All posts by Mike Agg

Inside Science

BBC Radio 4 - Inside ScienceI’ve just listened to the first episode of Inside Science, Radio 4’s new science magazine programme. It’s really very good, but then the series has as presenters three of my very favourite people – Alice Roberts, Lucie Green and our recent guest at Reading SITP, Adam Rutherford.

Obviously one episode isn’t much to go on, but the format and the kind of issues covered remind me of Australia’s The Science Show, and that’s no bad thing. On that programme Robyn Williams (38 years in the job and, incidentally, uncle to Ben Goldacre) is great at covering the science but he is also hot on the politics that attach to so many science stories. And while he is a pom, I hear in his pieces a very Australian intolerance for bullshit. He and his ABC producers seem much more willing to criticise their government’s policies than does our national broadcaster.

Inside Science fills the Thursday afternoon slot left by the now cancelled Material World. As much as I liked that programme, I was an infrequent listener. It seemed to me a much cuddlier creature than The Science Show, and less interesting for that. In Adam, Alice and Lucie, Inside Science has three first rate science communicators and three passionate advocates for science. I think we can expect good things.

It looks like subscribers to the Material World podcast will automatically get the new show in their feed, at least for now. The new podcast isn’t showing up in my iTunes search yet but you can subscribe via these links here.

UoR BioBlitz – 7th-8th June

How synchronicitous. Last night I was watching Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and friends doing their back-garden BioBlitz survey and thinking “That looks like fun, I should get the kids doing that”, when this landed in my inbox:

BioBlitz - University of Reading

Are you interested in biodiversity? If so, come and join us as we identify as many species as possible over 24 hours…

BioBlitz at University of Reading Whiteknights Campus, 7th and 8th June 2013, where people come together to identify as many species as possible. We are bringing together scientists, naturalists, local community groups, students and the public to learn about the vast biodiversity on Whiteknights campus. How can you get involved? Everyone is welcome to this free event; take a look at our events page to see what activities are happening over the 24 hours. Join us on one of our guided walks, help us with ID in the lab, come along to a lecture about local wildlife or just visit the environmental fair.


The Rationalist Association and our good friend Alom Shaha have recently launched The Apostasy Project, a worthy initiative to provide guidance and support to those losing their religion.

Alom came to Reading SitP last year and spoke about his experiences as an atheist within a Bangladeshi Muslim community. Another of our recent speakers, Jonny Scaramanga, tells of his difficulties leaving Christian Fundamentalism.

“For me the fundamentalist experience was desperately lonely, but the secular one was even worse, because it involved leaving behind the few friends I did have. I would have been grateful for a place that combined a chance to make friends with a place to discuss important questions.”

I’d like to think that Skeptics In The Pub is such a place to make friends. But I’m under no illusion. People struggling in deeply religious communities, where admitting one’s lack of faith means estrangement from family and friends, need more support than a monthly gathering of geeks in a pub can provide.

So while I hope that we at SitP will continue to help in our own small way, I’ll also be making a donation to the Apostasy Project. I hope you will too.

Happy Skeptical New Year

I’ve been blogging even less than usual recently as I’ve been busy with work, family stuff and also a couple of fun projects that should interest Reading SITP regulars. I’m keeping them under wraps for now but I hope to reveal more soon.

In the meantime, here is a brief round-up of some other stuff.

