Monday 15 October 2007

Hawk/Handsaw on hiatus

I'm off to Egypt for fieldwork as part of my day job (see picture at top right), so I won't be able to post anything here until mid-November. Thanks for reading, and I hope I'll have some interesting stuff after I get back.

I have the best days out

If you've ever wondered what it's like being interviewed for a lecturer position at a Russell Group university, read on...

I applied for a lecturer position at the University of Birmingham, and they asked me to come down for an interview last Friday. This is quite an involved process, and I was asked to give a research presentation, a teaching presentation, and an interview. I was to give my research presentation at 9am, so it was the 6:17 train out of Piccadilly to New Street. The train was pretty quiet at that hour, until we got to Wolverhampton and the train started to fill up with commuters travelling to Birmingham. Arrived at New Street bang on time, and then the short hop on an electric commuter train to University. Yes, the campus has its own railway station, 6 minutes from New Street, which is a nice touch. I was asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to my presentation, but taking the advice of my PhD supervisor (I have always been 15 minutes early, and it has made a man of me: Lord Nelson, supposedly) I was there 30 minutes early. I assumed that mine was the first presentation, but in fact there was a guy who started at 8:30. I got to see some of his presentation through the door of the meeting room, and started to realise that it was a lot better than mine. The candidate made clear how his research would fit in with the department, use the facilities, how he would work with other research groups, and so on. My presentation is more along the lines of 'Here's some cool stuff I'm doing'. Oops.

I do the presentation from a Birmingham laptop, and none of the animations work, which throws me off a bit. I get quite a grilling from the assembled staff, post-docs and postgrad students. A lot of the questions are not about the research I'm doing, so much as the research I intend to do in the future and how I intend to fund it. I realise that these are the questions I ought to have addressed in my talk. Oops again. One of the staff, a geophysicist, seems particularly unimpressed with the LiDAR data I've been using. I handle the questions reasonably well, but I'm already pretty sure that I won't get the job. I wander around the campus and try to collect my thoughts a little.

The teaching presentation is supposed to be an introduction to a proposed third-year level course, delivered as if I was talking to the students. It's not easy to pretend you're talking to a bunch of students when the room is actually full of professors, lecturers and post-docs, but I give it a try, and actually it goes down reasonably well. I get a few questions about how I would handle assessment of the course and so forth, but I do OK. The problem is that the main criterion for awarding the position is going to be research excellence and not teaching. Oops yet again.

Two of the postgrad students give us a tour of campus, which is quite impressive. The Earth Sciences department is in one of the older buildings, close to the magnificent clock tower. Campus is leafy, quiet, clean and pleasant, a welcome contrast to the Manchester campus with the noise and bustle of Oxford Road cutting through the middle of it. The building is old but serviceable, and architecturally quite spectacular. It also includes the Lapworth museum, a nationally important geological collection. I look at some impressively spiky trilobites. Then we get to have some university catering sandwiches, which are tasty enough. Especially since it has been nearly 8 hours since I ate anything.

The afternoon brings the interview. This is perhaps the most intimidating part. The interview panel consists of the Dean, the head of school, the head of department, the leader of the research group I would be working with, a fellow from Archaeology and a lady from Human Resources. They grill me for half an hour, and the questions are again mainly related to funding, research directions, potential collaborations with others (internally and externally), and so on. I was asked what I thought were the main challenges for universities, and how I thought the work would differ from what I currently do. I handle this OK, but one question stumps me completely. I'm asked how my work would address the strategic objectives of NERC, the government funding council for Earth Sciences. I have no idea what those objectives, and have no option but to say so. That's not an error I will make in the future. If I get another interview, I'll have a slide on it in my presentation. I get to ask some questions at the end, so I do a little grilling myself, asking where the school and research group expects to be in 4 to 5 years, and what support there is for new lecturers. After that, they thank me for my time and I'm free to go.

I'm pretty much shattered at this point, so I decide to find beer in Birmingham. I get on the train to New Street. As you leave New Street station, you emerge into a huge shopping mall, with no clue as to where the exits are. My nerves are jangling enough as it is, and wending my way through the throngs of people past brightly lit shops full of tat doesn't help. I emerge into the open air eventually, and walk for what seems like miles until I find a pub. The Crown is possibly the dodgiest pub in Birmingham, but I don't care by now, and get myself a pint. The only bitter they have is something called Brew XI. I take a sip. "Bloody hell, that's even worse than Stone's", I think.

I sit down, and am joined by a friendly man tells me all about his court case. It turns out that the pub is outside the law courts, which explains a lot. The man is on trial for conspiracy because he was holding a banner at an animal rights demonstration at which some other people committed offences. His legal team come and join us for a pint, too.

It's then time for me to get home, so I hike back to New Street. I pick up a pasty, with extra gravy, and get on a packed Virgin voyager to Picadilly. I stand next to the toilets until Stoke, and then get to sit down. I get a bus at Picadilly gardens, but it's Eid, and traffic through Rusholme is pretty much stationary, so I end up walking the last mile or so.

When I get home at about 9pm, Jolan has a cold beer waiting for me, and I love her more than ever.

Well, I didn't get the job, but then getting it would probably have caused more problems than it solved...

