Saturday, 20 March 2010

Forced to Deny

The phrase "forced to deny" currently has 155 hits in the Google News search and just over 15 million hits on the web more generally. It's a massively overused cliched phrase, but that is by far the least worst thing about it: it is completely meaningless. Just look at it again, what does it actually say? It says that someone, somewhere, accused someone of something. How is that news? There was a minor variant of this in the John Terry story I wrote about yesterday (in which it was reported as news that John Terry was forced to take a breathalyser test after being in a traffic accident). Let's just take a few examples of the phrase from my Google News search, and look at what they actually say:

Sir Alex Ferguson forced to deny Red Knights claims he wants part of £1.5bn Manchester United takeover bid

Or, in other words, someone somewhere said that Alex Ferguson wants to join in the Red Knights attempt to buy out the Glazer's share in Manchester United. Alex Ferguson said he doesn't. There isn't really any evidence in the story that he does, apart from the fact that he used to be friends with some people who are involved. But he was 'forced to deny' claims, so apparently that's news. 

That's from the Mail, as are most of the hits for 'forced to deny' in the first few pages of news, but then there's this from the Financial Times:

Allies of Gordon Brown were yesterday forced to deny that the UK prime minister "bullies" staff

Right. How does that say anything more than 'someone accused Gordon Brown of bullying staff'? What exactly does it mean to force someone to deny something? Is it enough to simply accuse them of it? Or do you have some evidence? Credibility? A column in a national newspaper? 

There are plenty of others. The family of Samil Saheed 'forced to deny' that they were involved in his kidnapping. David Cameron's wife 'forced to deny' that she once voted Labour. And many more. 

In almost all cases, the allegations that people have been 'forced to deny' have themselves been made by the newspapers. This is the media at it's worst. Not only do they report non-stories on flimsy evidence, they then report the fact that someone reported it!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Completely Inane Newspaper Stories Part III: John Terry didn't drink and drive

I know I haven't done one of these for a while, and I know I said I'd avoid celebrity stories, but I just couldn't resist this: on the front page(!) of yesterday's Guardian, we had the following dramatic piece of news:

John Terry in more trouble after hitting Chelsea steward with car

Sounds pretty drastic, especially as it was considered important enough to make the front page of a generally reasonably respectable national newspaper. Let's look at some of the details:
"Terry was then questioned and breathalysed by police in the small hours after accidentally running over a Chelsea steward as he left Stamford Bridge."
Oh, so it was an accident, that's less exciting that it could have been. Presumably the steward is badly injured though? Or Terry drove off without trying to help him? Also, he was breathalysed: presumably the reason we are being told this is because he had been drinking and not, say, because police always breathalyse anyone that was involved in any sort of accident, especially if they're John Terry. Surely there must be *some* reason that this story is more interesting that, say the legal status of mephodrone, the entire Nigerian cabinet being sacked or how election campaigns are run. All of which were relegated to the inside of the paper. Well, let's look at some details:
"Terry and his wife Toni..., were oblivious to the accident until he was contacted by the club on returning home"
So, hardly a hit and run.
"Surrey police breathalysed the player, who was found to be within the legal alcohol limit... He hadn't had a single drop to drink"
So, not a drink driving incident (and the fact that he was forced to take a breathalsyer test is about as interesting as telling us that he was forced to give his name to the police, or that he was forced to turn the key in his ignition before car would start).
Rowley said: "Contrary to media reports I did not suffer a broken leg. It is badly bruised.
So, not even a broken bone. Surely there must be *some* reason that this story is news (and some justification for the claim that Terry is in "further trouble" - at least Terry must be to blame for the incident
, right. Well, I'll leave Rowley with the last word on that:
"It wasn't his fault at all, it was a complete accident."
So, a complete non-story, and it makes the front page of the Guardian. Bring back dog x-rays, all is forgiven.

Friday, 12 March 2010

QMUL sells quackery: The Correspondence

Edit (Mar 13): Just got a very nice reply from Charlotte. Says she was busy last week, but would like to meet in person to discuss this at some point. I'll try to arrange a meeting for sometime next week and report back here.

I wrote about this at the weekend. QMUL  sells homeopathy, and actively advertises it in the reception of the gym. I don't think they should, and would like to find out why they do.
So, on Monday, I sent the email below to Charlotte Kendrick, the manager of QMotion, who I was advised by Simon Levey was probably the person to contact about this. In retrospect, I regret the tone of the email. It is both unnecessarily confrontational and overbearingly condescending (as well as quite officious). I haven't yet had a reply, but I'm not altogether surprised. I've also sent the following message today, requesting a reply in slightly more temperate language:

Today's message:
Dear Charlotte,

I'd like to apologise for the tone of my last email: it was unnecessarily confrontational, especially as I have no idea how much involvement you personally had with the decision to allow homeopaths to use university facilities. However, this is an important issue that I feel quite strongly about, and I would appreciate a reply. If you're not the person I should be contacting about this, please let me know who is, and I'll start bothering them instead.

Monday's (heat of the moment) message. Note the particularly cringe-y "I don't mean to be patronising" - it's almost completely impossible to either say or write those words without a. being patronising and b. sounding like a dick. (even if I did genuinely mean them).
Dear Charlotte,

I am a member of the QMotion gym, and a PhD student in the maths department at Queen Mary University. I was somewhat surprised, and frankly quite disappointed, when I noticed the other day that QMotion allows a homeopath to use their treatment rooms once a week, and actively advertises homeopathy as a 'safe and gentle form of complimentary (sic) medicine' which 'can be used to treat most diseases'. Homeopathy is an anti-scientific and ineffective medicine, which has been shown time and time again to perform no better than a placebo in randomised controlled trials (I'm more than willing to provide citations for this if you need them). I don't think that QMotion should be encouraging its use and I was told that you were probably the person to contact about this.

I suggest that the relationship between QMotion and Surrey Homeopathy for Health be ended as soon as possible, and if this is not to be done, would at least like an explanation as to why you (or whoever is in charge of these decisions) consider it appropriate to continue to associate the name of the Student Union (and by extension the University) with a treatment which has absolutely no credible theory to support it and no evidence whatever for its efficacy.


PS - I don't mean to be patronising, but in my experience many people simply aren't aware of quite how ridiculous the rationale behind homeopathy is. In case you're one of those people, here's a good explanation (written by Matt Parker, who also works in the maths department)

PPS - I have already written about this on my blog ( and will probably post some/all of any reply you send me there. Hope you don't have a problem with this.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

QMUL sells quackery

Just noticed this one my way out of the gym today:
Homeopathy is a safe and natural form of complementary medicine, which has helped many people suffering from all varieties of ailments to regain and retain their health and wellbeing. The Homeopath will look at each patient individually in an attempt to discover the core reasons for their problem and choose specific remedies to change the soil within the person from which the disease stems.
Now, I'm not entirely sure who gets to decide what services are and aren't offered at QMotion - I imagine it's probably owned by the Students Union, and I'm currently trying to figure out who I should complain to. I don't see how the university can possibly justify advertising medicine which just doesn't work. I'm mostly too shocked about this to write anything particularly incisive right now (and anyone reading this is fully aware that homeopathy just doesn't work anyway), but I am genuinely going to try my best to figure out who I should complain to, and how to get these people out of the university-owned gym.

Incidentally, they claim to 'treat' IBS, hayfever, and a long list of other named diseases on the literature that's available inside the gym (and on this page, they appear to be specifically claiming to be able to cure them). I thought homeopaths were banned from claiming to cure specific diseases?