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 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Birkbeck Cinema in London

Has anyone ever been to Birkbeck Cinema? Birkbeck as in University of London - fairly central.

I discovered its existence two years ago - I think I was doing a short course at Bbk and noticed a new-looking cinema as I wandered round the building getting to the class.

Since then I've picked up only the scraps of merest hints that the cinema is used (there was something a year or so about Spanish film I think) and I think it gets used by the students who are studying film. It seems films are on during the day but it's not clear (and a bit of an uphill struggle to find out) what's on in the evening - it's not immediately obvious what the timings are there.

But it's open for commercial rates and can be hired - maybe I should check Time Out and the other listings for more info.

Its main website is here

There's only one link there as far as I can tell, which goes to this PDF leaflet of which I have a hard copy taken directly from the foyer at Birkbeck

I also picked up a rates leaflet (2007) which doesn't appear to be on the website - details below.

From the domain name of the email I found the Independent Cinema Office website (it doesn't mention the Birkbeck Cinema in its London list though). It's a good list anyway.

Commercial Rates
  • Seating for 62 plus 8 tip-up seats and space for wheelchairs
  • Choice of available equipment
9.00am-6.00pm £140/hour
6.00pm-10.00pm £180/hour

Saturday and Sunday
10.00am-10.00pm £200/hour
All prices are exclusive of VAT

Student and Not-for-profit Rates
A limited amount of Birkbeck Cinema hire time per month is available to students and not-for-profit organisations.

9.00am-6.00pm £90/hour
6.00pm-10.00pm £140/hour

Saturday and Sunday
10.00am-9.00pm £180/hour
9.00pm-10.00pm £200/hour
All prices are exclusive of VAT

Also available for hire
  • Breakout rooms
  • Catering
  • Non-standard equipment
  • Pianist (for silent films)
Booking enquiries
To make a booking please contact 020 7636 7120 or

Further information

Here are some Flickr pictures of the cinema.

Sharing websites pictorially - how can I do this?

In Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari I can click on a button that will show me a grid view of the tabs I currently have open or my recently visited (favourite) websites, as below.

Microsoft Internet Explorer tabs (full size below)

Apple Safari recently visited / favourites (full size below)

I would like to be able to create a series of these pages, with different content, that can be shared with others.

For example
Incidentally, if I wanted to share my Safari favourites, or the IE tabs I had open is there an URL I could uncover that would let me do so? If not, that's the sort of thing I'm after...

I've previously had a play on Pageflakes believing that this service would let me do that but I didn't find it straightforward. It's certainly true that you don't have to restrict yourself to their presets and can put in pages of your choosing, however they all seem to be RSS newsfeeds - for updating purposes. I don't want this, I just want the homepages.

There is useful diabetes info here, but it's very text based, and it's just updates

I'm a big fan of the 'corporate ID' of a page - its logo, and the way it's set out and this is usually what cues me in to knowing that I'm on the right page! It's easy to see from the pictures above what pages are open when I took the screenshot.

My ideal system would let me input a number of links and it would automatically grab the homepage (the ones above are personalised to me cos I'm logged in) and produce a new page for me with miniature windows for each link already embedded. Something similar is which lets you input a series of links and it will give you a single link in return.

Visiting your new krunchd link will open a page containing a drop down menu with all your pages in and you can move through them, and each new page is presented within a frame. Example: (viewed over 670 times... ).

Is this something I could do on Google Wave if I had any clue how to create something on Wave, and also had access to it? Or does anyone know of something else that would work - I don't think Netvibes does this either.

Microsoft Internet Explorer tabs
Internet Explorer - view all tabs

Apple Safari recently visited / favourites
Safari - favourite pages - note orange circle

Friday, 30 October 2009

I used to work at Science Line which was lots of fun

In clearing out some old papers I found a one-page guide to the origins of Science Line (also known as Science Net) which is where I had my first job after leaving the laboratory world of lipid biochemistry. It was great - I got to answer a few questions in addition to my main involvement with the Planet Science Whodunit.

