sawyl: (A self portrait)
The Guardian is terribly prone to attacks of woo, as yesterday's piece on electro-hypersensitivity syndrome proves. I kept on expecting it to mention some of the scientific evidence — the settled concensus is that lab tests have failed to show that it exists — but instead it ended after a series of first person accounts. I don't think this approach does anyone any favours: it doesn't do much to help the interviewees; nor does it do much for the Guardian's pretensions to serious journalism.

Better by far to adopt Ben Goldacre's line from 2007, back when we — or at least the Graun — were more committed to rationalism:

People who believe their symptoms are related to exposure to electromagnetic fields are almost certainly mistaken - I would now say misled - about the cause, but they are very right about their symptoms.

Symptoms are real, they are subjective, some people experience them very severely, and this is real distress that deserves our compassion. Alternatively, you could cynically exploit them - and mislead them, and frighten them - to sell your quack products, your newspaper, your TV show, and your freelance articles.

Amen.

sawyl: (Default)
Via BoingBoing, I happened across this piece in Wired on vaccines and the antivax movement. Skipping the medical stuff, I was rather taken with these two paragraphs which rather neatly sum up some of the problems of rationalism:

The rejection of hard-won knowledge is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people "know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling." Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. "A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society," Sagan wrote of certain Americans' embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. "There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community."

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

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Back from my holiday and associated internet vacation, my attention has been snagged by John Crace's scathing take on Superfreakonomics:

Did you know that it took a maverick doctor to point out that puerperal fever was caused by other doctors not washing their hands? Oh you did. Well, anyway, some global problems can easily be solved, but people reject the solutions because they appear too cheap and easy. Take hurricanes. They are caused by a slight rise in the surface temperature of the sea in key locations. Professor Lysergic Acid of the University of Middle-Earth has come up with an ingenious answer. Dump all the world's unwanted fridges in these areas and you will kill two birds with one stone. But for some reason no one wants to listen to him.

And Crace isn't the only one to be sceptical. Here, via Bookslut, is a Washington Post smackdown on the whole drink-driving thing:

It's terrifically shoddy statistical work. You'd get dinged for this in a college class. But it's in a book written by a celebrated economist and a leading journalist. Moreover, the topic isn't whether people prefer chocolate or vanilla, but whether people should drive drunk. It is shoddy statistical work, in other words, that allows people to conclude that respected authorities believe it is safer for them to drive home drunk than walk home drunk. It's shoddy statistical work that could literally kill somebody. That makes it more than bad statistics. It makes it irresponsible.

Ouch.

sawyl: (Default)
As others have noted, there's a vacancy for an HPC applications analyst based in Exeter. But I wonder how many people will apply, given that the salary range starts at 25k and and the application says that anything else is:

...normally at the pay band minimum with minimal scope for negotiation. Where a range is advertised, only exceptional candidates with proven experience and skills will be appointed above the minimum of this range."

But, on the plus side, there are training opportunities and free membership of the sports and social club, both of which should be more than enough to compensate for the loss of a fat private sector salary, company car etc.

sawyl: (Default)
Here's Greta Christina putting a Darwinian spin on why telepathy probably doesn't exist:

And, need I say, telepathy would confer a ridiculous advantage when it comes to reproduction. If you could know whether the person you're trying to mate with is interested or you're just wasting your time; if you could know what their turn-ons and turn-offs were and work your angle accordingly... you'd be in like Flynn. The ability to know what the opposite sex is thinking, or even to be slightly better at guessing than your competitors, would get your DNA replicated so fast it would make your head spin.

