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Monday, March 19, 2012
In the current edition of The Biologist, Edzard Ernst FSB highlights the non-science (and nonsense) of homeopathy. Why is this important? Because I think it is vital to make a distinction between ideas that are based on evidence, and those that are not. I believe that this is a central function of the scientific professional bodies. But what is evidence?
Also in this issue of The Biologist, I write about attitudes to science on the part of politicians. One message from that is that the people to whom we look to make informed decisions, often do not know how to assess evidence – or even worse, they do know and choose to ignore it. That is what the government has done with regard to the provision of homeopathy in the NHS. A very detailed House of Commons report concluded that homeopathy was ineffective and should not be funded publicly, but the Department of Health rejected the advice, in the name of patient choice. On that basis, the NHS should prescribe cigarettes to smokers.
The common challenge, that homeopathy has not been proven not to work, illustrates a widely held misconception as to the nature of evidence. Science is not in the business of proving negatives, it is about the `crash testing of ideas'. There is not really any such thing as absolute evidence, because scientists work to reduce uncertainty. But just because a scientist is 99.99999% sure of his result this does not confer the luxury of continuing to make claims based on the remaining 0.00001%.
Now I am not vindictively picking on homeopathy alone. The Enlightenment is in danger, from a vast range of `New Age' anti-science beliefs. And I really do mean New Age, because not much of this stuff has anything to do with ancient wisdom. Even acupuncture, increasingly shown by the best clinical trials to be a theatrical placebo, is not thousands of years old. Its fictional ideas about meridians, qi etc only arose about 200 years ago. Very thin needles could not be made before that. Indeed, it was hardly used in China until Mao Tse Tung resurrected it, as a panacea for the poor who lacked real health care. Ear acupuncture was invented by a Frenchman in the 1950s. Chiropractic was invented by a grocer and `magnetic healer' in the 1890s who falsely claimed that 99% of diseases were caused by vertebral misalignments. More recently, we have the ridiculous ‘flower remedies’, electro-dermal testing, iridology, and colonic irrigation, to name just a few practices that have been shown to be useless and in some cases positively harmful.
As Ernst has pointed out, real harm is done by pseudo-science. But why are we so tolerant of it? Such acquiescence translates to a marked regulatory inaction. The current issue of the Medico-Legal Journal carries a report of a study, carried out by Ernst, myself, and others, which clearly shows that new legislation designed to tighten up on unfair trading – and specifically picks out false health claims as unlawful – is being systematically ignored by Trading Standards. For example no regulatory action was taken against a major high-street chain, a leading purveyor of homeopathy and flower remedies (and many other expensive placebos).
Too many scientists are content to tolerate this situation. We simply do not as a body stand up for science as we should. In today's networked world, we have no excuse for not making our voices heard.
Les Rose CBiol FSB
Monday, March 12, 2012
On Wednesday 14th March, the Society of Biology has organised Voice of the Future. Young people will be in Parliament questioning MPs about science and science policy. We’re also hoping to get as many people as possible joining in online, and may ask MPs some of the questions tweeted in with the hashtag #VOF2012.
The whole event will be broadcast on BBC Democracy Live so you can tune in from 9:30 to 12:00. We’ll also keep you up to date through Twitter: @RebeccaNesbit will be live tweeting as @Society_Biology and @J_DoubleS will be reading through all your questions.
We’re really looking forward to Wednesday and to hearing your comments and questions through Twitter. If anyone writes a blog about the event then we’d be really keen to hear from you – leave us a comment below or let us know using the hash tag.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
The first Effective Laboratory conference has opened for booking today. The conference ‘Effective Laboratory - Safe, Successful and Sustainable Laboratories’ will take place on 12th-13th June and bring together key representatives from universities, the public sector, commercial laboratories and lab suppliers.
There is huge potential in the UK to make labs more effective while saving money and improving environmental performance. The University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry, for example, saved £100,000 of the School’s chemical purchasing costs through ‘cradle to grave’ tracking of chemicals.
The conference will have over 60 presentations on all aspects of laboratories, including their design and operation, management, and use of innovative teaching and learning methods. There will be contributions from most of Britain’s science universities. The proceedings will also demonstrate how labs can respond to pressures for greater efficiency from RCUK and other sources without sacrificing performance.