Here's the history of Science Line which folded in 2003 due to lack of funding (as far as I'm aware). Thanks to the Wayback Machine, this is what it looked like around the time I was there

The nearest modern equivalent would be the awesome 'I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here' which lets school kids ask science questions of professional scientists and science communicators.

A bit about Science Line
A brief history of Science Line
Science Line is the product of a unique collaboration between the worlds of the public understanding of science and broadcasting. This is a reflection of its dual origins. Part of the impetus for its launch came from the public understanding of science community, in particular, Professor John Durant. He had conducted a survey (published in Nature in 1989) showing that the public were more interested in science, technology and medicine than sport, politics and new films; but at the same time their understanding of science was poor.

Around the same time the Science Museum in London had experimented with science information services linked to some of their exhibitions; and the Dutch had started a government funded service which wasw regularly attracting over 7,000 calls a year.

In the Autumn of 1991 John Durant contacted Dr Laurence Smaje at the Wellcome Centre for Medical Science: would Wellcome be interested in supporting a telephone-based science enquiry service? The answer was "yes, in theory" - but how could it be done in practice?

The breakthrough came at the 1992 British Association Annual Meeting when Derek Jones, the then editor of Channel 4 Support Services, expressed an interest in starting an information service for members of the Channel's Science Club and viewers of its science programmes. The meeting was attended by Dr Smaje, who encouraged Derek Jones to make a formal application to the Wellcome Centre to fund a pilot scheme, to be run by Broadcasting Support Services.

Science Line opened for the first time during a special Channel 4 weekend of dinosaur programmes in July 1993. Nearly 800 viewers rang a team of 20 scientists, experts in fields from ancient DNA to palaeontology, with questions both simple and complex. The potential for using television to stimulate scientific conversation was clearly demonstrated and further opportunities to engage viewers were grasped after programmes on memory, space exploration, air traffic control and gene therapy.

The success of the pilot scheme led to the setting up of a weekday service, open between 1.00pm and 7.00pm and accessible from anywhere in the UK for the price of a local telephone call. This was launched in March 1994, during set7, the first national science, engineering and technology week, by the then junior science minister, David Davis MP.

Science Line continues to be managed by Broadcasting Support Services (BSS), an educational charity specialising in the management of telephone information services and back-up for viewers and listeners.

Science Line now has a freephone number, 0808 800 4000. We are now open Monday-Saturday, 1-7pm and are funded by a grant from NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) until 2003. We also carry out commercial contracts such as providing editorial content for websites and anything else that is vaguely sciencey and will bring in some cash.

Science Line 1993-2003.

Daniel Moerman's looking for evidence of stories about ants following diabetic urine

Just spotted this (see below) in the latest Fall 2009 newsletter from the Society for Economic Botany

It's a question about the evidence for stories, in traditional societies, of ants crawling around sugary urine, indicating that someone has diabetes and perhaps being used as a diagnostic tool.

Professor Daniel Moerman is an anthropologist and former editor of the Society for Economic Botany's journal, Economic Botany. He developed the Native American Ethnobotany database of "foods, drugs, dyes and fibers of Native American Peoples, derived from plants" which is available online ( and as a book (

He also wrote "Meaning, Medicine and the Placebo Effect" and features in one of my favourite Radiolab episodes, Placebo, talking about Quesalid (


Diabetes In the Wild
I have heard two or three people say that nonwestern,
traditional peoples can/do diagnose
“diabetes” by noticing that the person’s urine is
“sweet” because the urine attracts ants or butterflies.
Such practice has always been of the “someone told
me” sort —“Someone told me that people diagnose
diabetes by. . . ” but I have never found a genuine
first-person report, or any published report, first
person or otherwise. If anyone has ever heard such
testimony from traditional peoples somewhere, or
has seen a published report, or knows someone
who did, please let me know. Many thanks,
Daniel E. Moerman, dmoerman /at/
William E Stirton Prof. Emeritus of Anthropology
University of Michigan-Dearborn

One suggestion, which might contain relevant stories, is below.

