It’s been a long time since I posted anything here… and that doesn’t change now, except in a technical sense. My writing activities are currently split between my work for the European Mathematical Society (see here for why you should join) and writing about the current political situation, with which I am greviously displeased, on social media. If you are interested in the latter, see my Twitter account on your right, and I have also started a blog on Medium. The first post is: Remaining Angry.
Nightjack was an award-winning blog which ran from 2008-2009, written by an anonymous British police officer. In 2009, in what they claimed to be the public interest – but which struck many observers as an exercise in needless spite – The Times newspaper published an article exposing the author as Detective Constable Richard Horton.
Since then there have been claims and counter-claims about how that story came to press, culminating in the recent revelation that the Times likely misled both the High Court and its own readers.
We now know how Times journalist Patrick Foster knew Nightjack’s identity: he hacked his email account. What is interesting – and where considerations of computational complexity come in – is what happened next. Having found Nightjack’s identity through illegal means, Foster then approached Times lawyer Alastair Brett, and was advised to set to work on reproving Nightjack’s identity, purely through legally available sources. He was indeed later able to do this, with the result that the Times went to court and successfully fought off an injuction barring them from exposing Nightjack. But, critically, during the hearing, they omitted all mention of the original email hack, and spoke solely of Foster’s subsequent reproof.
Brett explained the thinking behind this advice in his testimony to the ongoing Leveson enquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press:
“If he or any other journalist could identify Nightjack through legitimate sources and information in the public domain then we’ve got what I felt was a perfectly legitimate public interest story…
“He had to demonstrate to me that he could do it legitimately from outside in, and that’s what he did. He persuaded me that he was able, that the only person who could have been Nightjack was DC Horton…
“Rightly or wrongly I had believed you could separate the earlier misconduct by Mr Patrick Foster and you could then say that once he had done this legitimately then that could be presented to the court perfectly properly as he had done it legally. Now I accept that you say that the two are inextricably intertwined, but that, if I may say so is a subjective judgement. I happened to take the view that you could separate out the one from the other.”
Robert Jay QC, cross-questioning, makes the observation that the reproof was “a much easier exercise”, now that he “had the advantage of knowing the answer to his question”.
Of course this is true, but one might ask how much of an advantage he had. Is this a subjective judgement? Perhaps Foster could have determined the answer, legally, from the outset. In order to have a leg to stand on, the minimum he needed to establish was that Nighjack’s identity was in legal P, something which could discovered legally in polynomial time. All the reproof showed, however, was that it was in legal NP (as well as being in illegal P, of course). Are the two equal…? (And if they are, what is the polynomial mark-up…?)
David Allen Green has been monitoring the case since the beginning, and it was he who likened the identification to solving a maze ‘from the inside out’ (P) rather than ‘from the outside in’ (NP). He has an excellent run-down of the whole affair so far, at The New Statesman. (If you scroll down to the discussion of Oliver Kamm’s blogposts, you will also see how the Times went on to mislead its readers.)
The latest developments are that the Times’ editor James Harding has written to the hearing’s original judge to apologise, and that Nightjack is suing the Times for breach of confidence, misuse of private information and deceit. He is claiming aggravated and exemplary damages.
You can also watch Alastair Brett’s very uncomfortable evidence to the Leveson enquiry here. It begins at 72′, and the real drama starts at 129′, in which Lord Leveson accuses the Times of providing ‘utterly misleading’ evidence to the Court, an accusation which Brett essentially admits.
I need to add something to that, since Yemon Choi has pointed out that the New Scientist magazine, for whom I have done (paid) work in the past (listed here), is owned by Reed Business Information, part of the Reed-Elsevier group.
So am I going to refuse further (paid) work for the New Scientist? It’s a perfectly fair question. My answer is no.
Here is some self-justification: I like the New Scientist as a magazine. Granted, it’s had its share of problems in the past. But overall I believe that it is – in and of itself – a force for good in the world. I regret that RBI is a stable-mate of Elsevier.
I’ll readily admit that there is self-interest at work here too. I like to write about progress in the mathematical sciences. I like my articles to reach a broad audience, and, yes, I also like getting paid.
There are very few outlets where a story about mathematics can be written at reasonable length, without being excessively dumbed down (hopefully!), reach a decent number of people, and earn the author a few quid. So I’m not willing, at this stage, to cut myself off from the biggest one in the UK.