I believe this is what might be referred to as The Argument from What Women Want.

sawyl: (Default)
According to a Vatican astronomer, the existence of aliens can't be ruled out and, interestingly, that they might be free of original sin. I presume that the rational for this is that original sin comes down from Adam and that aliens, not being of Adam's line, do not bear Adam's sin. Which, handily, means that the aliens would not require a messiah to die for their sins, which in turn explains humanity's unique position in having Christ die to absolve their sins. Which all seems awfully convenient...
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Friday morning found Richard Dawkins wielding a logical razor on Today like a latter-day Sweeney Todd. After slicing through some particularly feeble arguments advanced by John Humphrys on behalf of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Dawkins rather neatly turned the tables on his interlocutor, effectively getting Humphrys to condemn his own double standards. Here's the relevant section of what was a bravura performance:

Richard Dawkins: Mr Humphrys, you have a reputation for tearing politicians apart when they say absolutely nothing so I hope you'll read this speech with the same eye as you'd read a politician's speech and treat it accordingly
John Humphrys: Well, except that the difference is that when you're talking about faith, proof is not available to you, is it?
RD: Well, precisely and that's the point. Why do you operator a double standard? When talking to a politician, you would demand evidence for what they say, but suddenly when talking to a clergyman, you will let all that fall aside and say, "Oh, you don't have to provide any hard evidence because it's faith"?
JH: This shouldn't really be an interview about me, but I suppose the answer to that is that if you're talking to a polician, they must prove their argument to you. They have to prove their argument to you about the effectiveness of their actions or whatever it happens to be. You can't demand the same of somebody who believes in something.
RD: Why not?
JH: because their answer is, "That is what I believe."
RD: Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself.
JH: What's wrong with that?
RD: You have absolutely no reason to take seriously somebody who says, "I believe it because I believe it." In any other walk of life you would say, "You believe it? Why do you believe it? Give me the evidence." In the case of clergyman you drop that and say, "Oh, you're a clergyman? Right, in that case I respect that: you believe it simply because you believe it." I don't think that will do.

And most impressive of all, Dawkins managed to do it all inside three minutes. Surely this must be some sort of record?

sawyl: (Default)
Here's a somewhat unfortunate quote from a Free our Data piece in today's Guardian:

Making the Meteorological Office's observational data freely available for all might spawn a new culture of personal weather forecasting. It might even create an equivalent to the thriving market in ancestor-tracing information which has built up since the National Archives began making its data freely available.

Really? I suspect that this only seems plausible to people with a very limited knowledge of NWP and data assimilation. For if, as the article seems to suppose, generating a forecast is simply a case of having the right set of starting observations, why then do governments and organisations around the world spend quite so much on supercompting resources?

Or, to put it another way: if NWP was really that easy, wouldn't everyone be doing it already?

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I've been trying to read A Theory of Justice, but I've been forced to conclude that I'm just too tired to come to grips with a book so interminable that it's own author once described it as being "...a long book, not just in pages." So instead, I've been mooching through this criticism of Expelled, as recommended today by The Great Octopodal Lord.

Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself feeling rather sorry for all the intelligent design martyrs. Before they sank into the anti-rational morass that is creationism, most of them had respectable careers as straight up scientists. Then they became distracted by the idea that they somehow needed to twist the scientific method into a means to defend their faith. In doing this they may not, pace Expelled, have actually suffered direct discrimination, they pretty comprehensively trashed their own reputations as serious researchers. So rather than doing useful work for the greater good, these people have ended up working for a ruse that is to nobody's — not their own, not the general public's, not the scientific community's, not even their religion's — benefit.
sawyl: (Default)
Assuming that the ball of plutonium that appears in ep two of season one of Alias has a diameter of ten centimeters, then if it is non-hollow, it has a volume of 523 cc. Given a density of 19.8 g/cc, that means that the sphere should weigh in at around 10kg which, fortunately, is roughly inline with the amount of Pu required for criticality, which suggests that the ball is indeed solid.