Diabetes Stories - An oral history of diabetes - from OCDEM (Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism).
Scroll down to the bottom to choose stories from people with diabetes, family members or healthcare professionals.

Using the search transcript facility ( and searching for "ants" brought up 66 hits. Some of the interviewees were born abroad and moved to the UK.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

How are we cache-ing pages?

When people say, in their delightfully sneaky blog posts, "But what's this? Here's a copy I cached earlier" what is that they're actually doing?

I'm curious to know about the different methods used and if there's a 'best' way of doing this. I suppose it would have to be something that also doesn't permit tampering with the source code to falsify the webpage.

1. Rely on Google cache

Probably unreliable (and websites can override Google's webcrawling robots) but at least search terms are nicely highlighted. I don't think this is easily falsifiable.

2. File / Save As... / Web archive, single file (.mht)
The option presented to me by MSIE - I think I may have used this for "working offline" but not with any particular competence. Is this what people are doing? Does it save an entire website or just the page you're on? I don't think this is easily falsifiable either.

3. Save the html code and regurgitate as a page later on
View / Source gives a small notepad file (which can be saved as .htm which can then be opened for editing in notepad, or in any browser as a webpage) with all the text needed to recreate the page. Images need to be saved later. Very very falsifiable.

4. Wait for the Wayback Archive to do the work for you
Wayback archives a lot of pages and they seem to appear six months after the page was live so changes might be harder to find depending on how many 'impressions' the Archive makes of the page, unless you remember the date on which the information you want to record was available. Doesn't seem to be falsifiable.

5. Take a screen shot
Press the button marked PrtSc (or something similar) and a copy of the entire visible screen is pasted to the clipboard. Paste (Ctrl V) this into Paint or other image editing software to select the relevant bit and save as a .bmp (or .jpeg etc). Probably quite fiddly to falsify the picture of words in Paint but might be doable in other software.
6. Something clever on Firefox
I haven't used it for a while but I think there was a gadget which helped with cacheing pages.

This post is all about creating copies of web pages but for more on 'finding old web pages' go here

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Lewisham offers training in woo

Community Education Lewisham joins Greenwich Community College in selling courses in Hopi Ear Candles. It's also offering training in all manner of crap.

A Day with Crystals
' to choose, cleanse and dedicate crystals for everyday use. You will be introduced to the quartz family and master a self-healing technique."
£28, five hours (one day)

Astrology - an introduction
"Discover... how this insightful subject can be used for self discovery and personal growth."
£84, twelve hours (over four weeks)

Hopi Ear Candles
"This is a natural solution to ear syringing and is beneficial for conditions such as sinusitis, headaches and stress."
£28, five hours (there might be a lunch break in there too)

"Your iris is unique to you just like your fingerprints. With careful study... magnifying glass... you can be shown ways of maintaining and improving your health."
£42, six hours (two Saturday mornings).

When I read the bit about fingerprints I wondered if anyone has ever offered courses in diagnosing something or other from fingerprints. If not why not? Why do some things get co-opted into being woo and some things don't?

As far as I know most people think phrenology is bunk and there don't appear to be any courses on this topic in Lewisham or Greenwich. What differentiates phrenology from ear candling? Both are equally bunk-ish but ear candling is bringing in the cash and phrenology isn't.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Hokey ear candles

Here is a selection of references (not many have abstracts as they seem to be letters or comments) that I'm after in my quest to find out more about ear candles. As far as I can tell there are now three shops local to me that are flogging this and a local community college is offering a course in it. This is a wooful state of affairs.

Edit 02: added Pubmed IDs 19958263 | 18800318 | 18077749 | 17555144 on 17 April 2010

Zackaria, M and Aymat, A. (2009)
Ear candling: a case report
Eur J Gen Pract. 2009; 15(3): 168-9.

