talks in London blog post

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Let's see if we can keep Permanent EU Citizenship, even if Brexit happens w @EUcitizen2017

Vote, by 23 July 2019, for Permanent European Union Citizenship - this is an EU citizens' initiative. [Campaign website]

1. Oooh! I've been a bit wary of all these Stop-or-Mitigate Brexit-themed petitions (I worry that we're diluting stuff) but this one looks more promising.

Even despite the URL I greeted it with the same suspicion, but have since searched for the URL on Twitter to see who's been tweeting about it, and Guy Verhofstadt had so - real enough for me. The petition is just over a day old (it was registered in July 2018 but voting seems to have opened only on 22nd August).

2. In the UK we regularly see people sharing petitions to Parliament, which have this banner across the top of the page.

These can be created on Parliament's website by any UK citizen - if the petition reaches 10,000 votes then Parliament must respond and if the votes reach 100,000 then Parliament will consider it for a debate. It does not necessarily mean that the thing you're petitioning for will happen though.

3. The EU Citizens' Initiative (ECI) is an EU-wide equivalent of this (I presume each member state has its own petitions site but I only know about the UK one). Any EU citizen can suggest an ECI for consideration. For an ECI to meet its threshold it requires 1,000,000 votes overall and for minimum thresholds to be reached in 7 of the member countries. Each country has its own numeric threshold depending, I presume, on the number of people in its voting population.

The UK needs 54,750 votes and so far has 19,583 (35%) - so I think we'll probably manage 100% - but Germany would need 72,000 and has only 761 (1%), or Latvia needs 6,000 and only has 12. Early days though!

4. I've no idea if it's more likely that countries with smaller thresholds (Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta need 4,500) will be more easily reached than countries with larger thresholds (Germany has the highest but there are a few above 40,000) or if it's more to do with which countries are most engaged. Currently the votes are (not surprisingly, given it's less than two days old!) languishing at the 1 or 2% end of things for each country but the UK is already at 36% (20,001 votes) - another few hundred have come in while I've been drafting this. It's not too surprising that UK folk are currently the most engaged.

5. Here's what the petition website looks like, and where you can find out how many votes are still needed [screenshot captured at 3pm on 23 August 2018].

Note the English (en) to the right of the above image - with the drop-down arrow you can read the page in any EU language.

Threshold status is very much not yet reached, but there are a few months to go... the images below come from the Permanent European Union Citizenship's ECI page - you need to click on the 'More info' button to bring up the extra panel. You can see all countries' responses one one page or scroll through a 'gallery'.

More countries listed on the website.

6. ...And here's what info about the initiative looks like on the main European Commission website

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A new Wikipedia page on CEASE therapy

Summary: I've created (with help from other Wikipedians) a new page on Wikipedia for CEASE therapy giving a brief overview of what the therapy involves and the regulatory action that's taken place against the misleading claims made for it. (Page last updated - 29 July 2018)

For some time I and others have been trying, not all that successfully, to get UK homeopaths / naturopaths to stop making misleading claims about curing or treating autism. The information accompanying their treatment promotes the idea that vaccines cause autism (which is a harmful idea to be promoting anyway) and the treatment itself involves the notion of 'vaccine detox' through large doses of vitamin C alongside a buffet selection of supplements, dietary restrictions and homeopathy. CEASE therapy (Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression - the name itself is problematic) is promoted to parents of children with autism and no evidence has been provided of it being of use to anyone. A related 'treatment' is Homeopathic Detox Therapy or HDT.

In 2015 Teddington Homeopathy was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for misleading CEASE-related claims and the ASA adjudicated against them and subsequently added them to their non-compliant online advertisers list. [I submitted a complaint myself but the ASA had already begun to take action based on someone else's prior complaint].

More recently we have asked the Society of Homeopaths to rein in their own members. There are several homeopathic societies in the UK and the SoH has its members' register accredited by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) so I suppose this offers a potential source of leverage. Happily the PSA listened to our* complaints and imposed conditions on the SoH when reaccrediting their register. The SoH published a position statement advising their members to take care about misleading claims relating to the treatment.

In my own complaint, to the SoH, I reported five of their members who had been making misleading claims, then I periodically monitored the five websites for any changes. Sadly the changes were fairly minimal - hence the 'not all that successfully' reference above. Most significantly one member has cancelled their SoH membership (so they are no longer required to follow the SoH's guidelines on marketing etc) but very little of the text has changed.

