Tuesday 26 June 2007

Poor, poor Sheffield

A sad sight for me this morning, as I made my way to work and saw pictures of my flooded home town on the front of the Manchester Evening News. Sheffield, like Rome, is a town famously built on seven hills, so at least there are plenty of places that will have escaped damage. The Wicker and the beloved Hillsborough have not been so lucky.

Monday 25 June 2007

Catholic tastes

I like this comment piece, it makes me laugh. In it Christina Odone argues that Tony Blair's apparently imminent conversion to Catholicism is a good thing. It will stick it to those evil secular liberals! "Isn't Catholicism just an antiquated religion that bans sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, birth control and abortions?" asks Odone. The answer: "Er, no. Blair's jump will force the spin doctor, the telly producer, the Labour councillor to admit that there's more to Catholicism: charity, compassion, self-sacrifice and modesty for a start". Fair enough, but Catholicism DOES ban sex outside marriage, homosexuality, birth control and abortions, to the detriment of millions of people around the world, even if that isn't ALL it does.

She goes on: "Review Catholic doctrine and you'll see that the overwhelming preoccupation is not about condoms or chastity belts, but about helping others. These are the values the liberal establishment pays lip service to. Now one of their own is prepared to embrace them as guiding principles. That is something to cheer about".

Well, all to the good. But Odone writes as if the only way to embrace "charity, compassion, self-sacrifice and modesty" is to embrace the Catholic church with its Papal infallibility, transubstantiation and all the rest of the transparent bollocks associated with it. If Odone wants to be a Catholic, fair enough, I certainly wouldn't seek to stop her. But smugly pretending that Catholics have a monopoly on ethical behaviour is just plain old wrong.

Happy days are here again...but not really

Oh, let the joy be unconfined, I thought, as I picked up the Guardian on Saturday and saw this article on the front page. Lord Goldsmith has finally resigned as Attorney General!

When I read the article, and thought about it a bit more, I realised that there wasn't that much to celebrate here. Goldsmith didn't resign because of the dropping of the SFO investigation into BAE systems, or because of his advice on the Iraq war (which had all caveats and doubts stripped out before it was given, in summarised form, to cabinet). He resigned because he was in all likelihood going to be sacked by Gordon Brown within days. The announcement of Goldsmith's resignation was made at 9:30pm on Friday night, in the news graveyard shift. I wonder why? Sure enough, the only paper to pick up the news was the grauniad.

Of course, everyone had to pretend that Goldsmith has done an excellent job. Tony Blair said that Goldsmith discharged his role "at all times with integrity and professionalism ... You have shown an unwavering commitment to the importance of the rule of law and human rights. " An unwavering commitment to the importance of the rule of law? This is the Attorney General who famously said that, in dropping the BAE systems investigation, "It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest". Whatever else it may be, this is not an "unwavering commitment to the rule of law".

Gordon Brown said "His contribution to the country and this government has been immense, not least through transforming the Crown Prosecution Service. It is with my regret he has made his personal decision to step down". That personal decision was of course entirely unrelated to his imminent sacking by Brown.

Good riddance, I say, but nothing important will change until the Attorney General becomes truly independent of government. If Gordon Brown can do something about this, it would be a start. But the general evasion and disingenuousness surrounding the performance of Lord Goldsmith is not a good omen.

Wednesday 20 June 2007


Just to have a break from ranting about obscure issues that no-one else is that bothered about, Jolan and I did a hike on Sunday. The route was claimed to be 'extreme', which in itself seems a bit extreme. It was a little steep for the first couple of miles, but 'extreme'?

Anyway, we took the bus to Hayfield, and walked onto Kinder via William Clough. Then along the edge of the Kinder plateau, past Kinder Downfall and Kinder Low, and off at Kinderlow End. It's about 10 miles and it took us 5 hours to do. We then had time to have a couple of beers in Hayfield and Stockport on the way home. The clouds were down at the start, but they lifted marginally above the plateau as we went, so there was something to see.

