Archive August 2012

Putting government policy on trial Grant Jacobs Aug 31


Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, is one of several authors of a British cabinet paper examining the concept of putting government policy to random controlled trials – similar to the way that medical treatments are tested.

You can read his introduction on and their cabinet paperTest, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials, from British cabinet office website.

One of the key ways medical treatments are tested are via random controlled trials (RCTs);[1] loosely-speaking, splitting the subjects into those with the treatment and those without and comparing the results of the two groups.

Their cabinet paper outlines this process and talks about how it might be applied to government policy, including examples.

The underlying point is that government policy could be subjected to the same sort of testing as used in other policy areas.

What do readers think?

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Icefest Grant Jacobs Aug 30

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In New Zealand ‘The Ice’ means Antarctica. IceFest is an event for all ages celebrating the frozen continent.

Held in two weeks time (14th September to 14th October) in Christchurch it’ll have you freezing your butt off. Well, not really.

But don’t pass up the opportunity to check it out if you or your kids are in town.

If you click on ‘All categories’ on the website you’ll see that there are sections for different audiences (see below).

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O Occam’s Grant Jacobs Aug 29

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Occasionally science bloggers make it to the mainstream. I’ve been too busy lately to bring this news to you sooner but one of my favourite crowds of science bloggers have cornered space at British newspaper stawart The Guardian’s website.

Occam’s Typewriter clearly takes part of it’s name from the well-known principle of parsimony, Occam’s Razor. One of the things that drew me to OT, as it’s known to it’s regulars, is their tendency to mostly write about the daily life of science, the things impinging on science, rather than ‘explainers’, popular science articles or tilting at the latest nonsense.[1]

Don’t get me wrong, all those things have their place and I like them too. (After all, I write a fair bit of those!) But it’s lovely to have a more gently-paced place to go and discuss things that I guess we can call ‘daily issues’. The sort of thing you might amble down to the local and share over a pint or two.

Featuring at the Guardian now is a group blog, Occam’s Corner, the newsprint corner stand of Occam’s Typewriter. Those who’ve been to London will know what I mean.

Early efforts include:

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Government missing opportunity to promote links with Asia? Grant Jacobs Aug 24


Alison recently had a guest post by Dr Angela Sharples who wrote about the government choosing not to support New Zealand’s hosting of the 2014 International Biology Olympiad. As a the result the organisers have been obliged to retract their offer of support. Readers who look at the list of hosts will note that hosting rights have been accepted right up to 2018, with a preliminary acceptance in place for 2020.

The New Zealand government’s call to not support this event strikes me as short-sighted and not just through not supporting local encouragement of science students.

The government makes a great of noise about promoting business and cultural links with Asia. Perhaps they are not seeing how good an opportunity to encourage these links this event may be?

Key to my thoughts on this is that Science Olympiads are apparently a much bigger deal in Asia than they are here or other non-Asian nations.

With that in mind this event seems to present a large opportunity to promote New Zealand in Asia, including our science, foreign student courses as well as international links in general at modest cost.

Let me explain.

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Structured procrastination, 23-Aug-2012 edition Grant Jacobs Aug 23


Long-time readers will know ‘Structured procrastinations’ are when I point to interesting or quirky articles, usually on the less academic side, to clear tabs out of my web browser.

What was that about impact factors, Nature? Criticising their inflated status under a banner headlining your own impact factor…

(Original seen on twitter, by Petro Baltrao; reproduced with permission.)

If impact factors interest you, read Stephen Curry’s article Sick of Impact Factors, which has lots of excellent commentary following it. Fellow sciblogger, Siouxsie has a short take on Stephen’s article, Statistically illiterate…

There’s a new history of science blog over at the Guardian, The H Word. There’s three H’s there – history, Higgitt and Heggie, the authors. They aim to cover the history of science, institutions, instruments and museums.

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“a blog is not the place for scientific reviews” Grant Jacobs Aug 16


writes Prof. Christopher Shaw, currently under fire by blogger ‘Orac’ at Respectful Insolence. (See comment at August 15, 11:50 pm.)