So, my question is, how exactly is it that Sydney manages to hold something quite so heavy between finger and thumb? This, it seems to me, is most implausible. The fact that she's holding a piece of radioactive material protected by nothing more than a pair of gloves and a veil, however, I find perfectly reasonable...
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Here's a great example of Professor David Colquhoun, science hero, in action. Following the recent decision to set up regulatory structures for complementary therapy practitioners, Colquhoun decided to phone Skills for Health, "a vast bureaucratic enterprise devoted to HR-style box-ticking", to find out how their competencies were defined. Here's the part of the transcript where DC tries to find out who actually wrote the standards:

DC Uh I'm afraid your bureaucratic jargon is a bit much for me there. "The owners of those competencies"? I'm not sure what that means
Flack Why do you want the information?
DC haha, well if you want me to be entirely blunt, it's because I'm appalled that this black magic is appearing on a government web site
Flack . . . can I say that as an organisation funded by a number of sources, one being Department of Health England, none of our work condones the practice you've just suggested. Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based
DC Ah would you mind pointing me to the evidence for homeopathy and distant healing?
Flack Uh [pause] there is [pause]
DC Yes, go on
Flack Well homeopathy is a contentious issue, because every newspaper article I read seems to suggest that homeopathy, in itself, is not an appropriate, uh, not an, uhm, appropriate, uh, therapy.

Other highlights include the moment when the flack fails to spot DC's joke about Charles talking to trees and responds with a panicky not-my-bailiwick, until the humourousness is explained. Go read the original. You know you want to.

sawyl: (Default)
Todays Guardian features an impressively poor article in defence of homeopathy. The basic trajectory — I don't think it's coherent enough to deserve be called an argument — of the piece seems to be as follows:
  1. I was ill. I took a homeopathic solution. I got better. Ergo it works.
  2. Maybe you think I'm a crank. I'm not. See? I'm bashing someone even crankier to prove my non-crankiness.
  3. Mainstream medicine has an absurd need for "proof" — see what I did there with the sneer quotes? — and is so scared that it's trying to suppress the truth.
  4. It thinks that Disease A is caused by B and can be cured by C. This is not how things work.
  5. I don't have a sore throat for the same reason as you. Thus we cannot be cured by a simple remedy like C. We need a homeopath to understand everything we are before we can be cured.
  6. This explains why the evidence based trials of homeopathy fail. After all, if it didn't work, why would so many people claim that it did?
  7. Having firmly asserted my view, I can be magnanimous and accept that the placebo effect might be involved. But that's not the whole picture. Oh no.
  8. I've read some articles nano-technology. They told me that very small things don't behave in the same way as big things.
  9. I'm going to put this next to a question begging statement which suggests that this might have a bearing on how homeopathic dilutions work.
  10. I'm now going to cross my fingers and hope you don't spot the rather obvious lacuna between the two paragraphs.
  11. I read New Scientist. I know about the memory of water. How can you not believe me?
  12. Look, I know I've just said that evidence based trials are worthless, but I'm now going to say I'd like to see more research. Provided it gives the right answers. Answers that don't undermine the millions of people who say that it has worked for them.

If this is the best the pro lobby can do, is it any wonder that anyone with a GCSE in science can hand them their heads?

sawyl: (Default)
According to a recent survey conducted by Tearfund:

Of the 20 million Britons aged over 18 who say they pray, 13 million do so at least once a month, 12 million every week and 9 million every day. Most people (68 per cent) pray for family and friends, 41 per cent to thank God and 25 per cent over world issues.

I'm not quite sure why they bother. It doesn't seem to be doing all that much good...

sawyl: (Default)
Thought for the Day is appalling. The broadcasts are either a trite series of cliches glued together to form a clumsy moral message or an attempt to foist some extreme aspect of one bizarre group delusion or another onto Today's captive audience.

The BBC consistently refuse to allow contributions from non-religious speakers, arguing that they are unnecessary because the rest of the Today Programme is secular. However, this does not convince. The secularity of Today is not comparable with the religiosity of the God Slot because Today does attempt to impose any sort normative morality.

Further, any views expressed on Today are subject to scrutiny. Either they are drawn out as part of an adversarial interview or, if the views are expressed in a standalone piece, they will be followed by something which presents a counter view in an attempt to balance the discussion — even, as the case of MMR, where very little objective evidence can be found to support one of the parties. None of which apply to the supers in Religiose Corner, who are allowed speak ex cathedra.

