What geeks can learn from gays

It's time for scientists to come out - and make a stand against woo-woo and waffle.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard senior scientists lament the lack of appreciation for science in the general populace. "If only people valued science we wouldn't have all these problems with -" and here you can fill any number of our current scientific bête noirs - climate change scepticism, the belief that homeopathy is any better than a placebo, vaccine denial....

I sympathise with this point of view, which is why it makes my blood boil that some of those same senior scientists treat science communication either in the way Lindsay Lohan treats the highway code (as a rather troublesome bore) or pay it lip service, thinking the odd public lecture to the already-interested somehow gets them off the hook.

It still amazes me that Carl Sagan was ridiculed by many of his peers, who regarded his work in public engagement as something that devalued him - when the exact opposite was true. Richard Feynman suffered similarly from short-sighted colleagues - although, to be fair, he was also shagging some of their wives, so this may have had an impact. I've also had this conversation with brilliant scientists and communicators like David Eagleman and Robin Lovell-Badge, who tell me they often suffer the same disdain from many of their peers if they engage in communicating with the public.

Things have improved, though not enough. If I had a pound for every time in the last year I've heard Professor Brian Cox being lightly dusted down (out of his earshot) for "not really being a proper scientist" I could probably buy him quite a nice dinner. (Obviously I wouldn't tell him how I funded it.)

The people who so readily attack Cox don't realise he isn't making programmes for them. He's making pop videos about physics - and thank God. We could do with a few more pop videos about physics, frankly. I do a lot of work with schools and I can tell you that Brian does more to inspire teenagers about science than much of the current curriculum.

Part of the problem is, I suspect, a widely held belief that you can only really appreciate, value (and therefore truly champion) science if you've put in some serious hours actually doing it or, at the very least, reading a lot about it - so the answer to getting the public on science's side is to have more of us take scientific subjects at school, and read the weighty tomes of Roger Penrose and the like.

Really? I'm not sure. Here's a quick example. I'm not gay, but I believe discrimination based on sexuality is abhorrent. My bookshelf has no volumes by Armistead Maupin, my DVD collection none of the films of Derek Jarman. I hate musical theatre. I once considered seeing Judas Priest in concert, but didn't go. You don't have to be gay to care that society enshrines equal rights regardless of sexuality, and you don't have to do science to be concerned that our society is evidence-based.

So, perhaps we should ask ourselves: how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in, while science is still battling to be valued by so many?

I'll tell you why. Because the gay community went out fighting. Science needs to do the same. Oscar Wilde once said: "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular." Lazy pessimism and lazy thinking are vulgar and it's about time more of us stood up and said so.

In expressing this argument on my blog, I was challenged with: "Gays and blacks fought back because they were being discriminated against, denied access to basic rights, insulted, abused, and in many cases killed. And still are. That's really not a motivation which many scientists share, even the ones who are the victims of a bit of jealous peer gossip because they're on TV."

This is, of course, entirely right. My argument here isn't about motivations, but methods. I'm arguing that when an MP - say, oh I don't know, David Tredinnick - stands up and supports the view that homeopathy is better than placebo, or that surgeons can't operate under a full moon because of a lack of blood clotting (to quote just two examples) then maybe we should wonder if they are fit for more public ridicule than we have so far been able to muster.

Which is why, finally, it's so nice to hear the likes of Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington saying: "We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not - and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this - grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method."

I'm heartened by the popularity of Ben Goldacre. I applaud Simon Singh's recent libel battle. I look forward to Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto. Things are getting better, but it's taken far too long - and there's still a long way to go. We've got a lot of catching up to do.

Max Planck famously said: "Science advances one funeral at a time." Let's make sure science communication doesn't carry on advancing at a similar pace. Particularly when we have a planet to save.

Mark Stevenson is the author of An Optimist's Tour of the Future. You can read an abridged extract here. This piece first appeared in the June 2011 issue of the British Science Association's magazine, People & Science.

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.