Tag Archives: going off-road

In defence of free scientific speech

Dear Tony Lloyd,

I am a scientist and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, and your constituent. I am writing to you regarding the libel laws in England.

At present it is possible to sue someone for asserting that there is no scientific evidence in support of a particular theory.  As you may be aware, The British Chiropractice Association is suing the journalist and science writer Simon Singh for libel after he wrote that there is little evidence that chiropractic treatments are evidence-based.  There is a useful summary (and petition, which I and many others have signed) here.

This is not how science works.  Science thrives on debate, and on use of the scientific method to demonstrate whether, based on the available evidence, a given theory is likely to be correct.  Freedom of speech in science is vital and is one of the greatest forces contributing to intellectual progress: if I believe you are wrong, I state my opinion and then back it up with appropriate scientific evidence; if you then disagree with me, you present the evidence supporting your counterargument, and so on.  In this way, we approach the truth about science – sometimes tangentially and almost always incrementally – but we do move forward.  To bypass this route is to silence the voice of rational, reasoned, evidence-based debate in science and medicine; is this what we want for our country?

On the matter of the BCA vs. Singh: if the BCA has any evidence in support of their case, then they should present it and let it be debated, rather than resorting to litigation – that they have not done this rather suggests that their evidence would not withstand scientific scrutiny.

But the bigger point remains: it should not be possible to sue someone for making a scientifically verifiable assertion based on the available evidence to date.  This case, before it is even resolved, sets an alarming precedent that anything asserted by a scientist, however well-grounded in verifiable data, could be challenged under current libel laws.  This would be a markedly retrograde step at a time when the doors of scientific debate are open wider than ever before.

If we in the UK wish to be taken seriously as a hub of scientific and medical excellence, and build on our ‘knowledge economy’, it should not be so easy to silence that debate.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Atherton

(Hat-tip to David Farbey for the petition link. And yeah, this wasn’t how I was going to spend this morning, but Burns was right about those best-laid schemes.)


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How to be a presentation rock star

Things people don’t want to hear at the start of your slide presentation:

“Most of you will have seen this talk before …”

— Then why are you giving it? And why haven’t you tailored your talk to this audience? Academics — who are pretty good at wasting time on their own terms, by the way — get fractious when you start wasting it for them.

“I’m just going to skip through a few of these slides, because I know time is short … ” [this is then followed by going through every single slide, point by point, and running over time; people start looking at their watches]

— Actually, this one reminds me of the Marcel Achard quote: “When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.”

Beginnings like these can really lower people’s expectations — about you, and about future presentations in general. That might be me next week, standing up there — don’t make me clean up your mess!

“How to be a presentation rock star” was just a throwaway title I gave this post at the draft stage, until I actually started thinking about it, and then I realised it worked, albeit in a cheesy kind of a way.

1. Be mysterious. Don’t give your presentation. Instead, provide people with a document to read in their own time. Most of us read faster than you can talk, and we can do it at a time that’s convenient for us (I guess this is one reason that why email has been so successful). You may not experience their gratitude overtly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a fan-base.

2. Be controversial. If you absolutely must present, make it interactive; arrive armed with provocative examples to stimulate your weary audience, who have probably been told that they must come to this meeting and listen to you. (Obligation and motivation are usually not the keenest bedfellows.)

3. Find a catchy hook. If you’re selling something (most presentations are, and this includes teaching — ask anyone who teaches statistics to people who are taking it as a course requirement), pitch me two or three case studies of how people have benefited from it, so my mind starts freewheeling: “Wow, I wonder what I could do with this brilliant resource”. Presentations built around mundane procedures and structures will always be a tough sell. Hell, be bold: skip straight to the Q&A — mostly, people just want to know what’s in it for them.

4. Create rapport. Jim Morrison wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest musician, but what he did have in spades was charisma. Give your audience as much attention as you lavished on your slides; if you find yourself alone with the sound of your own voice, that’s great if you enjoy tumbleweeds or are steeling yourself for a difficult birth into the world of amateur stand-up comedy — but remember to ask yourself how much the audience paid to get in. If they’re not really present, don’t be afraid to cut it short and go off-road in order to hold their interest. If that means you end up missing a few things out, then that’s okay — just make sure people know where to reach you.

Often, it can be tempting to stick with your plan, however hostile or bored the audience (or perhaps because they’re bored and hostile; your plan is your security blanket). That’s okay: uncharted territory is scary, particularly when other people are involved. But if you want to be a presentation rock star, you need to be ready to do the unpredictable. I’m not suggesting that you crowd-surf or start handing out beer; just be willing to let go of your slides and give yourself up to the moment.

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