In July 2018 the ASA adjudicated against another CEASE therapist who offered CEASE among several other things, so it wasn't the main focus. I also discovered that they'd written to several homeopaths in May and June enclosing an Enforcement Note on CEASE therapy and asking them to ensure that their marketing material did not make misleading claims.

Hopefully the ASA might take some action on these and other homeopaths - I won't necessarily know about it because they do not need to adjudicate further on any homeopath. After several cases the ASA already knows that there's no good evidence for homeopathy and that it doesn't work so there's no point in revisiting the evidence and adjudicating. Instead each new complaint about homeopathy is handled by the Compliance team who, frustratingly, don't publish their activities. I don't think any of the homeopaths (from my complaint) have been selling homeopathic remedies in breach of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) regulations.

Since getting regulatory bodies to take action on misleading health advertising is a long, slow process I thought I'd try a parallel approach of creating a new Wikipedia page about the therapy. Wikipedia's pages can feature prominently in search engine results so I'm hoping that the page might appear when families are searching for information. No guarantees of course! No sign of the page in search results yet but it's only been 24 hours.

*our - I did put in a complaint however the timeline was such that the PSA had already had its meeting and taken action before I did, so mine's unlikely to have contributed much to the outcome.

After writing about the new Wikipedia page on Twitter I got a fair bit of push back from homeopaths and CEASE therapists who get a bit cross when anyone points out that they're making unsupported claims about an implausible treatment. One of them created a new account with a username that is typical of the lack of insight of some homeopaths I've spoken to (see screenshots below). Of course this certainly seems a bit intimidating and might put people off from writing about their activities on Twitter but it doesn't actually stop people from undertaking those activities (or getting other people to mention them instead).

Is it really like that I wonder ;)
A few more screenshots below.

There's still a lot to be done on CEASE. Getting the ASA and SoH to persuade homeopaths to remove misleading claims is only one small part. They are still attempting to treat children with autism which is beyond their level of competence and a safeguarding issue. The MHRA can block the sale of the 'remedies', local councils can take action around safeguarding and Trading Standards can prosecute.

Library of Things - borrow household stuff as well as books

Libraries of Things are community-run projects which let people borrow community-owned items for a small fee, for a week or so. Items can include musical instruments, camping equipment, household tools (drills, waffle-makers), arts and crafts and whatever the community makes available.

Inspired by @MooseAllain's post about a local project in Frome :) I looked for a directory and didn't find one so this is the next best thing. 

Google is full of suggestions, I just picked a few - another good way to find more is to do an image search for Library of Things and click on the different logos. Also search Twitter.

Community fridges (avoid wasting food within use by date)
Frome has a Community Fridge and Brixton has a People's Fridge

Libraries of Things
Library of Things - Crystal Palace / Upper Norwood

Share Frome

Borrow Don't Buy - Plymouth

Local Tool lending library - worldwide

Pimlico Toy Library

Oxford Library of Things (coming soon, as of Nov 2017)
from Low Carbon West Oxford (see also Facebook)

Guildford Library of Things (opened June 2018)

Cardiff, Wales
Benthyg -

Dublin Library of Things

United States
Brighton, MI - Library of Things

Capital Area District, Lansing, MI - Library of Things

Hillsboro, Oregon - Library of Things

Connetquot Public Library, Bohemia, New York (electronics / hardware)

Ann Arbor District Library - Unusual Things to Borrow

Kitchener, Ontario - Library of Things

Repair cafes

Restart Project

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Learning Morse Code online

Click the pic above (or and then on Play a demo on desktop to go through the interactive Morse-learning demo. I discovered this thanks to this post from Lifehacker.

Google have arranged things so that smartphone users can type or receive a series of Morse dashes and dots. It's rather good fun and you can also do it on a desktop too (link above). The intention behind this is not just fun but as part of their programme to help people with more accessible communication. In the example given, someone can use head movements to produce either a dot or a dash and the sequence of these is converted into English text (or can be converted into any language).

To introduce this they've also created a really simple and clear method for training people in Morse code ( which is fun and delightful - really good use of visual design - and I'd learned all the letters within an hour. The morning after I can still remember most of them. Isn't the U for Unicorn (.._) cute.

