Thursday, 29 October 2009

TAM London - pt 3

This will be the final part of this report. However, I am going to a talk about sea monsters next week, so there's very chance I'll waffle on about that before getting round to reporting on the next HeroQuest publication. It also looks highly likely that my predictions that LotW1 won't be out by the end of 2009 will be proven correct! Maybe early 2010?

We'll begin this last stretch with Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science. When it comes to UFOs, or ghosts, or things of that sort, it doesn't, it seems to me, matter a great deal that it isn't true. It's a bit sad that some people spend their time chasing around after things that don't actually exist, but it doesn't, by and large, do a lot of harm. The same cannot be said for quack medical advice. Even if it doesn't do direct harm (which it might or might not, depending on what the advice is) there is always the danger that it might persuade people that it's not really necessary to do something genuinely helpful. A pill that contains nothing but sugar probably won't harm you very much, but if you think that it's working, you might not take the pills that really do work until it's too late.

In short, I believe that quack medicine has very great potential to do harm. Sure, evidence-based medicine can also, at times, do harm, but at least there's a countervailing benefit. And this is why I'm crap at debating this sort of thing - it makes me really angry, and once you get angry, you've lost the argument, no matter how good your case. I work in healthcare; I don't want to see people harmed any more than they have to be, thank you very much, and the excuse that someone is honestly deluded rather than a deliberate fraud isn't always enough.

Goldacre began his talk with a discussion of the anti-vaccination movement, and its portrayal in the press. When he mentioned Andrew Wakefield, the name drew boos from some corners of the audience (although not, I have to say, from me), but Goldacre disagreed, arguing that Wakefield wasn't truly the one to blame. I'm a little less inclined to be generous, but it's a valid point - most of the fuss in the press about the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine was apparently a few year's later than you might think. Without the press inflating non-stories, the public might well be better informed (or, at least, not so ill-informed).

From there, we moved on to those equations you sometimes see in newspapers where "scientists have discovered the formula" for the perfect body, or the happiest day of the year, or whatever it might be. Well, surprise, surprise, but scientists have, most likely, discovered bugger all. 99% of the time, what's actually happened is that some company or other has decided that a scientific looking equation will help sell their product, and have paid someone a few quid to write something down on the back of a fag packet that "proves" whatever it is they want it to prove. Who'd have thought, eh?

And back to the press over-hyping non-stories. Goldacre discussed the claim that valiant newspaper reporters had discovered deadly MRSA lurking everywhere, including a swab they'd taken from the front door handle of the Department of Health. Quite worrying, especially when you consider that MRSA, while it can get into a number of nasty places, shouldn't be able to grow on doorknobs (too dry, you see). Or, indeed, on most of the other places the "laboratory of a world-renowned MRSA expert" had found them.

Only it turns out that (presumably unbeknownst to the journalists) he wasn't a world-renowned MRSA expert. He was, in fact, some bloke with a microscope in his garden shed and no qualifications in microbiology at all. The papers had, it seems, unwittingly fostered his delusions, and that's rather a tragedy. Blimey, you can't even trust a newspaper these days.

Oh, hang on... I said in the last blog that I'd get down of my high horse for this one, didn't I? Hmm... OK, so how about:

And now we come to what The Londonist described as the high point of the two-day event. I refer, of course, to Tim Minchin.

Last year, round about Christmas time, I attended a sold-out event at the Bloomsbury Theatre entitled "Lessons and Carols for Godless People". It comprised a number of scientists, stand-up comics, and musicians doing short pieces that were very loosely on the subject of either science or Christmas without Christianity. There were a lot of very good acts, some of whom also made brief performances on the Saturday evening after the main TAM event. But one in particular stood out in my memory, even though I'd never heard of him before.

Minchin does stand-up comedy as part of his act, but it's for his songs, accompanied on the grand piano, that he's probably best known. He very much appeals to my sense of humour, with what one can only describe as a mixture of vulgarity and nerdishness. And it probably helps that we seem to agree on a lot of things.

Yet, good as his songs are, he didn't sing one back at that event at the Bloomsbury last year. No, what he did was read a ten minute beat poem. And it blew me away. I'm not normally one for poetry, but... wow. It turns out that I was listening to either the first or second public performance of "Storm", which subsequently, as they say on the interwebz, "went viral" in the pro-science community.

At TAM, he performed a number of his best songs: The Good Book ("I tried to read some other books, but I soon gave up on that / The paragraphs ain't numbered, and they complicate the facts"), the love song If I Didn't Have You (" Your love is one in a million, you couldn't buy it at any price / But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves, statistically, some of them would be equally nice"), Confessions, and, of course, Storm. The latter included a clip of an animated version of the poem currently being made, which looks pretty cool.

His final piece was the song White Wine in the Sun. I can't say that this was one that particularly impressed me on the album... but it turns out that hearing it live is a whole different story. It's a serious song (for once), and beautifully emotional.

So, yeah, the Londonist is right: he was the highlight of the event. Which actually makes one glad that they got him on the bill at the last minute when Richard Dawkins had to pull out. But, hopefully, they'll hold TAM London again next year, and maybe we'll get both? Here's hoping...

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