Having said all this, I believe that I can, in good faith, remain a signatory to The Cost Of Knowledge. This is a space to “declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal”. I understand this as referring to academic journals pulished by Elsevier, rather than magazines published by RBI. Certainly the discussions that I have read around the petition seems to reinforce that interpretation. However, I would be happy to reconsider my position if anyone can make a strong case that I’m guilty of having my cake and eating it.
(This is a rather selfish list in that it’s about how the issues relate to me. There was lots interesting discussion and speculation about the future of science & media & science media, as well as some fascinating stuff from Simon Singh on his experience of libel law, and from Adam Wishart on ethics. But on all these topics I don’t have much to add to what others have already said.)
Lesson 1: I am not a science journalist. I suppose that subconsciously I have always secretly suspected this, but it is useful to have it confirmed. My interest in science is in science, much less in the attendant politics. I want to help demystify it, report on exciting developments to people who would otherwise not hear about them, and generally spread the word about how wonderful it is. Meanwhile, a journalist’s job is to “hold scientists to account” and generally “cause mischief”. I don’t wish to sound cynical: plenty of good arguments were made for the importance of these activities, but they had the side-effect of convincing me that that’s not where my future lies.
So what am I? A “science communicator” perhaps. I’d even accept “science curator, guide, navigator or sense-maker”, as John Naughton put it. Actually I’ve often thought of myself as more of a “translator” of technical ideas into everyday language.
Lesson 2: The Science versus Religion debate has gone downhill since the days of Bertrand Russell. Like most of the crowd, I was slightly taken aback that the session on “Impact of Science Journalism on Culture and Society” was entirely devoted to booting around the old, deflated football of the compatibility of science and God.
I do think there are interesting things which can still be said about this, at the sociological and historical levels. But in terms of the metaphyical implications of any particular piece of science (whether that be the human genome or the latest multiverse speculation), I view the whole subject as a black hole best avoided. You can bat such questions back and forth for ever, after which everyone grumpily reverts to their starting positions. Namely, all reasonable people peg their preferred philosophical outlook to whatever the science currently says, while the maniacs deny it outright.
Lesson 3: People, things, and ideas. The most controversial moment of the day was when Andrew Brown declared that “People are more interested in stories about people than they are in stories about things”.
I work in mathematics, which isn’t even about things. It’s about ideas. This puts me at least two steps removed from anything anyone cares about. Like many people present, I think, my immediate reaction was one of defensiveness. On the face of it, the statement is false: as David Adam from Nature pointed out, things such as cosmic background radiation can generate a surprising amount of interest. Andrew replied that this is ultimately a story about people, as it concerns the origins of humanity. This struck me as a bit of a cop-out, since all of science is – by definition – the study of the situation in which we find ourselves, and hence ultimately about us, if you like.
Still, there is food for thought in Andrew’s remark. Some things (or ideas) are of interest for the way they relate to aspects of people’s direct experience. The never-ending stories of scientists finding a gene for obesity or campanology testify to this. Other ideas are interesting for their mind-expansion value: plenty of people derive pleasure from wild and wacky ideas. Dark matter & Higgs boson detection constantly attract headlines, even though they fall completely outside anyone’s daily life. This is – mostly, I think – where mathematics fits in, Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture being a good recent example.
That example does qualify an interesting story about a person in a much more direct sense, though, since Perelman is such an unusual character.
The most interesting stories of all should, therefore, concern wild theories which also relate to our daily experience. Can mathematics hope to qualify? Yes! It could be argued that the P=?NP question, for example, lives exactly here. (For the hat-trick, all that remains is for it to be resolved by an extraordinarily strange individual.)
Lesson 4: The view from the other side. It was valuable to hear about the science book business from publisher turned writer Christopher Potter and literary agent Peter Tallack (disclaimer: he’s my agent). It’s clear that in all areas, the trend is away from paper towards electronic media. My impression though, is that this is happening faster in the world of journalism than in books. Relatedly, I sense that while journalists are – rightly or wrongly – feeling threatened by bloggers, book-writers have a slightly more secure position. While people might write blogposts for free as a hobby, they’re likely to continue to want money to write books. The upshot was that Peter’s “five reasons to be cheerful” pretty well had their desired effect, and it was certainly nice to end the day on an optimistic note.
