Monthly Archives: May 2012

Wokingham primary schools promoting New Age guff?

I was a little surprised yesterday to receive a promotional flyer for some “NLP4Parents” Neuro-Liguistic Programming workshops soon to be held in and around Wokingham. It came as an attachment to this week’s email newsletter from my child’s primary school, apparently at the request of Wokingham Borough Council.

I’m no psychologist but I’ve been aware for some time of the dim view that psychologists and neuroscientists have of NLP. It appears to be wholly unsupported by the scientific evidence or modern psychological theories, and the fact that it appears to be favoured by proponents of even wackier New Age nonsense should ring alarm bells.

I won’t say more as it’s not my field, but this post by neurologist Steven Novella is well work a read.

I would rather the school and Wokingham BC took no part in promoting such pseudo-science. I have emailed the school asking who at Wokingham BC asked the school to distribute this material. I will post again when I have found out more.

Send The Geek Manifesto to Every MP

Our guest speaker at the next Reading Skeptics In The Pub is Mark Henderson, former science editor at the Times and now the Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust.

Mark’s new book, The Geek Manifesto, is a call to arms for science geeks to get political and demand evidence-based policy. It has been getting great reviews and has sparked some interesting discussion on the aims of skepticism (see Tessa Kendall’s response to Nick Cohen), and I am looking forward to having some rare free time this coming weekend to finish reading it.

I was rather taken by this terrific idea by Dave Watts :

I will put a copy of the Geek Manifesto on every MP’s desk but only if 649 other people will help buy the books.

What a brilliant way to get the geek message across! I learned yesterday that if we can get 500 pledges then Mark’s publishers will donate the final 150 books, and we are well over the 100 mark already.

And so I urge you all, buy The Geek Manifestobuy a copy for your MP, and of course, come and hear Mark Henderson himself at Reading Skeptics In The Pub, at 7:30pm on Thursday 21st June.

Reading Skeptics In The Pub is a regular series of talks and lectures by prominent writers and thinkers, organised by Berkshire Skeptics Society. There is no need to book and admission is free, although we do invite donations to cover our expenses. Meetings are usually at 7:30pm on the third Thursday of each month at Copa, but arrangements do vary so please check the website.

UPDATE (31/5/12) : Mark posted on this blog yesterday that his publishers, Transworld Books, will now match every pledge, reducing the target to just 325.

Why Government Surveillance of Internet Communications is Damaging to Society

I was kindly invited to post the script of my recent Pod Delusion segment which appeared on the show on 13/04/12 – here it is.

In the past weeks, you may have seen news about the proposed ‘CCDP’, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme – a scheme through which the Home Office is requesting increased powers of surveillance over people’s online and phone communications. It’s a news story I found myself, almost accidentally, at the heart of.

The case the Home Office makes is that, with the increase in new communication technologies, criminals and terrorists are getting ahead of the security services by being able to communicate online. Our laws currently prevent blanket logging of online communications so, for security services to track down these bad guys, they want new legislation brought in.

So far so good, you might say – no-one wants the bad guys to get away, let’s give the security guys the technology they need.

…but that’s where the problems start, because this isn’t only a debate about technology, this is also a debate about society.

and we’re working with ministers who have difficulties understanding that subtlety – remember the kneejerk reaction of wanting to turn Twitter off during last summer’s riots?

It also brings in one of the favourite topics of listeners to this show – Evidence-based policy making – we know when considering new policy we need to explore the wider issues:

What’s the evidence this solution will solve our problem?
What other solutions are possible?
What other effects will this policy have?
Could we, in attempting to solve one problem, bring about others that are far worse?

Consider phone calls. Without knowing which of the millions of people talking to each other at any one time might be criminals, security services feel they need to log every single call that’s made. There’s no way the people of this great nation are going to let security services record the content of their phone calls as a matter of routine, what they can get hold of is what’s called communications data – that’s the facts of your communication, things like who talked to whom, for how long, where the call was made from.

For many calls these data are already recorded by our telecoms companies, we expect them to do that as part of our billing process, and police can get hold of that data with an appropriate warrant. I should point out that many pay-as-you-go phones don’t get tracked in this way and, as yet, we’ve not seen what the new proposals are for dealing with those.

Now imagine extending the collection of these data for all the different ways we communicate online: Skype calls, email, webmail, social networking, posts on discussion boards, avatars chatting in online games – and you start to see the scale of what might be proposed. And remember, the suggestion is that all this communication data is collected, not after suspicion has been raised about an individual through criminal behaviour, but collected about everyone, all the time.

There are many technical problems with this – not just the sheer scale of processing and data storage that’s involved. A message sent to you via a web-based service gets served to your PC looking just like any other webpage. Internet security advisors and experienced people working within the telecoms companies tell me they cannot identify which pages are messages, or separate the communications data, without having to sample content… and content sampling is completely unacceptable.

But, even if content is not sampled, do we really want our every online interaction logged and stored for government reference? It’s been described as the equivalent of being followed by a deaf private detective – they may not be able to hear what you say, but they know everyone you met with, how long you spoke to them for, where you were when you met them. A personal profile can be built up of you, your issues and your interests, through your online interactions – these same interactions which it is proposed to hold on a database for reference on demand by the authorities.