Leaving aside the backstory, which is a separate issue that I don’t wish to debate here, why should science not be reviewed on blogs?

We’ve heard this one before – the NASA ‘arsenic life’ story being one well-known example.

Dr. Shaw wrote:

I’m not trying to duck any serious discussion, but, honestly, a blog is not the place for scientific reviews.

The key bit of my reply there was (see Footnotes for full copy) :

Heard that one before, I’m afraid, and for me it doesn’t ring true.

I’m a scientist. A blog is just a means of communication – just like email. That it’s open doesn’t make what is said “wrong”.

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Communication and trust in medicine Grant Jacobs Aug 14

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For Dunedin locals: talks on this evening (free entry; refreshments before).

We talk a lot about science communication here. Quite a few of the topics we cover relate to health or medical issues. One element that may underlie some people’s taking unsound positions on their  health and medicine choices is a weakening of communication lines and trust with their medical practitioners. Two talks on this evening in Dunedin explore this.

  • When Doctors Become Patients: Exploring ways of improving doctor-patient relationships and communication – to be presented by Professor Robert Klitzman; Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Joseph Mailman School of Public Health; Director of Masters of Bioethics Programme Columbia University; Director of Ethics & Policy Core, HIV Centre, NYSPI.
  •  Trust and Health Professionals: The importance of trust in health care relationships - presented by Professor Mark Henaghan; Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Otago; Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand; Principal Investigator, Human Genome Project.

Details for attending:

Tuesday 14th August

6pm to 8pm (complimentary refreshments served from 5.30pm)

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

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NZ Skeptics Conference 2012 Grant Jacobs Aug 13


Most of my readers should be dyed-in-the-wool skeptics, right?

Here’s the conference for you then – the annual New Zealand Skeptics Conference will be held in Dunedin this year, over Friday 31st August to Sunday September 2nd.

(No, you don’t have to be a skeletal wine-guzzler to attend.)

Broaden your critical thinking to new areas and share your thoughts and experiences with others who care about sound information and improving everyone’s lot.

It’ll be a good crowd.

It’ll also be a good place to meet some of the people who write here! (Assuming we have any fans/groupies…)

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Eye-balling eachother in the lab… Grant Jacobs Aug 10

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Here’s one depiction of what different members of research laboratories think of themselves:

Credits: Matushiq Sotak @matushiq (see link in text).

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Dodgy experts in the coroner’s inquest into Jasmine Renata’s death? Grant Jacobs Aug 09


In the news lately is a coroner’s inquest into the death of Rhonda Renata’s daughter, Jasmine. Rhona Renata pins her daughter’s death on the HPV vaccine Gardasil despite suggestions to (also) investigate other causes such as heart disease.

While considering if I should write something on this well-known blogger ‘Orac’* has spoken out. In particular, he questions if two of the expert witnesses are fair or reasonable.

He notes that one (Dr. Lee) was sacked from his hospital:

“One wonders if the inquest board was aware that Dr. Lee was unceremoniously given the boot as director of the diagnostic laboratory at Milford Hospital in December 2010.”

and presents aspects of the past track record of another (Dr. Shaw).**

New Zealander Hilary Butler, founder of IAS***, also gets a mention.

Read Orac’s article out for yourself. One commenter, herr doktor bimler (4:06am), writes:

“The coroner is not completely uninformed. Right at the start of the inquest, he invited testimony from a high-ranking public-health adviser (about the checks that had been performed on this particular batch of Gardasil, and about the information available for informed choice) from a cardiologist; from the nurse.

I suspect that the coroner knows perfectly well about Dr Lee’s current situation of self-employment, but one aspect of his job is to let grieving families say whatever makes them feel better… and if this involves letting their experts’ claims about professional standing go unchallenged, so be it.”

Perhaps the issue, then, is not that the coroner be aware of these elements but that the general public be aware of them?

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