The programme will feature keynote presentations from Wendell Brase, Vice Chancellor for University of California, Irvine; James Naismith, Director of the new Biomedical Science Research Complex at University of St Andrews; and James Neil Crossan, Programme Director at AstraZeneca plc.
The conference is part of the S-Lab (Safe, Successful, Sustainable Laboratories) initiative from National HE STEM with assistance from the 4 UK HE funding bodies. It will take place at the National Science Learning Centre in York. Please contact Lisa Hopkinson if you would like more information. The organisers are also keen to hear from anyone with interesting initiatives that help improve laboratory effectiveness and performance.
Monday, March 5, 2012
Last week we had an extremely informative Life Science Careers Conference with talks and exhibitions. Ben Harvey, a 3rd year Biomedical Science student at Nottingham Trent University, writes about his experiences:
I attended the Life Science Careers Conference at the University of Westminster to increase my knowledge of the careers one can go into with a biological background in addition to making sure I was on the right track!
At the start of the day there was an exhibition which allowed members of the conference to talk to employers and ask questions. Here I found out about the importance of joining learned societies as a student as they bring many benefits including making your CV look good.
Later on, talks were given by various scientists from industrial to academic backgrounds. A particular highlight for me was a talk given by Dr Simon Cutler (@SimonBCutler) of BBSRC who spoke about postgraduate studies and answered some of my questions about PhD funding.
Finally the most important thing that I took away from the conference was something that I had never heard of before – LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a social networking site which allows you to manage your professional identity in addition to “linking” with other scientific professionals you meet. It is also useful for employers as 50% of them are already checking you out online before they employ you (so you might as well have a CV up there to your name).
I would like to thank Dr Hilary Jones (@hilarysjobs) for that fantastic advice and also the Society of Biology for organising such a successful event.
Friday, March 2, 2012
This week some of the UK’s brightest sixth form students are competing in the second round of the 2012 British Biology Olympiad. Pupils from across the United Kingdom are sitting a written exam which could take them to the British final and, ultimately, the international competition in Singapore.
The British Biology Olympiad aims to challenge gifted students and enhance their interest in biology, testing them well beyond their A level syllabus. Earlier this month nearly 4000 students took part in the first round of the British Biology Olympiad: a multiple choice paper taken online in their schools. The Gold Medal winners have been selected to take part in round two this week.
These second round entrants are competing for one of 16 places in the final at the University of Birmingham School of Biosciences. The finals are an intensive four days, including a range of practical challenges. The top four students from the final will represent the UK at the International Biology Olympiad in Singapore in July – the highlight of the biology calendar for budding scientists.
The standard of the entries was very high again this year and Gold, Silver and Bronze medal winners will be invited to the awards ceremony at the Royal Society.
UK Biology Competitions is a Special Interest Group of the Society of Biology and next year we hope to widen participation even further. If you are a teacher, pupil or parent please visit our website. Younger students can get involved too; the Biology Challenge begins on 5th March and is open to pupils in Year 9/Year 10 in England and Wales, Year 10/Year 11 in Northern Ireland and S2/S3 in Scotland.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Moths were first used for silk production in China five thousand years ago, and the practice has spread around the world. Today, about 95% of silk is produced by Bombyx mori, a domesticated silkmoth bred solely for silk production.
The silkworm is the moth’s caterpillar, which feeds on mulberry leaves and grows up to 7cm long. Before the caterpillar pupates it spins a silk cocoon with its salivary glands to protect itself during the time it spends as an immobile pupa. These fine threads which the moth uses like a protective blanket can be unwound to manufacture silk.
When the moth emerges from the pupa it must then break out of the cocoon, so it produces enzymes to break down the silk threads. Therefore, if the cocoon is to be used for silk production, the pupa must be killed to ensure the threads aren't damaged. The cocoons are boiled, which not only kills the pupae but also makes the silk easier to unravel.
Compared to wild silkworm species, Bombyx mori makes larger cocoons, grows faster and has more efficient digestion. It has a great tolerance for being handled by people and kept in crowded environments. It is in fact entirely dependent on humans for survival and can’t even fly.
Silkworm pupae are eaten in many parts of Asia and have even been proposed as space food for astronauts!