Kutz, JW Jr and Fayad, JN (2008)
Ear candling.
Ear Nose Throat J. 2008 Sep; 87(9): 499.

Rafferty, J, Tsikoudas, A and Davis, BC (2007)
Ear candling: should general practitioners recommend it?
Can Fam Physician. 2007 Dec; 53(12): 2121-2.
Full article:

McCarter DF, Courtney AU, and Pollart SM (2007)
Cerumen impaction.
Am Fam Physician. 2007 May 15; 75(10): 1523-8.
"The use of cotton swabs and ear candles should be avoided"

Ernst, E. (2004)
Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science
Journal of Laryngology & Otology (2004), 118:1:1-2;jsessionid=40027169FFB9FF73AF11D8F26F00690D.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=403194

Richard Harris, Ph.D. (1999)
Untoward otological and audiological consequences of ear candling
Brigham Young University; Provo, UT(Posted March 5, 1999)

Seely DR, Langman AW (1997)
Coning candles--an alert for otolaryngologists?
Ear Nose Throat J. 1997 Jan; 76(1): 47.
No abstract available.
PMID: 9018937

Seely DR, Quigley SM, Langman AW (1996)
Ear candles--efficacy and safety.
Laryngoscope. 1996 Oct;106(10):1226-9.

Blakley BW (1996)
Coning candles--an alert for otolaryngologists?
Ear Nose Throat J. 1996 Sep; 75(9): 585, 588.
No abstract available.
PMID: 8870363

Pulec JL. (1996)
Cerumen and coning candle chicanery.
Ear Nose Throat J. 1996 Sep;75(9):574.Links
Comment on: Ear Nose Throat J. 1996 Sep;75(9):585, 588.

Seely DR, Langman AW (1995)
Ear candles.
Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1995 Sep;121(9):1068.
No abstract available.
PMID: 7646862

British Library reading rooms here I come :D

EDIT 01: The BBC has a fairly credulous page about the nonsense that is Hopi Ear Candles, admittedly it dates from 2006 and isn't being updated, but even so I would have expected better

Where you can waste your money learning about ear candling
Community Education Lewisham - full list of courses

Also known as thermoauricular or thermo-auricular therapy, coning, and ear candling, 

Google groups and file sharing for skeptics?

I was wondering if there exists a Google group for UK skeptics? If not might there be any mileage in setting one up? Not for the chatter, which already takes place in a number of online venues but for the useful facility of being able to upload files (PDFs of useful papers perhaps) for storage / sharing among the group members.

There might be a copyright issue of course, in terms of storing other people's articles - but I could always write to authors and ask if they're happy for their material to be used and stored for this purpose.

In the next week or two I'll be collating a bunch of papers from the British Library (which will be bought for my own personal use so I expect I can't share them without falling foul). I'll be sending these to Trading Standards (TS) / Advertsing Standards Authority (ASA) regarding a local shop which is making some ridiculous claims in a leaflet (ASA) and on its website (TS). Having spoken to someone who worked in the shop it's clear that they consider that "people keep coming back / feel better" equals good evidence.

Anyway, if I were to get a bit more organised and email authors for permission for their copies to be stored in a small skeptic repository via Google groups... does that seem sensible?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Suggested use for bad science stickers

Last night on Twitter @zeno001 said
"Advert on London underground at Kings Cross for vitamin supplement for kids - someone added sticker: "Bad Science Alert" Probably illegal!"

and @bengoldacre replied
"someone design it, i'll print em RT @zeno001 Ad at Kings Cross for vitamin supplement for 4 kids, someone added sticker: "Bad Science Alert""

which I think is a great idea.

Should this come to fruition the resulting stickers could simply be used as an advert for the badscience book or website, where iffy claims are dissected, as sort of hinted at by the sticker @owencm designed but I have another suggestion.

I'm thinking of something similar to the Bookcrossing concept. A sticker is placed inside a book, which is left in a public place, with a web address and a number on it. You go to the website, type in the number and you get information about who first released the book into the wild and any other information about where it's been on its travels.

