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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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May 2010

Lord Lester's Defamation Bill

It's been a busy week, full of meetings and events. Ellen and Leonor headed up North on Tuesday for discussions with the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science in Liverpool. Alice was also off at the BSA Science Communication Conference on Monday. She ran a session on 'Warriors Against Claptrap' discussing whether myth-busters are the new generation of citizen scientists. Sounds like they had some interesting discussions and it was a good opportunity to bring up different myth-busting and evidence hunting stunts.

Promoting standing up for science and myth-busting has been on my mind a lot this week. It's very much part of the VoYS ethos - that you shouldn't just sit still and let things happen but take responsibility and demand answers to questions that typically go unasked. Yesterday we had an office meeting where I outlined the 5 year VoYS strategy and we all talked about what makes VoYS unique and how we'd like to take things further.

I also had a chance to promote this VoYS standing up for science ethos at the Young Life Sciences Symposium on Wednesday where Alice and I ran a lunch-time workshop. It was at South Bank University, in a great venue with views all across South West London. The delegates were early career researchers involved in asthma and allergy research, all very interested in speaking to the media and responding to bad science.

This week has seen the release of Lord Lester's Private Members Defamation Bill. This is the first attempt in over a century to redraft the libel laws. The office felt surprisingly calm through all of this compared to some of the news frenzies we've had during the campaign. But we were pleased with the media's response with coverage all over the place including The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Times (as a leader piece), The Seattle Times, Radio 4's Today Programme and even discussed on the Today Programme's Thought for the day. This level of interest from the media really shows that they realise this is an important issue for the public. Let's now hope that the Government will take Lord Lester's Bill into serious consideration.

Election results

There's a rather sombre mood in the office today after last night's election results as the combination of MPs standing down and some losing their seats means that we've lost some of the great champions of science. Losing Evan Harris is particularly disappointing. There are still some very good people 'in' though and we look forward to getting to know them once the dust settles.

I was surprised at how inaccurate the opinion polls were. They were not nearly as predictive as expected. But the exit polls last night were fairly reflective of the results and we were all impressed to hear David Dimbleby point out the 'margin of error' when discussing these polls. Maybe he read our Stats guide!

So other news of the week...

We started the week a bit set back after a very rushed Friday afternoon when the news of the closure of the Prince of Wales' Foundation for Integrated Health came out . With half the office on holiday for the long weekend, the news came in just an hour before Leonor had to leave for a flight to Spain! But we had to comment - for years the FIH has been promoting therapies not supported by evidence. And so with phone calls to Tracey and Ellen, and countless emails going around the scientists and experts in this area, we released our quote, along with a couple others, to the press . Leonor then had to dash and I finished getting everything up on the website and chasing the remaining quotes. It was well worth it in the end and we were quoted in the Financial Times, The Times, Nature and The Irish Times.

It was great to at last have Tracey back from Australia - a week and a half delayed because of the ash cloud. Ironically, as Tracey returned to the office we lost Sile to the ash cloud - delayed a day in Ireland! But it was great to finally hear Tracey's thoughts on Making Sense of Statistics and we had a really interesting discussion in the office about the potential of the guide. About how far reaching it could be and the possibility of carrying out a programme of workshops on it.

Also this week, there's been a surge in the number of stories about celebrities following silly diets. Not only does Cheryl Cole follow an 'Eat right for your blood type' diet but apparently Naomi Campbell diets exclusively on lemon and glucose for 18 weeks at a go and Jennifer Anniston is following a 'baby food diet'! Yuk. Some great examples for our next Celebrities and Science Review. The British Dietetic Association was very well prepared to respond to these claims and it was good to see their comments in the papers. It made my job much easier!

We had other enquiries coming in from mothers concerned about the dangers of Wi-Fi, people wanting more info on GM crops and whether magnetic bracelets can relieve pain. Ellen is giving a talk to the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) next week and I helped her gather together some of the recent enquiries we've had about chemicals. I was quite taken a back at the number of enquiries we've had on this subject over the past few months. It's impressive to see that the lifestyle press is doing a lot more investigative journalism and questioning the evidence behind cosmetic and product claims.

So though a shorter week, it's been pretty busy. Hopefully by this time next week we'll know who the Prime Minister is, what colour(s) our government will be and the identity of the new Science minister.