What does chartership actually mean? (Part I)

June 6, 2014

The professional organisation of which I am a member, the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) an organisation with which I have had nary a qualm, has for some time been applying for a Royal Charter, or “chartered status.” On 29th May 2014 it was announced to members of the IEHF that “following a meeting of the Privy Council in Buckingham Palace on 27th May, Her Majesty The Queen has approved an Order granting a Charter to the Institute.” This announcement got me seriously thinking about the process of chartership about which nobody, apart from those who have been labouriously pursuing it, seems to know anything.

In what will almost certainly turn into a series of blog posts, I will attempt to demystify the process and outline some of the arguments I have with it. In this first post I will address the question of what a Royal Charter actually is. In future posts I will turn to issues of why is it considered important and whether it is a good use of an organisation’s time, funds and effort to obtain one.

A royal charter is basically a formal document on fancy paper with twiddly calligraphy and a wax seal. That sort of thing. It is issued by the monarch, through the Privy Council, and grants rights or powers to an individual or an organisation. In the UK there are approximately 750 organisations with Royal Charters. Most of these are cities. A Royal Charter is the mechanism by which a British town is raised to the status of city. Most recently Chelmsford in Essex was granted a Royal Charter in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Inverness, Brighton & Hove and Wolverhampton were given their charters to celebrate the Millennium, and Preston, Stirling, Newport, Lisburn and Newry to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002.

The Bank of England, the BBC, theatres and opera houses, universities (at least, those founded before 1993), professional institutions and charities can (but not all do) derive their authority from a Royal Charter. Most British universities operate under Royal Charters, which gives them the authority to award degrees. However, the most recent generation of UK universities were granted the power to award degrees by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 instead of by Royal Charter, while some other universities operate under Acts of Parliament. All of which goes to show that a Royal Charter is by no means necessary for the vast majority of institutions to operate.

Almost without exception, the longstanding learned societies, such as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Literature, have Royal Charters. You can tell by the name.

Problem I: Power

So we encounter my first problem with chartership. I am a republican and as such I do not accept that it is the monarch’s right to bestow rights or powers on anybody. Power should originate with we, the people, not trickle down from an individual placed in a superior station by an accident of birth. The Royal Society (as far as I am concerned) derives its authority from being one the longest-surviving collection of the most brilliant and talented individuals this world has produced. The fact that their ranks are sullied by the presence of what are referred to as “Royal Fellows” – The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Kent, the Princess Royal, and The Duke of Cambridge – should be seen as an insult and nothing less.

Professional organisations should derive their authority from their membership. To make a facetious example: The Institute of Badger-Fanciers should be seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards the fancying of badgers as long as a large enough number of the most eminent badger-fanciers remain active members, not because it is The Royal Institute of Badger-Fanciers. If the leadership of the organisation takes what is considered a backwards step and begins advocating badger-baiting or train-spotting, then the membership should by all rights abandon, and condemn it.

Following a career change I am a relatively new and enthusiastic member of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors. I am also, however, a republican and I take any potential association with the Crown, especially a professional one, very seriously indeed. Echoing the badger-fancying example just given, the IEHF should be (and is) seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards ergonomics and Human Factors. It is so solely because a large enough number of the most eminent ergonomists in the UK and abroad are active members.

We do not need a Royal Charter to give us any authority. We, the ergonomists, already possess it.

[To be continued...]


Publish (a list of your publications) or perish

March 17, 2014

I probably should have done it a lot earlier, but life in the private sector goes a mile-a-minute and I simply haven’t had time in between the seven – count them – trips to south-east Asia that I’ve made in the last 18 months. Anyway, here it is: I’ve finally got around to collecting together a list of my publications, replete with links, and you can find it here.


My first book chapter!

September 27, 2012

A few months ago I wrote my first book chapter along with the very talented Ben Thompson, one of my ex-colleagues from McGill. Writing a book chapter is worlds away from writing a journal article. Your average academic journal articles, especially regarding anything halfway controversial can end up as a pretty dry, compromised effort after the obstacle-course of peer-review has been navigated. A book chapter, on the other hand, allows you to survey your field from a reasonable height and be a bit more opinionated (anyone who knows me even a little bit will realise my attraction of this aspect of the process!). There is also room for that rarity in scientific publishing, humour.

InTech is an open access publisher of scientific books and journals and the book in question, Visual Cortex: Current Status and Perspectives is available FOR FREE in it’s entirety. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I am very pleased with the resulting chapter Visual Motion: From Cortex to Percepts.

Open access books? Quick-buck-making enterprise or future of scientific publishing? Since I had such fun writing it, I’m not sure I care right now!



Neuroscience for the Soul article published

July 3, 2012

As promised in an earlier post, my article on the field of neurotheology Neuroscience for the Soul is published this month in The Psychologist.

The synopsis follows:

The burgeoning field of ‘neurotheology’ or ‘spiritual neuroscience’ attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. Research in this field can swing erratically between the extremes of rigorous science and the fringes of pseudoscience in a perplexing and sometimes downright odd way. This lack of quality control stems mainly from the fact that it is a field that polarises opinion – due to the cosmic significance attached to each and every research finding, no matter how trivial, that emerges from the confines of the laboratory. This article plots a course through such research, asking whether there is a ‘neuroscience for the soul’.

Of course, you will need to be a member of the BPS to read it before July 2013. Or you can always contact me. Or watch me in action courtesy of The Chris Worfolk Foundation Lectures


Prince Charles’ “College of Medicine” nails its colours firmly to the mast

June 27, 2012

On Wednesday 4th July, London South Bank University, never the most reputable institution in the Western hemisphere will further muddy its name by holding a conference on “Acupuncture for Integrated Pain Management” sponsored by the College of Medicine.