There are several 'directions' in learning Morse and this uses only one of them. You are given a letter in English - P - and you have to respond with the correct Morse letter - . _ _ . It's quite similar to how I learned to touch-type. First you start with f and j which are the 'home' keys on a keyboard, they have the little raised bit so your fingers can always find them. Then the other letters are brought in and soon you're confidently typing gibberish like fdf dfd jkj kjk and so on and after two weeks you're 50+ words a minute.

'Real' Morse, although no longer in official use (it's not used by the military and I think even amateur 'ham' radio enthusiasts are no longer required to be proficient), would never learn it just like that - you'd hear a series of dots and dashes and have to be able to transcribe back into English letters and numbers, and into words. This system doesn't teach that. Similarly it doesn't teach the reverse in that it doesn't present you with ... _ or _ ... and wait for you to provide V or B respectively (not a criticism, it's really fun and I think it's great and I know more Morse now than I ever did).

Learning Morse uses several 'sensory modalities' in that you have to listen (or see) and press buttons or write and ideally you'd learn to cross-convert an English letter to Morse and a Morse letter to English.

This morning I tried the Morse Code machine tester from Boy's Life (even though I am a girl, ) and was pleased that I got most of them right (but got a few wrong). In the picture below it's the letter 'H' shown.

I am fascinated by Morse Code, its history and use, and always feel that I want to be able to make sense of the dits and the dahs. However there's absolutely no reason for me to do so, so no impetus to learn beyond my curiosity.

This enthusiasm probably began about fifteen years ago when I was lying in bed at my parent's house fiddling about with a bedside radio and I came across a radio station broadcasting a series of beeps and beeeeps and wondered what it was. I tried to write them down but of course I couldn't work out where one letter began and ended, or where the sequence started. It took a few listens to make sense of where the spaces were and, with a bit of Googling later and I eventually worked out that the letters were CHT _._.  / .... / _   and that it wasn't a radio station but just the Chiltern Non-directional radio beacon for aircraft which was pinging out its location info which my radio had picked up. My parents lived within radio-listening distanced from the Chiltern beacon which is located at RAF Northolt (you can hear it in this old Audioboom of mine). Further googling also led me to this song 'The Slow Train' by Andy Lewis, which features the beacon as a backing track.

Morse is kind of a binary thing (well, not really as there's ON (dot or dash) and OFF (silence) with the transmitting units being built up to form letters, words and numbers. It let people send messages via telegraphy through a series of electrical pulses - not wildly dissimilar to the way in which nerves work - which converted the signal to marks on a bit of paper that were meant to be read. Early telegraphy operators found that they could just as easily translate into dots and dashes the sound the device made as it converted the electrical signal into an indentation on a paper tape. The paper tape became unnecessary and later when Morse was used in radio communications people realised it was quicker just to hear it as an audio transmission rather than as something you translate from a written page. [Wikipedia's page on the history of Morse code]

Below is a picture I took at the Orkney Wireless Museum showing the Morse alphabet. I was surprised to see accented letters.

Further reading
Make your own Morse key USB keyboard

Test yourself in Morse
Quiz: How well do you know Morse code? (27 April 2018, BT)
Morse Code test (
A real-world test for certification with the Radio Society of Great Britain

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Language, jargon and communication in science - an old essay of mine from 2004/5

You can pretty much guarantee that if I spot a discussion about the use (or avoidance) of jargon in discussions about science with a non-specialist audience, I'll pipe up. What I'll say - based more on feelpinions than evidence, granted - is that I think it's perfectly fine to use jargon as long as you explain what it means and that there's no real need to avoid it at all costs.

I am more concerned about words that don't seem like jargon but which you (a scientist) use in a particular, precise way and which your audience may understand much more loosely. My classic examples would include protein (eggs, chicken in a meal versus oligopeptides, enzymes), model (someone who looks better than me in a bikini versus a computer program which predicts an output) and theory (well-founded 'model' of how something works which explains current [and predicts new] findings versus a hunch or gut feeling).

In 2004/5 ago I did a Diploma in Science Communication at Birkbeck College and had a lovely time doing so. I wrote some essays, some were probably a bit rubbish, but I liked this one. I got a pretty good mark for it but somehow the bit of paper with the mark on has become separated from the essay itself, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

This was written in 2004/2005 and I might think slightly differently now on some points, but the essay is as it was then.