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Homeopathic dissent

In a spare moment, I was looking up the famous controversy involving Nature, Jacques Benveniste, and basophil degranulation. This was an experiment, reported in Nature, that purported to show that there could be a 'water memory' effect that could provide a mechanism for homeopathy. Essentially, the workers found that a substance diluted such that there should have been no molecules of it remaining still had a biological effect. There was naturally a lot of skepticism surrounding this paper, and Nature only published it on condition that they could send a team to Benveniste's lab to verify the results. The team found a number of statistical and methodological flaws in the study, and concluded that the results were erroneous. A useful summary of the controversy can be found here. Since then, a number of groups have failed to replicate the results (for example this one).

I came across a very interesting site belonging to George Vithoulkas (8 canards on the quackometer). It seems that not all homeopaths greeted the Benveniste study with unalloyed joy. Vithoulkas pointed out that the results of the study were the opposite to what would be expected from homeopathic theory. Apart from the idea that the 'potency' of a remedy is increased as it is diluted, the other unproven foundation of homeopathy is the 'law of similars'. This states that 'like cures like'; a substance that causes symptoms when taken in large amounts will cure the same symptoms when taken in homeopathic concentrations. According to this, if antibodies cause basophil degranulation in normal concentrations, the same antibodies should prevent it in homeopathic concentrations, the opposite to what Benveniste's team claimed.

Vithoulkas concludes that the 'memory of water' argument is a red herring, and has done nothing but damage the credibility of homeopathy. Given the recent fiasco surrounding the Homeopathy special issue on water memory, he clearly has a point. Even so, Vithoulkas isn't really engaging with the evidence. He just knows that the Benveniste research must have been wrong because it violated one of the (unproven) principles of homeopathy. What I find fascinating and brilliant about this is that plenty of homeopaths are happy to defend Benveniste's work, no matter the flaws, because it seems to support one of the basic tenets of homeopathy. For example, here's Dana Ullman on the study. In doing so, they miss that it completely undermines one of the other tenets.

Monday 8 October 2007

Democracy, ask me if I'm bothered

You could hardly have failed to notice that there has been speculation about a possible snap election in the UK, with the first week of November having been suggested as the most likely date. The press has been having seizures over this, discussing every possible factor that could have influenced Gordon Brown's decision. Factors mentioned have included the likely turnout at a time of the year when much of the polling would take place in the dark; polling in marginal seats; the state of the economy; the events at the Tory conference; the weather; and just about everything but the thing that seems, at least to me, to be the most important.

The problem is that if an election were called for November, then the December 2006 electoral roll would have to be used. People who had moved home since that date would be in danger of losing their votes. Estimates are that this could affect up to a million people (e.g. see here). Where this has been discussed at all, it has been looked on as a minor inconvenience that could affect turn-out, as opposed to a threat to people's basic democratic rights.

Now, surely any Prime Minister who would consider holding an election at a time when up to a million people could lose their vote is not fit to hold office. At a time when Gordon Brown is trying to wear the mantle of a statesman by publicly opposing anti-democratic regimes such as those in Burma and Zimbabwe, it's surely not too much to ask that he take a little care with our own democratic institutions. It's also sad that the opposition and media have failed to make any kind of issue of this. I would like to have seen an enormous banner headline somewhere, anywhere, saying "A million to lose votes in November poll".

Thankfully, Brown has now bottled it, but this episode seems to put the lie to his conceit that he's governing for the country, rather than the Labour party. And it's clear that the UK is in desperate need of electoral reform, if the fact that people move house every so often can create such problems for the current system.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

How wrong is it to speculate?

Just some thoughts that have been festering since the Hurlbert and Ling paper in Current Biology, the one that showed that women preferred pink hues when compared with men. I wrote about it, Ben Goldacre wrote about it, and I think more or less everyone with an internet connection wrote something about it somewhere.

The general gist of opinion on the article seemed to be that it was an example of bad science, because of the author's speculation that their results had some sort of evolutionary psychology explanation, perhaps that women needed to pick out red berries against a green background in the days when the men were out killing stuff and hauling it back to the cave. I would agree that the data presented in the paper don't support that interpretation. On the other hand, the authors clearly identified that hypothesis as speculative. I think it's worth asking whether speculation can have a place in scientific literature.

In my view, the answer is yes. In the case of the Hurlbert and Ling paper, data was presented showing that women prefer pink hues. The authors indulged in some speculation as to why this might be the case. It should now be the task of scientists to try and devise studies that could refute that speculation. It follows the pattern make observations, formulate hypothesis to explain observations, make more observations to test hypothesis. So I think the speculation in the paper is scientifically defensible. In this context, Kaj Sand-Jensen's famous paper on "How to write consistently boring scientific literature" is always worth a look, especially the section headed "remove most implications and every speculation". Scientific caution is generally sensible, but if taken too far it can mean that possible leads are not followed up.

The problem with that approach is the way such studies get reported in the media. As we've seen, most of the stories on the paper suggested that the authors had confirmed an evolutionary psychological explanation for gender-based differences in colour preference. In fact, they had simply showed that gender-based differences in colour preference exist. With scientists getting brownie points for media engagement, it is inevitable that the differences between results and speculation get lost.