How about numbered bad science stickers (with a dedicated website - perhaps the badscience forum?) which will let readers of the advert find out more about why someone thinks the advert is potentially misleading - basically a sort of meatspace Sidewiki.

When you're on the train and see the advert for Bassetts Soft & Chewy Energiser vitamins you might notice sticker 1038 attached and visiting the magic website that's not been invented yet you'd get information about the tablets, perhaps with the suggestion to go to bed an hour earlier (I'm a bit disappointed they don't mention getting more sleep / going to bed earlier in their 12 suggested steps to avoid the afternoon slump).

Clearly the person doing the stickering would have to double check the 'database' to see if someone had already bagsed that advert, in which case they'd simply redirect number 1038 to number 357, for example, and perhaps add a comment.

I think the following would be important:-

1. The stickers should be replaceable / removable and not permanently mark the advert. Whatever I might think about the ad, someone's paid for it to be placed there and damaging it is not good. But non-permanently amending it's fine. Someone was recently in trouble for defacing one of the Alpha posters.

**EDIT**: Thanks to @zeno001 for alerting me to @jackofkent's related blog post that I missed today:- QUICK BLOGPOST: The Alpha Course and Graffiti - Ticking The Wrong Box

2. The website should allow additional comments to be added - this of course includes the possibility of a right of reply from the owner of the ad, should they hear about it.

3. Information about boundaries should be placed prominently on the website so that commenters do not find themselves at the wrong end of scrutiny from the owners of the ad.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Adhesive X-es for marking 'No' on Alpha posters

Following the news that someone was arrested for criminal damage while writing an X in the 'No' box on the Alpha posters I say let's stockpile transparent adhesive crosses (suggested type / font thingy below) with which to mark the posters while remaining within the law. Or just use Post-it notes...

To be fair these would work equally well in the Yes or No or Probably / Possibly categories although I was thinking more of the "No" section when I searched for a nice ballot-shaped X for illustrative purposes.

This post was inspired by xkcd's 'Actual size' stickers which can be bought here.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Longplayer, based on my contemporaneous tweets

FriendFeed is very useful for finding your old tweets and is much better at doing this than Twitter itself. Using its search function I've found all my #longplayer related tweets and am going to get on and add all my photos and videos from the (wonderful) day.

I first heard about Longplayer through a friend. She thought I'd like it as I'd previously raved about "9 Beet Stretch" which is Beethoven's 9th stretched to play over 24 hours - I heard that on a podcast about Time by Radiolab. The 9 Beet Stretch piece is streamed continuously (repeating) on the web and you can dip in at any time and listen to it.

Longplayer is on a larger scale. It began as "a computer generated musical creation" in 1999 and has played continuously, via the internet, and will continue to do so for 1,000 years (assuming all goes well with the computer industry) - the composer, Jem Finer, decided to excerpt a piece for 1,000 minutes to be played live - ie reroute it from the computer listening outposts to a concert space. For almost all of one Saturday the piece was played on a series of tuned singing bowls at the Roundhouse in Camden - it was described as a bronze age synthesiser.

Alongside this there were a series of conversations, on the subject of long time, with people including Ruth Padel (Darwin's great great granddaughter) and Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame (who first came to my attention via xkcd's cartoon). I managed to catch the last bit of their conversation before spending most of the rest of the day positioned by pillar 23 of 24. I also got to meet @Documentally who was there tweeting and making sure that the folks back home could hear the singing of the bowls (see his Longplayer posterous and blog).

Here are some of my tweets -

>>I liked that chats were timed w Tibetan bowl... bong bong... RT @Documentally AudioBoo Cory Doctorow #longplayer

The conversations were bookended by someone sounding a small bowl to indicate that the next person should take to the stage. I made my own boo of Ruth and Cory but my recording was pretty feeble.