There was a 15-mile fell run going on while we were on top of Kinder, which I think might more fairly be described as 'extreme' than our relatively gentle ramble...

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Corruption by British firms condoned by the government

If you've been following the Guardian recently, you'll know about allegations of corruption surrounding the Al Yamamah arms sales to Saudi Arabia by BAE systems. The Guardian claims that Prince Bandar, a member of the Saudi royal family, received illegal payments of £30 million a quarter over the last ten years. An investigation by the serious fraud office was dropped, purportedly by the director of the SFO, Robert Wardle, earlier this year. The reasons given for the decision to drop the investigation, in a statement by the Attorney General, were as follows:

"The decision has been taken following representations that have been made both to the Attorney General and the director of the SFO concerning the need to safeguard national and international security."

"It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest."

"No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest."

Well, there's a lot going on here. Firstly, we might ask how the Attorney General's statement that "It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest" squares with the oath taken by Barristers, which reads, in part, "You shall not pervert the law to favour or prejudice anyone, but in all things shall conduct yourself truly and with integrity". The rule of law cannot be selectively applied or 'balanced' against other interests, otherwise it simply doesn't exist. Surely this is something the Attorney General should realise.

We might also ask if it's really true that "No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest." Tony Blair has taken responsibility for the decision, saying that he was asked to give advice on the damage that might be caused if the investigation continued. Publicly, he has stated that "This investigation, if it had gone ahead, would have involved the most serious allegations and investigation being made of the Saudi royal family and my job is to give advice as to whether that is a sensible thing in circumstances where I don’t believe the investigation would have led to anywhere except to the complete wreckage of a vital interest to our country." The fight against terrorism would have been harmed and "we would have lost thousands, thousands of British jobs," Mr Blair added.

So it seems as if Tony Blair was giving some weight to "the national economic interest".

I wrote to my MP expressing my dismay that the SFO investigation was dropped, and received a letter from the Attorney General in which he said the main reason for ending the investigation was that he thought there was little chance of convictions being obtained. This also does not stand up to scrutiny. The investigation was abandoned before the SFO could get access to Swiss bank account details that may have contained damning information. They may not have done as well, but it is impossible to know that before getting access to them.

Of course, the big issue here is not who said what when to whom. It's really rather simple. Essentially, the inquiry was stopped because to continue it might upset Saudi Arabia and cause them to withdraw co-operation on security issues. This position has been admitted and publicly defended by no less a figure than Tony Blair. If we're fighting a 'war on terror' in order to protect our democratic freedoms and the rule of law, it's not a good idea to abandon the rule of law to keep a deeply repressive religious dictatorship onside. This ought to be absolutely obvious. It also ought to be absolutely obvious that any 'ally' behaving in the way Saudi Arabia has (i.e. using blackmail to end a criminal investigation) is not an ally worth having. This government has allowed itself to be put in a position where it explicitly and publicly defends turning a blind eye to bribery and corruption, using security as an excuse. That is unforgiveable.

PS-SFO investigations into BAE deals with South Africa and Tanzania continue. But Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, is reported to be furious that the South Africa investigation is ongoing, saying at Davos that "It does puzzle me why a strategic interest with regard to the work of BAE, there would be a strategic interest that would arise with one country and does not arise with other countries". In other words, you ignore corruption in Saudi Arabia: South Africa is your ally too, so you should ignore corruption in South Africa. This is the kind of mess the decision over the Saudi Arabia investigation will continue to get us into.

Friday 15 June 2007

More metrics nonsense

Since I posted my last ramblings on metrics, I went to the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers (EAGE) conference in London. I was presenting a talk in a session titled 'Best of Geolsoc'. The session comprised a bunch of talks that had been presented at a Geological Society of London conference earlier in the year: the Geolsoc had asked us to reprise the meeting at the EAGE.