  • Following their recent Festival Of The Spoken Nerd UK tour, see our friends Matt Parker, Helen Arney and Steve Mould in their new show Life, Oh Life at the Bloomsbury Theatre, 21-22 January. The Nerds are also appearing in Sex Appeal II: Come Again in aid of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people.
  • Robin Ince, presenter of R4’s Infinite Monkey Cage and curator of the 9 Lesson and Carols for Godless People, is coming soon to Reading, Newbury and Maidenhead with his new show, The Importance Of Being Interested.
  • Robin is also appearing at the Free Fringe Fundraiser event at the Bloomsbury on 9 January. Edinburgh Skeptics could not put on their wonderful Skeptics on the Fringe programme without the help they get from the Free Fringe guys. So go, have a great night out AND enjoy the warm glow of knowing you are helping the Free Fringe and Skeptics on the Fringe.
  • The BHA has added its support to the campaign to buy a copy of Alom Shaha’s Young Atheist’s Handbook for the library of every secondary school in England and Wales. You can donate to the cause at Alom was our guest at Re.ading SitP back in August.
  • Tickets are now sold out for QED (Manchester, 13-14 April). If you were quick enough to bag a ticket and you’re interested in carsharing from the Reading area, leave a comment below or email me your details and maybe we can sort something out.
  • Amazingly, tickets are still available for ThinkCon (Cambridge, 16 March 2013). They have a great line-up of speakers this year so do check it out.
  • The Department of Chemistry at Reading Uni is hosting As If By Magic, a family lecture by Andrew Szydlo at 18:00 on Wednesday 6 February. I’ll post more info about this when I have it.
  • Our next Reading Skeptics In The Pub will be on Thursday 17th January at the usual place and will feature former Christian fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga talking about what life is like in an Accelerated Christian Education school.

Happy New Year to you all.

Calendar All The Things!

A few people have asked how to subscribe to our Skeptics In The Pub calendar, so I’ll post this here for future reference.

I’ll keep it generic, since these instructions work for all of the groups on, not just Reading.

Go to <your town>, right click on the Upcoming Events Events RSS Feed RSS icon in the top right and copy the URL. That’s the feed for Google Calendar updates.

You then have 2 options:

  • In Google Calendar, on the left-hand panel, click the drop-down by ‘Other calendars’ and select ‘Add by URL’. You then have full visibility of RSitP events on all your devices.

(I used to use this method a lot to keep track of what events neighbouring SitP groups were putting on. But as it doesn’t allow me to filter out events,my smartphone would tell me I had loads of simultaneous things to go to and I never knew where I was supposed to be.)

A better method, for me at least:

  • Paste the calendar updates feed URL into Google Reader (or your RSS Reader of choice). Then when notification of a new event arrives, click on it and you get the full event details, plus a drop-down box that you can use to copy it into your personal calendar. One downside here is that you may not get updates if the event changes.


A letter to WHSmith

Dear WHSmith

I must express in the strongest terms my objections to your decision to continue to sell the magazine “What Doctors Don’t Tell You” (WDDTY). It appears from their responses that your company representatives have not understood the nature of the complaints made against this magazine.

To put it plainly, the advice given in the magazine is dangerous and, if followed by the magazine’s readers, your customers, it could result in serious harm. WHSmith has the opportunity to show itself to be a responsible retailer by removing this magazine from sale. To fail to do so shows a callous disregard for public health.

I have noted your previous responses to other complainants, in which you dismiss this issue as merely one of consumer choice. To Andy Lewis, your Customer Services Coordinator David Trollope wrote:

Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

This is a grave mistake. I acknowledge that you must cater to customers’ various beliefs and political opinions. I am sure there are many animal rights supporters who would rather you did not stock The Field, or eco-warriors opposed to the sale of Fast Car. But this is not an matter of personal opinion. WDDTY contains factually incorrect articles that promote distrust of medical science.

One example: In covering the HPV vaccine that is to be provided by the NHS to teenage girls, with a view to saving 400 lives a year (NHS source), WDDTY says :

the UK has accepted a vaccine that has been rejected by India after an early trial, funded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, led to the deaths of seven young girls and another 120 suffered debilitating side effects.