>>Wondering if the bowls that are not in play, but sitting on wooden circuits, are resonating at all and contributing... #longplayer

There were bowls on tables which were being played but plenty more on low wooden forms, arranged in a circuit, which weren't physically being played - I did wonder if there might be some resonance-y thing going on that meant they were playing but couldn't be sure.

>>People enjoying #longplayer might also like Rainer Hersh's show on unusual percussive & musical instruments, avail. from @speechification

Speechification is brilliant - it's a curation of wonderful podcasts (both wonderful weird and wonderful sweet) and "Gershwin's Horns" is an amusing look at composers who've gone beyond violins and flutes to vegetables, turkeys, tuned anvils, taxi horns and even paper.

>>I'm going to try and recreate #longplayer with wine glasses when I get home later. Or milk bottles. On a slightly smaller scale obviously.

I keep meaning to do this. I get milk delivered so it's conceivable...

>> Bowls on tables being 'rung', bowls on tiny raised platforms not. Played later? Decorative? Resonant? #longplayer

Still wondering about this!

>>Today's sounds have been brought to you by bing, bong, bwoo-oo-oo and whu-uu-uum :) #longplayer

I like to think I contributed to the permanent tweet record of this event :-)

>> Circular room, 24 pillars, 6 concentric circles w 234(?) tuned bowls. Bronze aged synths FTW #longplayer

>> Trying to spot pattern in bowl size and spacing at #longplayer - failing. Keen use of stopwatches to time ringings

There were a lot of bowls there, I couldn't fathom how they were arranged though.

>>Wondering what the Ikea instructions for #longplayer are like, and if there's always a wee bowl left over once it's built...

I'd started thinking about getting a programme to find out more about the construction and couldn't help but wonder.

>>Trying out Twitvid after spotting that @Documentally had used it - this is an excerpt from #longplayer

I've used this once since but I'm glad I have it as an option on my iPhone. It was quite the day of multimedia.

>> I love the last line in this bio, #longplayer :)

The bio is of Richard "Dickie" Cripps who is the site manager of Trinity Buoy Wharf, home of Longplayer (this means he hears it most days). It says "he is still waiting for the chorus to kick in..."

>>Another clip from #longplayer - notice the interesting 'feature' of low ambient light, which my phone cannot solve

An iPhone video I took in the evening - once I work out where the flash is I'm sure my twilight videos will be better ;)

Some of the photos are below and I'm adding them and videos to my Flickr page too.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

London (mostly) scientific organisations

There is quite a bit of overlap with another post, in which vacancies pages are themed - however the two pages are different and so worth a look

Alphabetic Listing of London (mostly) organisations for science communicators
(largely biological / medical)

Academy of Medical Sciences or

Action Medical Research

Alzheimer's Society

AMRC - Association of Medical Research Charities A very useful umbrella organisation to which the major charities that undertake medical research are members. Given that all of these charities must raise funds, explain research to their supporters and comment when their disease condition gets into the press they are a useful resource for charity websites from which vacancies pages can be surmised. The larger charities will have dedicated science libraries, press teams, research communications teams etc. - download list of member charities (see bottom right) or,536

Anatomical Society

Association for Spina bifida and hydrocephalus
Recruitment / Current openings

Asthma UK

BHF - British Heart Foundation

BMA - British Medical Association

BNF - British National Formulary (publishes medicines information)

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Campaign

Breast Cancer Care

British Association for Psychopharmacology

British Biophysical Society

British Electrophoresis Society

British Pharmacological Society

British Psychological Society

British Society for Cell Biology

British Society for Developmental Biology

British Society for Immunology

British Society for Matrix Biology

British Toxicology Society

Cancer Research UK

Centre of the Cell

Chelsea Physic Garden

College of Emergency Medicine

Deafness Research UK

Diabetes UK

Environment Jobs - 2 different sites I think

Experimental Psychology Society

Faculty of Public Health

Food Standards Agency

Future Science

Genetics Society

Geological Society - for jobs outside the organisation

Institute of Biology (IOB) - upcoming

Institute of Physics

International Grain Council

Linnean Society

London Library, The

MHRA - Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority
NESTA - National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