Sociologists of scientific knowledge are unlikely to disagree with the idea that "words maketh the world". Discuss the ways in which language might be said to 'construct' science.

     In this essay I will consider some of the ways in which language is used by scientists, and others, to express scientific concepts. I would like to look at the way in which language is used among scientists, examining jargon and metaphor in scientific discourse as well as consider some of the ways in which non-scientists could be said to have had scientific knowledge constructed for them by the popular media. I will also consider some of the arguments for and against the view that certain uses of language have contributed to a science that is culturally contrived.

     Language is essential to communicating any endeavour and thus it is fair to say that scientific knowledge is embodied in language. Whether or not this is literally in terms of words or graphical outputs or other 'literary inscriptions' (Latour and Woolgar, 1986) the end-product must be understood. Scientific knowledge exists because scientists are able to communicate their thoughts - "whatever directly affects the speech of science and its development affects scientific endeavour near its core" (Montgomery, 2004). It is difficult to imagine a knowledge that "exists without language or controlled observation" (Wark, 1996) and in that sense, science is not independent of social construction. If, as Leary says "all knowledge is ultimately rooted in metaphorical (or analogical) modes of perception and thought" then science can be considered as relying strongly on language (quoted in Gorman, 1998).

     Words have no intrinsic value and only acquire this through community consensus, thus language is a social construction. Since science is also a community enterprise and one which relies heavily on language it is reasonable to suppose a close association between the way language and thought represent reality (Lillegard, 2004).

     Although all disciplines have their own jargon, scientists have been especially busy in stringing Greek or Latin words together to find new ways of describing things and expressing concepts. While the precise way in which certain words are used ("normal" or "theory", for example) differs from their use in everyday language (and can be a major source of the language barrier between scientist and non-scientist) words like 'poikilothermic' (cold blooded) do appear to be designed to keep out the uninitiated. Words may maketh the world but science "is today the most active area of language creation" (Montgomery, 2004) - in other word, science constructs the language.

[The person marking the essay has pointed out that other disciplines also do this]

     Most scientists (and non-scientists who use field-specific jargon) would defend its use for mutual convenience among those in the same discipline, even though this requires a learning of more words or learning a new way to use familiar ones and Montgomery (2004) has spoken of the perception of a "communicational diaspora... dividing the disciplines by the arcanity of specialist speech" while acknowledging that the barriers between disciplines have become more 'porous' in recent years, thanks to 'transdisciplinary research'.

     Richard Dawkins' use of the analogy of 'selfish' genes has caused some confusion for those who mistakenly take the term literally (Dunbar, 1995) and Darwin was similarly 'sandbagged' by his own use of the phrase 'natural selection' which gave rise to the belief that nature was actively selecting (Eisenberg, 1992). In these cases, ordinary words became jargon due to the specific way in which they were used.

     In an interesting experiment FJ Ingelfinger (the then editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) printed, in 1971, two versions of the same immunology paper - one making no concessions to non-immunologists, the other written in plain English by a professional journalist. Although most readers preferred the one in plain English, the original authors felt that the translation had missed the subtle nuances of the original (Dunbar, 1995) and defended the use of jargon in certain instances. In fact, Wilkinson (1992, quoted in Atkinson, 1999) challenged calls for the use of jargon (and of the passive voice, which will be discussed later) to be avoided because scientists, when publishing in scientific journals, are writing for other experts in the field.

     Despite some problems, metaphors and analogies are often used successfully as pedagogical tools to explain something that is unknown in terms of something that is known (Gorman, 1998). As long as analogies ("A is like B") are not irreversibly stretched too far beyond metaphor ("A is B") then they can provide a useful framework for explaining and understanding concepts. They can be problematic though and metaphor has been described as a "double-edged sword" due to the danger of the metaphor transferring more than one meaning onto the thing which is being described (Scheiderer, 2000b). This adds weight to the postmodern idea that a reader will bring something to the text themselves - when they draw the analogy "many additional meanings may be transferred" (Scheiderer, 2000b).

     However, studies of metaphor in science have shown that their use is more than just a 'convenient linguistic tool' (Scheiderer, 2000a) and there are several examples where metaphor may not only have had a clear role in the construction of scientific ideas but might even have constrained them.

