Mental Indigestion

by Jim Caryl

Category: Clippings

Libel law and scientific disputes…

Re-posted from Jack of Kent, the stated position of the great and the good on the libel case between Simon Singh and the BCA (details of which I wrote about in ‘Illiberalism in rational causes‘):

The law has no place in scientific disputes

We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.

The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children’s ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.

Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the “libel capital” of the world.

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.


Everyone below signed as an individual unless otherwise stated

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Nominative nomenclature…


Those familiar with one end of a biology text book from another will be aware that for the purposes of covenience/brevity/secret codes (take your pick), we use a one-letter and three-letter coding system for amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

In a paper I must have read several times over the years, entitled ‘The liveliest effusion of wit and humor‘, the author Jan Witkowski describes some of the logic behind the one-letter codes:

The single letter amino acid code was devised in 1966 by an informal group led by Richard Eck, and the derivations of the letters are, for the most part, fairly clear [1]. For amino acids with a unique first letter, that letter is used; for example, I for isoleucine, M for methionine and V for valine. For amino acids with common first letters, that letter is used for the most common amino acid – A is used for alanine rather than aspartic acid, and L for leucine rather than lysine. That leaves a set of amino acids with a more cryptic one-letter notation. F for phenylalanine (Fenyalanine) and R for arginine (Rginine) are fairly obvious but why is W the letter for tryptophan? Eck explains this by stating that ‘tryptophan’ should be pronounced ‘twyptophan’ and, hence, ‘W’ is an appropriate symbol for it. The entry has an asterisk against it, leading the reader to a footnote: ‘My collaborators insist that I take full responsibility for this – R.V.E.’ Unfortunately, this explanation was omitted from later editions and ‘W’ is now supposed to represent the double ring system in tryptophan.

1. R.V. Eck , One- and three letter amino acid abbreviations: mneumonics of the one-letter notation. In: R.V. Eck and M.O. Dayhoff, Editors, Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure xiii, National Biomedical Research Foundation (1966).

This leaves the infamous five amino acids that most 1st year biochemistry students forget: glutamic acid (E), asparagine (N), aspartic acid (D), glutamine (Q) and lysine (K).

Asparagine, at least, contains an ‘N’; glutamic acid results from the first syllable ‘gluE’; aspartic acid is best pronounced with a US accent, ‘asparDic’ (doesn’t work with an R.P. English accent). I have heard several reasons for why glutamine ended up with Q, and lysine with K (the latter of which is because K is close to L, which was already taken up by Leucine), but none really satisfy. None the less, they’re taught by rote and each generation of biochemists (et al.) is left to find their own reasoning.

Hogwash in science writing

I hate political correctness in scientific papers. It’s especially insulting given the readership of such articles. I especially hate the use of the term “sacrificed” or the one in the current paper I’m reading “euthanised” to describe the killing of test animals as part of an experiment. In the latter it was the killing of test chickens to look at the results of antibiotic trials on their gut flora. However, perhaps “killing” has it’s own connotations, but it’s semantically different from “murdered”. Perhaps “rendered dead” is the way to go?

I’m reminded of an excellent, if wax-lyrical, 1955 Nature article by John Baker entitled English Style in Scientific Papers. It was popularly received as it was one of those moments where someone sticks their head up and pull no punches when telling everyone that they’re behaving doltishly. His subject was the grandiloquence and foibles that “are the enemies of good English” and hinder the effective communication of science. [Those with subscriptions can see an online copy via an Editorial and recent reprint in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classics series:l article via link].
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Sleep is over-rated!


These are unashamedly stolen from The Independent (12 th September 2005), quite literally, for I tore them from the paper in a coffee shop, and stored them in my little clippings book….and yes, I have a little clippings book.

The Paul Arden Column:

An interviewer with a wooden leg
said to Frank Zappa: “With your
long hair, from where I am sitting
you could be a woman.”
Zappa replied: “Well, from where
I am sitting you could be a table.”

Curiously, I was reminded to post this as I returned to my car today to find it covered with purple bird bombs – yes, it’s the tale end of Summer, the purple bird shit season is soon to hit full flow:

…When plump wood pigeons eat their fill
Of elderberries on the hill,
And blackberries in the cottage hedge
Or damsons at the meadow edge,
Then country folk who are wise to that
Will go out walking in a hat
To catch the falling purple rain
And ward off every mulberry stain,
Autumn! season of rumination,
And deep-dyed avian defecation

A little ditty for whom we can thank Miles Kington (The Independent) for bringing it to our attention.

With that, I shall bugger off and clean the shit of my car.