NHM - Natural History Museum

NMM - National Maritime Museum (inc. Royal Observatory, Greenwich)

POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Royal Academy of Engineering

Royal Astronomical Society

Royal College of Anaesthetists

Royal College of Pathologists

Royal College of Surgeons of England

Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

RBG Kew - Royal Botanic Gardens

RCN - Royal College of Nursing

RCOG - Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

RCP - Royal College of Physicians

RIBA - Royal Institute of British Architects
RNID - Royal National Institute for the Deaf

RSC - Royal Society of Chemistry

RSM - Royal Society of Medicine

RSWT - Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts

Science Museum

Stroke Association


Wildlife Trusts

ZSL - Zoological Society of London

Other resourcesPostgrad Sci Comm newsletter from University of Edinburgh (the newsletter occasionally carries jobs listings)

Is there a way to categorise harm (eg from woo remedies)?

How do we categorise harm? 

(i) If I eat some bits of a yew or some iffy fungus I'll be very unwell - this is harm arising because the substance itself is toxic (clearly dose has some impact).

(ii) If I drink a lot of grapefruit or orange juice while taking certain statin drugs I'll reduce the rate at which my body clears the statin from my system, this might cause a problematic increase in the drug - this is harm arising from the grapefruit interacting with the enzyme that's meant to be clearing statins from the body (interactions).

(iii) If I buy some dodgy herbal pills from the internet they might contain prescription-only medicines that I don't know about. The real medicine could have been withdrawn from sale, or could interact with other prescribed meds that I might be taking or something else - this is harm arising from insufficient information and also a bit of (i) and (ii).

(iv) If I have a potentially serious health problem but choose to take treatment from an unconventional healer then by delaying getting appropriate treatment I may become very ill - this is harm arising from failure to act to preserve health.

There are probably other nuanced versions of these - I'm wondering if there's a recognised typology of harm, in the same way that you can have a Type I or Type II error in statistics.

If not, can we make some up ourselves?

Edit 31 August 2014
Just read an interesting post from Edzard Ernst looking more closely at the link between cardiac patients who are taking herbal remedies and their adherence to their prescribed medication. It looks like there may be a link (perhaps not surprising, though possibly not studied in depth before) and it seems that ther'e's a correlation between taking herbals and not taking prescribed medication appropriately. This could be dangerous and relates to (iv) in my imaginary taxonomy above.

A hitherto unknown risk of herbal medicine usage (31 August 2014) Edzard Ernst's blog


A project I work on (CHI+MED - making medical devices safer) looks at many aspects of medical safety, including human factors and systems thinking in handling medical errors. Specifically this involves looking at ways of designing into the system or device ways of making unavoidable user error more noticeable so that people can recover from them.

The older 'blame culture' that's been prevalent in many healthcare systems has taken the view that error is because someone's done their job wrongly and the response has been to retrain them. If you've ever poured orange juice in your tea or forgot your umbrella you can see immediately that this isn't a helpful view to take. Human error is pervasive (hence inevitable) and only rarely will training (or worse, sacking and getting in new people) fix it. Much better to learn from error and bolster systems to protect against it.

To a certain extent Google does this everytime you mistype something and it says "did you mean?" and spellcheckers do something similar for Word documents. In both cases the system has a design function that acknowledges the possibility of mistyping and offers an alternative or solution. Similarly most keyboards have a delete key to let you undo and even pencils have an eraser on the end of them.

We've found a really nice way of talking about error that doesn't involve blame - the dumb things we do everyday tend to be quite funny and no-one really seems to mind poking fun at themselves for doing something silly. And lo and behold, the cognitive processes involved in making these everyday errors are pretty much identical to those often involved in medical error - so we can learn from them too - have a look at the #errordiary hashtag and the Errordiary website which explains more.