Lesson 5: It really is time I got a twitter account. Well on that, at any rate, I can report progress. The only thing now is to work out what to do with it.
Overall, a thought-provoking day, and lovely to meet people including Andy Extance and Stuart Clark. So, many thanks to the organisers & sponsors including Bluesci magazine and the Public Library of Science.
Alexandrov said [pdf] of their relationship:
“in 1979 this friendship celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and over the whole of this half century there was not only never any breach in it, there was also never any quarrel, in all this time there was never any misunderstanding between us on any question, no matter how important for our lives and our philosophy; even when our opinions on one of these questions differed, we showed complete understanding and sympathy for the views of each other.”
No quarrels, no misunderstandings, complete understanding and symapthy for 50 years…. that really sets the bar for the rest of us.
One issue which is often discussed is sensationalism. By having racier, more exciting stories than their rivals, a newspaper or TV channel hopes to attract a bigger audience. And of course it is audience size, rather than accuracy or quality of output, which measures success. So dramatic stories are privileged over dull-but-worthy ones, and everything must be dressed up to seem as spicy as possible.
I exaggerate, perhaps, but the process is well known and much analysed. But there is another, deeper phenomenon, at play: Harrabin’s law. It doesn’t depend on the cynicism of the press, but begins with the observation that news, definitionally, has to be new. So commonplace or ongoing situations are unlikely to be included. Conversely, the more uncommon an event is, the more newsworthy it is. So rather than providing a summary of the state of the world, the news represents a daily freakshow of uncommon occurrences. It is, by its very definition, utterly unrepresentative of people’s wider experience.
I was impressed by this idea, because it gives a simple causal mechanism whereby many important facts about the world go unreported, for the very reason that they are happening all the time. So newsdesks prioritise rarities such as train and plane crashes over the daily carnage on our roads. Serial killers and terrorists get top billing, while domestic violence chunters along below the radar. The Congalese war, which has been raging for over a decade, claiming millions of victims, makes the news so rarely that many people remain unaware even that it is happening. Meanwhile skirmishes in previously peaceful regions are guaranteed headline status. Deaths due to ecstasy are reported; those due to alcohol are not. How could they be? After all, they are happening constantly. But it is in knowing the things which are happening day in day out which gives us a truer picture of the world we live in.
As you might expect, Harrabin’s law has political consequences. Firstly, it distorts people’s perception of risk. The classic example is the person who is terrified of flying, but thinks nothing of driving to work daily. But it isn’t just at the individual level that problems occur. Terrorism is a rarity in the UK, and therefore by Harrabin’s law, it gets reported and discussed a great deal. Hence, governments are under immense pressure to act using any resources necessary. How domestic violence could benefit from the same media exposure! (Of course, if it hardly ever happened, then it would get it.)
The implication seems clear: we don’t need news. What we need is importants. (Of course the two may sometimes coincide.) As for how to bring this revolution about, and how to decide what qualifies as important and what does not… well, I’ll leave that to another day.
Simon Singh has won his appeal against the British Chiropractic Association, who sued him for libel after he wrote that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments”.
The appeal court has decided that this is fair comment, which of course it is. This is excellent news for him, and for all of us. It should mean that scientific debates can now be held robustly and in public, without the fear of libel writs being slapped down left, right, and centre. The libel laws have long been a weapon for well-funded cranks, and it is tremendous news that Simon has stood up to them, and disarmed them.
As Milton said, and their Lordships quoted:
“I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; …. that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
The London Mathematical Society is a small but important institution which operates out of De Morgan House in London. It publishes a few (very high quality) books and journals, organises and supports conferences and symposia, and has small grants to give out for mathematical activities. The LMS also bestows highly regarded prizes and medals for mathematical research. Its focus is research into pure maths.
There is a firm plan to merge the LMS with the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), no doubt a fine institution, but one about which I must plead ignorance. Its focus is applied – or applicable – areas of maths.
There have been meetings around the country to discuss the proposed New Unified Mathematical Society, with the Presidents of both societies present (but me absent).
I can’t say that I have weighed the arguments carefully myself. But certainly several mathematicians are deeply concerned about this plan. If you have a view, you can follow the debate at their Save the LMS blog.