Jorge Cham captures the essense of science explaining the Higgs Boson

For anyone who ever asks “What’s the appeal of science?” or “Why bother with science?” I would encourage them to watch this video by Jorge Cham from PhD Comics. In it he illustrates his interview with Daniel Whiteson from CERN. He explains one of the goals of the Large Hadron Collider, which is to look for evidence for the elusive Higgs Boson. Everything is explained very succinctly and even playfully, and I think it’s wonderful. Go and watch it!

Nastiness on Reddit: a result of unlimited free speech?

You may have noticed that Reddit, in particular the “subreddit” r/atheism, has been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community. That’s not that surprising given that Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, regularly dealing with around 67 million hits per day with an Alexa rank of 124. The atheism subreddit is currently readily accessible from the Reddit front page.

The concept of Reddit is quite straightforward. It’s described as a social news website, where users find or generate content that they think is interesting and post it to one of the many “subreddits”. Other users can then add their own comments and either “upvote” or “downvote” the posts. The most popular posts appear on the front page of Reddit, which Reddit itself refers to as the front page of the Internet. As you might expect, any post which ends up here receives a huge amount of traffic!

Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Reddit carries the burden of a gigantic double-edged sword: it is almost completely uncensored. As a result, pretty much anything is available on Reddit. Have a look at the highly NSFW /r/spacedicks to see what I mean. Actually, don’t.

As a result of this lack of moderation, Reddit can be an uninhibited playground of ideas where you can criticize any world religion or batshit crazy post without fear of censorship. However, it’s infested with various idiots, bigots of all kinds, and probably the most prevalent of all, trolls. Although a lot of these people on Reddit repulse me, I have a coping mechanism.

Firstly, I never expect too much. I know that if I need advise on any serious matter, I’m not going to get it on Reddit. After that, I set my default position on Reddit to “meh”. In other words, I need a good reason to care about something I read if I see it on Reddit. If it’s an insult, I’ll ignore it. If it’s a weak pun that Steve Wright would be proud of, I’ll ignore it. If it’s funny, insightful, intelligent etc I’ll read it and take it on board. As an example, I made a Rage Comic a little while ago after a mildly traumatic experience in the shower:

I’m a big fan of anything that grabs people’s imaginations and develops organically, so I’m right at home with the sillyness and general flippancy of Rage Comics. It took me about 30 seconds to make this comic, and it received quite a lot of upvotes and a fair few comments. They ranged from the utterly ridiculous but imaginative to the insulting:


Only fags and women use conditioner. Let’s hope you’re a woman.

Nice eh? I know people have experienced much worse than that, but the point is I didn’t react (yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing about it here). I just ignored them and carried on, the trolls remained unfed. Unnecessary drama avoided. If you are being trolled/insulted on Reddit, the best thing you can do is rise above it and ignore it.

At the end of the day, if you want the level of free speech Reddit offers, you’re going to have to accept that it also extends to people who you wouldn’t cross the road to save. As you can’t get rid of them, the best thing you can do is not encourage them. Don’t feed the trolls.

Review of “Are your kids contagious” Tonight special on the Liverpool measles outbreak

MMR VaccineLiverpool is in the midst of a measles outbreak. Worryingly, there are currently over 7,000 unvaccinated under 5s on Merseyside. This prompted ITV’s “Tonight” show to film a special entitled “Are your kids contagious?”.

The details of the program are available here.

Overall, I was very impressed with the show. Right from the start, it was clear that the makers of the show knew about the scientific evidence, and the take home message was a firm “Get your kids vaccinated people!”. It was very refreshing to see a lack of BBC-style “false balance” in the show.  All through the show, it was taken as read that vaccines work and were safe, effective and required to stop diseases. They didn’t interview Andrew Wakefield, go to America to talk to Generation Rescue or Australia to talk to Meryl Dorey.

However, I did have a small gripe regarding their coverage of Andrew Wakefield. While they made it clear that his research on MMR was flawed and not accepted by the scientific community, they did say “Wakefield’s work did not agree with the scientific consensus and he was struck off”. Now, this makes it sound like a scientist can be dismissed from his position if he comes up with work which does not agree with the current consensus. This is not the case. Rather, Wakefield was struck off the medical register for a multitude of sins, including non-disclosure of a conflict of interest, paying children for blood samples at a birthday party, and worst of all, conducting painful investigations like colonoscopies and lumbar punctures without approval from his ethics committee.

The closest they got to false balance was to interview a couple of non-vaccinating mothers. Although they tried to argue in a subtly “Mumsy” way, they’re ill-informed selfishness was clear for all to see. I’m sure they only wanted what was best for their children, but they seemed to be in denial that their children could end up being contagious and passing diseases on to others. I thought the program did well to point this out.

The most moving part of the show was a feature on Dawn and Dave Benson, whose baby daughter died from whooping cough. I thought they were incredibly brave and selfless to appear on TV to tell their story, and I congratulate them for it. It was also a reminder that for whatever reason, some people cannot be vaccinated. This is why herd immunity is so important, as for everyone to be protected, as many people as possible need to be vaccinated.

Also, I think we all owe thanks to the many doctors, nurses and health workers who do a great job in administering vaccinations. Overall, I felt the program was well-researched and well balanced, with only a few small errors. A good example of what a documentary can be like without false balance!