Thus, it seems that the BBC's argument fails because the two things they are seeking to compare are insufficiently alike.

Maybe they should consider abolishing the slot entirely. Or, if they're not willing to do that, they should at least have the decency to allow non-religious ethicists, scientists and writers to contribute. That would at least have the effect of balancing the output. It would show that morality can be decoupled from a belief in the supernatural; that a universe devoid God can be just as, or perhaps more, exciting than one with a Primum Mobile; and that the artistic and literary creations of mere humans can be just as deep, just as important, as the supposed works of the Almighty.
sawyl: (Default)
Interesting article on the The Golden Compass over at the LA Times. It's been a while since I read His Dark Materials, but I don't remember it being specifically anti-Catholic. Or rather, it was, but only incidentally. I seem to recall that, in Lyra's world, the Reformation had never happened, so Christianity is, de facto, Catholic — I think mentions at one point that Calvin was elected pope — so any anti-Catholicism is simply a side effect of Pullman's general attack on Christianity.
sawyl: (Default)
From the Department of WTF comes Diet Coke Plus, which proudly boasts on the packaging that it contains antioxidants. What?!? Is that even a logically possibility?
sawyl: (Default)
This, from an post on why atheist anger is both justified and productive, pretty much sums up my view on why arguing with True Believers is generally pointless:

I get angry when believers say at the beginning of an argument that their belief is based on reason and evidence, and at the end of the argument say things like, "It just seems that way to me," or, "I feel it in my heart"... as if that were a clincher. I mean, couldn't they have said that at the beginning of the argument, and not wasted my fucking time? My time is valuable and increasingly limited, and I have better things to do with it than debating with people who pretend to care about evidence and reason but ultimately don't.

There's nothing worse than someone who pretends to be a radical skeptic just because they're losing an argument. It's telling that the same people who reject the evidence when arguing about religion insist on it in other areas of their lives. For some reason, they still seem to want their cars crash tested, their medical procedures validated, their buildings, bridges and properly engineered etc. If they had the courage of their convictions, surely they'd want designers, doctors, engineers, whoevers, to skip the evidence based testing in favour of woolly hunches and warm fuzzy feelings that their whatever is totally OK.

sawyl: (Default)
While the arguments are well rehearsed, I thought it might be fun to look at the twists and turns in the arguments surrounding the BMA's new campaign against mixed martial arts fighting.

ponderings... )

I feel a bit bad about being quite so down on the BMA's line: I actually think that the basic idea is a good one, I just disagree with their current set of arguments.

sawyl: (Default)
Why on earth did a PR company ask Dr Ben to help them out with their dodgy survey?

I replied immediately. "Are there any factors you would particularly like to have in the equation? Something sexual perhaps?" "Hi Dr Ben," replied Kiren. "We would really like the factors of the equation to include the thigh to calf ratio, the shape of the leg, the look of the skin and the wiggle (swing) of the hips… There is a fee of £500 which we would pay for your services."

And there was survey data too. "We haven't conducted the survey yet," Kiren told me: "but we know what results we want to achieve." That's the spirit! "We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom e.g - skinny and pale unshapely legs are not as sexy. I will find out when we will have the results of the survey for you. Are you pretty free this month to work on it?"

I mean. Red rag. Bad science bull. Hardly the perfect recipe for good PR.

sawyl: (Default)
A trouble with a reductio is that it's often a double edged sword: one person's absurdum is usually another's perfectly reasonable conclusion. To wit, the Barefoot Doctor's comments on Richard Dawkins' The Enemies of Reason:

Dawkins seems to be stuck in the last century. He's a very entertaining guy, but he suffers from existential insecurity: everything has to be proven before he'll believe it.

All of which doesn't so much undermine Dawkins' case, as emphasize it.

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