There are a lot of red herrings in this news story to watch out for – we are promised that information won’t be held in a monolithic central database at GCHQ. That’s true because it will be held in dispersed databases belonging to the telecoms companies – I’m afraid our concerns about incompetent data protection, malicious usage and hacking are increased rather than put to rest by the multiplicity of storage locations.

and whilst the current proposal may promise such data will be held securely and only released with a warrant, how might that evolve under a different government 5 or 10 years down the line? Remember these will be commercial companies holding a detailed profile of you built up through all your social interactions. They have no business need to collect or hold these third-party data, they would be doing so only because instructed by government and it would be an extremely significant overhead to their business processes.

So questions also need to be asked about who pays for this programme if it is implemented… and you can bet, one way or the other, it will be us who, either through our taxes or direct payment to these companies, are paying for our own intimate personal information to be harvested and stored.

And for all the promises of database security, accessible only by warrants, in the past we’ve seen personal details of 7 million families receiving child benefit released through lost copies of data CDs and, more worryingly, the content of police records maliciously altered.

So, to return to our evidence-based policy-making: What other effects could this policy have?

We’re familiar with the “chilling effect” that our libel laws have on debate – this would have a “chilling effect” on communication and web use.

What about the isolated gay teenager who wants to post for support on an internet discussion board – but knows that communication is being logged for government purposes? Someone seeking advice when they feel a complaint has been mishandled by the police – but knows a profile of their interactions is being built up?

Might databases be used for ‘fishing’ purposes, searching for patterns that identify classes of people, even when they are not individually suspected of crimes? – the phrases ‘false positive’ and ‘guilt by association’ rather spring to mind. Muslim friends tell me they already worry about phone logging for these reasons.

If our problem is crime and terrorism, will this solution fix it? Of course not – we may end up catching a few of the more clueless ones, but any serious player will work with encryption which limits tracking, despite the vast quantity of money the Government intends to throw at this technology.

Crime and terrorism are social problems, human problems, not technical ones. Real solutions require us to tackle the root causes in society – lack of social cohesion, poor education, the need for better rehabilitation. In fact, the solution lies in more fearless, more open communication, not in less.

This is a political issue, but it is not a single party one. Julian Huppert has been leading the fight from the Lib Dem benches and I set Lib Dem policy against this programme at our National Conference a few weeks ago. But we’ve also seen members of other parties speaking out against the CCDP proposals too.

If this is something you feel strongly about and if you want to prevent this becoming law, you can raise political awareness. Write to your MP explaining the wider implications of what, to them, may seem a rather confusing technical topic. Sign the online petitions as well, but remember MPs take note of personal letters and especially personal visits, so drop into their surgery to tell them why this is wrong. There are links to further details of the CCDP proposals and of a public conference on the topic on 20th April on the Pod Delusion website.

The Communications Capabilities Development Programme is not about technology, it’s about society. I don’t want us to live in a society where the default assumption is that everyone is under suspicion, where all the communication records of every innocent citizen are kept, just in case they do something wrong.

Help me build a better society – lets stop the CCDP together.

This is Jenny Woods, for the Pod Delusion.

Regression to the mean

Most weeks, someone will tell me they ‘swear by’ some remedy for one of the many woes of early parenting, and assure me that it has worked wonders. And then they will turn and tell the mum sitting next to them, who [unless healthily sceptical] will unquestioningly accept the recommendation without asking two very important questions:
1. Is there any evidence that it works?
2. Is there any evidence that it does harm?

Infacol is a prime example of a medication recommended widely and unscientifically by mums everywhere, but more worryingly, by GPs and Health Visitors, who must surely know that there is no evidence that it works. Breastfeeding Network has a useful paper [pdf] on colic which discusses Infacol and other remedies, concluding the research is a bit thin on the ground and there are various things you can try; and particularly for the breastfed baby, getting some support with breastfeeding may be key.

Here’s another one: Lansinoh prevents nipple pain. It doesn’t. Its only function is to heal damaged tissue. Nipple pain is almost always prevented (and resolved) by good attachment, and no amount of lanolin cream will facilitate good attachment. In fact, large amounts of it, making the breast slippery, will make it harder for the baby to stay comfortably latched on. In addition, the heavy marketing of Lansinoh reinforces mums’ certainty that breastfeeding will hurt, and is therefore a barrier to doing it at all.

Blogger Scepticon takes a look at amber teething beads and basically demolishes them as a remedy for the pain of teething. Teething is a tough time for parents as well as babies, and parents may feel helpless to alleviate the pain and misery, so it’s no wonder there’s such a market in remedies that are only anecdotally effective.

And when we are talking about our babies’ health, anecdotal is just not good enough. There is an ethical obligation on health professionals not to recommend something just because they have no other answers, but the fact is that few health professionals have the time to sit with an anxious parent and help her to work through her worries and gain confidence in what she is doing. Hence the quick fix: a formula top-up, controlled crying, dummies, all of which can be shown to cause harm.

But the anecdotes of one mum to another seem to carry even more weight at this vulnerable time, and is an inevitable result of the peer-support that we encourage. It’s hard to take that away from new parents, but it’s equally important to encourage them to ask those questions rather than accept at face value the claim that something works.

Regression fallacy.

Karen is a postnatal doula and a qualified NCT Breastfeeding Counsellor and is based in Wokingham. This article is cross-posted from her blog at Double Helping Doulas.