This is simply untrue. As Andy Lewis points out,

That trial in India did indeed report deaths after the vaccine was given, but What Doctors Don’t Tell You Don’t Tell You was that these deaths included a drowning, a snake bite and the effects of malaria.” (source)

In its “Corporate Responsibility” policy for business conduct, part 3iv, WHSmith promises to “provide products that are safe, fit for purpose, meet legal standards and are never described in a misleading manner.” If there is any doubt about the misleading claims in WDDTY, Ron Lewis has written a through analysis. (link)

David Trollope also wrote,

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers

The results of this close collaboration with the publishers of WDDTY has fallen far below the expectations of this customer.

I would not expect, nor want, WHSmith to vet and censor every publication prior to sale. But when a threat to public health is brought to WHSmith’s attention then the company will be judged on its response.


Mike Agg

Update, 13/10:

I’ve been manically busy this past week but now I can finally post the woefully underwhelming response from Juliette Cavilla at WHSmith.

Thank you for contacting us regarding the magazine “What the doctors don’t tell you”.

As the UK’s leading retailer of stationery, books, magazines and newspapers, we aim to offer our customers a wide choice of products, whilst also respecting customer views. Our customers often have widely differing opinions about the products we sell, so we aim to strike the right balance to meet the needs of all our customers.

We work closely with the magazine publishers to ensure that their products meet the expectations of our customers. Where we receive customer complaints about a certain publication, WHSmith commits to raise these concerns directly with the publisher.

Customer feedback is extremely important to us and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your concerns.

Kind Regards

For fuck’s sake. They reply with the very same stock response that I wrote to them about!

So there you have it. WHSmith don’t even bother to read their customer’s complaints before responding.

This utter failure to listen to customer’s concerns, more than their decision to stock WDDTY, is indicative to me of a company with no sense of responsibility.


Festival Of The Spoken Nerd

Amazingly, almost unbelievably, there are still tickets left for this Friday’s Festival Of The Spoken Nerd show in Reading.

Stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, geek songstress Helen Arney and experiments guy Steve Mould present a comedy night for the fearlessly inquisitive.

After a year of sell-out shows in London and science festivals around the country, they’re bringing their unique mix of facts and fun to Reading for the sum total of one night only.

Join three of the UK’s best (and nerdiest) performers for an evening of comedy, science, music, maths and interactive experiments as they ask those all-important questions:

  • How can you use a parabola to set stuff on fire?
  • How does the angler fish make love?
  • And how dangerous can things get with just numbers?

I’ve seen all 3 of these stella nerds performing individually before but never all together. It’s going to be ace. I’m just a little conflicted because I would really have loved to see the utterly wonderful A F Harrold hosting Robin Ince and John Hegley at A F Harrold’s Lovely Cabaret. Such disappointments happen with comedy festivals.

Disclosure: Matt Parker is a good friend of Berkshire Skeptics and he helped us launch Reading Skeptics In The Pub way back in February ’11. Susan and I will be there in the Concert Hall foyer on Friday, promoting our upcoming SitP events. I hope to see lots of you there.

A beautiful thing

Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist and illustrator. I’d seen a little of his work, so when I heard he was offering to do a few sketches to order, I had to ask Tom what he could do for Reading Skeptics In The Pub.

I think it’s wonderful. Check out Tom’s work at

Measles: A dangerous illness, by Roald Dahl

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything. “Are you feeling all right?” I asked her. “I feel all sleepy, ” she said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead. The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her. On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it. It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out. Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die. LET THAT SINK IN. Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles. So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised? They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation. So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised. The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible. Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

Hat-tip to Peter Bowditch of

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science and Health Reporting

I’m a little late to this but I think it’s worth sharing. The Science Media Centre was asked by the Leveson Inquiry to come up with some Guidelines for Science and Media Reporting, and here is their submission:

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and sub editors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs will not be able to cover every point, Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicafities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents, Wherever possible the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works,

  • State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ’cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients” don’t call something a ’cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

It strikes me that these guidelines are as useful to us consumers of the news as to its writers. If a health story in your newspaper doesn’t tick all of these boxes, it might be best to view the claims with some scepticism.

(Hat-tip to the estimable David Spiegelhalter)