This organisation, as I have previously discussed, is an alternative medicine lobby group in the UK that has been roundly criticised in the sane academic press for basically espousing Snake Oil in the name of the medical profession. The College is linked to Prince Charles, who likes nothing better than a bit of quackery and personally profits from ineffective alternative therapies. Like all the Royals, including his Dad he is a big fan of alternative medicine (although it’s strange to note that when they are actually ill, the Royals go to a proper hospital just like everyone else).

The College of Medicine is simply the most recent incarnation of an apparently many-headed hydra The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, which folded in 2010 after an accounting scandal. Having played it relatively safe quackery-wise since its inception, the College seems to have abandoned all pretense of being a medical organisation.

The 4th July conference on “Acupuncture for Integrated Pain Management” (its not clear to me why pain management needs to be “integrated” or indeed with what it should be integrated) features such delights as Taiji or Yi-Jin-Jing exercises for attendees, a talk by the Queen’s personal homeopath Peter Fisher and probably the most irritating, a talk on “Acupuncture in Cancer Care.”

Note the extremely careful wording: “Acupuncture in Cancer Care.” Not “Acupuncture for Cancer Care.” Suggesting that acupuncture has any effect at all on the progression of cancer might get the College into trouble with, you know, proper doctors.

In the evidence-based environment in which we find ourselves, acupuncture has failed miserably to demonstrate its effectiveness. The recent history of research into acupuncture can be easily summarised thusly: The better the study, the smaller the effects. Straws may be clutched at, yes-buts may be uttered and words may be weaseled, but acupuncture simply cannot claim to have any medical standing nowadays.

I am amazed by how tenacious the belief is that acupuncture is effective has proven, and this can partly be explained by the phenomenal success of faked operations that amount to nothing less than Chinese state-sponsored propaganda, but nonetheless lodge barnacle-like in the public conscious.

South Bank University, already languishing at the bottom end of most academic rankings, might be doing its wallet a few favours by hosting conferences espousing the rolling out of spiritualist voodoo on the National Health Service, but it should look to its reputation before siding with the charlatans.

But then again, maybe there is nothing left to salvage.


Science proves Sarah Palin is stupid or evil (but which..?)

February 28, 2012

Sarah Palin: Corrupt politician, boon to the cosmetics industry, reality-TV star, alleged adulterer and cocaine-user, jaw-dropping ignoramus regarding matters of historical record or just actively anti-Semitic… she is all this and more. A headline-writer’s dream and cash-cow rolled into one. And now science has proved she’s either stupid or dangerous… or both.

During the 2010 mid-term elections in the US, Mrs. Palin published a map of the United States with the home districts of Democrats who had voted in favour of Obama’s progessive health-care bill targetted with crosshairs. The text on one version read, disturbingly, “we’ve diagnosed the problem… help us prescribe the solution.” Was this an attempt at humour or was it just shockingly stupid? I guess we’ll never know, but it all backfired terribly for Palin when one of the members of Congress “targetted” by Palin’s map was promptly shot. It isn’t obvious to anybody living outside of the US, where socialised medicine is so vigorously defended exactly how an attempt to extend medical care to an extra 32 million Americans might provoke the venom of Republicans, libertarians and Fox News anchors. It is, however, perfectly understandable that Palin’s proposed “solution” might be misinterpreted by a mentally unstable, anti-abortion, sexist, conspiracy theorist.

So what does science have to say to all this gun-crazy nutjobbery? Having spent three years in Montreal myself at the time of the Dawson College shootings, I have always thought that the North American media’s handling of these events is a little, um… insensitive. As an North American TV viewer you are constantly exposed to graphics like this:

Gun and cross-hairs graphic from Chicago News Report

Even news channels who were critical of Palin’s map shennanegins are guilty of the over-use of violent imagery. So, is this a problem? Opinion is still very much divided almost a century after the invention of television, but a recent study from the Netherlands and Germany has looked at exactly this issue. The study created a fictional scenario involving an epidemic of foxes across the Netherlands. Having diagnosed the problem, researchers asked subjects to prescribe the solution by indicating to what extent they would agree with two different proposals: a) a cull of fox numbers by shooting, or b) capture and relocation of the offending canines.

Here comes the experimental manipulation. The subjects were given a map of the Netherlands showing the “problem areas” indicated by either crosshairs a la Palin, or more neutral circles. That’s it. That’s the whole experiment. Amazingly, this small manipulation had a huge effect. 26% of the subjects shown the neutral map with circles favoured shooting first and asking questions later, while 43% of the subjects shown the crosshairs map preferred to let God sort ‘em out (U = 1356, z = 1.67, p = < .05).

Respondents were asked afterwards whether they were familiar with Palin's map and the subsequent controversy and, if they were, their results were excluded to control for the effects of previous media influence. The results show that the subtle use of visual imagery can have a profound effect on perfectly ordinary folks' opinions. A disturbing finding considering the relaxed attitude that broadcast news has developed with regards to showing violent images.


Neuroscience for the Soul (teaser)

February 7, 2012

I recently became interested in the neuroscience of religion, a field that in more journalistic circles is referred to by the complete misnomer “neurotheology”. I have written a feature article on this topic that should see publication in a fairly popular venue soon. But for the moment, here’s me in action:

Neuroscience for the Soul courtesy of The Chris Worfolk Foundation

Enjoy, its only 48 minutes long.


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