There was some discussion about possible publications that might arise from the meeting. The Geolsoc was interested in putting out a special publication, but most people were more interested in putting out a thematic set of papers in the Journal of the Geological Society. Why? Because a Geolsoc special publication is a book, it doesn't have an impact factor, and, at least in the eyes of academics working at British institutions, it doesn't count.

This, surely, is just plain nuts. The Geolsoc special publications are among the most respected publications in the earth sciences. They are widely read, highly cited, and in general contain benchmark papers presenting solid and interesting science. That otherwise sensible people should be wary of publishing in them on the basis of metrics is a clear indication that we're following the wrong approach. As I said previously, there is enough material on this subject for people to understand the problems if they want to. Indeed, it was clear that many at the meeting recognised the problems of bad metrics being used to evaluate individuals. If we all know it's bollocks, why do we put up with it?

Monday 4 June 2007


On those rare occasions when I actually have a paper to submit for publication, I tend to consider the most appropriate journal for the article I've written. I weigh up factors such as the likely readership of the paper, the readership of the journal, the journal's reputation for rapid peer review and editorial processes, and so on. I have colleagues who say that I ought to take things like the impact factor into account, because publishing in journals with high impact factors is important for my career. The question is, why?

The impact factor is calculated using a publication database by Thomson Scientific, and published on the ISI Web of Knowledge. The database is proprietary, but my employer subscribes to it. The impact factor basically works by counting the number of citations in the year to articles published in a particular journal over the last two years, and dividing by the total number of articles published over the last two years. So the 2006 numbers, which will be published at the end of this month, are derived by counting the number of citations from articles published in 2006 to articles published in the journal in question in 2004 and 2005, and dividing by the total number of articles published in the journal in question in 2004 and 2005. The impact factor applies to the journal as a whole, and not the individual papers published in it.

Why do I hate the impact factor so? There are several reasons. Firstly, it is statistically dubious. Journals with high impact factors get most of their citations from a relatively small number of highly cited papers. For example, David Colquhoun writes that in Nature in 1999 the most cited 16% of papers accounted for 50% of citations (Nature 423, p. 479). In other words, the citation rate of an individual paper is uncorrelated to the impact factor of a journal. This is the most obvious statistical drawback. Several other sources of bias are described in Seglen (1997; British Medical Journal 314, p.497). Eugene Garfield, who invented the impact factor, also agrees that the impact factor should not be used to evaluate individuals (Garfield 1998; Der Unfallchirurg 48, p. 413).

Another 'metric' that has been suggested to evaluate the contribution of scientists is the h-index. In this scheme, an author will have an h-index of h such that they have published h papers that have each been cited at least h times. It has been pointed out that Einstein, had he died in early 1906, would have an h of only 4 or 5, despite the revolutionary nature of the work he had published before that date. This makes me slightly happier about my own h-index of 0, being early in my career and having published two papers that have not yet been around long enough to be cited.

Really though, statistical arguments about biases in various metrics miss the central point, which is that it is impossible to evaluate the scientific worth of an article without reading and understanding it. This can only be done well by people who have expertise in the field of study. In other words, it can only be done well by peer review.

In the UK, academic researchers are evaluated through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which has traditionally been based on peer review. In the upcoming RAE in 2008, there will be a 'shadow' metrics-based exercise running alongside the traditional peer-review based process. In RAEs after 2008, metrics will be used as the main measure of the scientific worth of individual researchers. There have been many criticisms of the traditional RAE. David Colquhoun has written "All of us who do research (rather than talk about it) know the disastrous effects that the Research Assessment Exercise has had on research in the United Kingdom: short-termism, intellectual shallowness, guest authorships and even dishonesty" (Nature 446, p. 373). The situation is hardly going to be improved by relying on a metrics-based approach, as authors inevitably play the system in order to inflate their rankings and progress their careers.

What is perhaps most disappointing is that in general scientists themselves seem to have failed to critically examine metrics such as the impact factor. There is enough material out there in the public domain (the sources cited here are only a sample) for anyone to understand the problems, if they're interested in finding out.