     Some feminist critiques of science have examined the perceived damage from the misuse of metaphor although with varying successes in making a valid point. Sandra Harding's often misquoted observation, that if "Nature as a machine" metaphors are effective in science, then overtly sexualised Baconian metaphors (scientists triumphing over nature compared with men dominating women) cannot be dismissed as 'mere metaphors' makes a valid point when not taken out of context (Brown, 2001).

     Kathryn Hayles' account conflating the difficulties in solving equations for fluid mechanics with gender issues, reported in Brown (2001), on the other hand appears to have taken things a step too far. It is still a matter of debate however, as to whether gendered views in developmental and cellular biology (sperm as active and male versus egg as passive and female as well as a similar dichotomy between the cytoplasm and the nucleus) have hindered development in those fields. Gross and Levitt (1998) downplay the effect of metaphor when they comment that "however negligible the power of inappropriate metaphor may be to shape the ultimate body of scientific knowledge, there is no great harm in sensitising people to it."

     It is not just the words themselves which are of interest to those studying science linguistics. Science is nowadays expressed in very formalised language where the author (the scientist) is apparently meant to be invisible. The reason for this is may be that removing any explicit authorship minimises the perceived subjectivity of the scientific experiments (Montgomery, 1999), the exact details of which are usually expressed in the passive voice (Atkinson, 1999).

[I think even at the time I was writing this things were changing regarding writing actively instead of passively]

     For those whose perception of science comes from other sources the challenges of jargon are often replaced by the challenges of translation. As mentioned above in the case of the immunology paper, the "accommodation" of scientific knowledge (Fahnestock, 1986) involves a truncated version of 'the truth'. The linguistic style differences between journal papers and newspaper articles reflect the differing publishing aims and constraints. Qualifiers found in journal articles which are used to 'hedge' (Atkinson, 1999) are often the first to be pruned in a media re-write. This results in apparent certainty and misses the contingent nature of scientific knowledge. In a facile sense it could be argued that the version of truth given to readers of newspaper articles becomes the accepted "truth" by virtue of reaching a much wider audience than those reached by the journal articles. This is not the same as saying that there are different versions of the truth, any one of which might be correct. Although scientists have debunked the notion that "we only use 10% of our brains" many people still think that 90% remains underused.

     While social influences undoubtedly affect what information escapes the ivory towers I would like now to examine the more troubling (to scientists) view that the influence of social factors goes far beyond this to the actual negotiation of knowledge itself.

     Few would agree with Evelyn Fox Keller when she says that "science is not exempt from social influences" (Bucchi, 2004), however this is a fairly innocuous statement and could be applied to those social influences on the choice of which problem to study, or funding. In fact, the current efforts in improving the public's engagement with science and technology acknowledges the feeling that science and scientists should be subject to social influences on their activities.

     A stronger take on cultural construction makes the assumption that because the process of arriving at knowledge has a strong social element (peer review being one example) the end result is "in whole or in part a social construct" (Wyllys, 2003).

     In attempts to demystify some of the processes operating in science, some social constructivists have attacked the idea that the body of knowledge in science is reliable. According to Gross and Levitt (1998) the 'strong form' view maintains that science is a discourse devised and constrained by one interpretive community of scientists and any claims to truth are not independent of this group.

     In their book, "Higher Superstition", they offer several examples of this sort of reasoning, that can easily be dismissed. Stanley Aronowitz's idea that acceptance by physicists of Heisenbert's "uncertainty principle" heralded a humbler, less confident physics community is described as what can happen "when the connotative power of words... are allowed to drift apart from their contextual meaning" (Gross and Levitt, 1998).

     There are many instances shown here which suggest that it might be an oversimplification to suggest that science is expressed in linguistically neutral terms, or even that the use of language does not have some effect on those discovering or constructing science. In a response to Montgomery's paper, Hayes-Rivas (2004) commented that "language often leads thought" and wondered if the role of a language such as English (with its strict Subject-Verb-Object order) as the lingua franca of science might, if all scientists are eventually writing and thinking in English, constrain the way in which the world is viewed. At the very least, "it is dangerous to assume, without further study, that the effects of such a rigid grammar will be trivial or benign" (Hayes-Rivas, 2004).

Jo Brodie, 2004 or 2005

to be typed up