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A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Does it offend you ? The Voltarian principle

When you've been wasting your time on the Internet like I have instead of doing all the productive science / music / theatre work you're supposed to be doing, you'll no doubt have had your inbox flooded with e-mails to sign some petition - In the days of yore, before social networking, these came as chain e-mails between the reams of porn and junk mail, appended with the signature of the last 8.7 million people and their dog who had signed it. These days, the presentation is a lot slicker - dedicated petition sites have made the chain e-mail a thing of the past. Petitions seem to spring up for all manner of things; In the past fortnight I've been asked to sign a few petitions to get facebook to ban certain particularly sick joke pages. Now, I appreciate and understand why people with good intentions sign such petitions. Indeed, I share many of the same sentiments and many of them even offend my beliefs. But much as I want to support the friends of mine outraged by such things, I'm afraid I cannot in good conscience sign a single one of them - In fact, I'm actively uneasy with the logic underpinning these petitions. 



While I loathe much of it, finding many of these jokes crass, brain dead and downright insulting, unless they're actually breaking the law I'm afraid demanding them to be shut down would violate Voltaire's principle, which is one credo I hold sacred - the one that says "I detest what you say but defend your right to say it"*. Even if I find what you say ignorant, untrue, demeaning or otherwise disgusting, I have no right to silence you, nor do you have the right to silence me if my position is at odds with yours. [*Voltaire is a personal hero of mine, and although it was his biographer rather than him who coined that phrase, it sums up his attitude rather well. ]


Ah Voltaire, the handsome devil - When he wasn't scamming treasuries, writing plays or getting almost killed, he wrote a great deal on personal liberty and freedom of speech.


Of course there's PLENTY of people I'd love to shut up - anti-vaccination people, racists, homeopaths, climate change deniers, misogynists, misandrists, creationists, tea-partiers, homophobics, bigots, faith healers, quack doctors, liberal arts majors**, and so on. But the best I can do and should do is counter their nonsense with logic and trust other people can see the difference. If I instead censor them, I am not changing attitudes, all I'm doing is vetoing their right to free expression. It will not change the underlying issue, and may in fact make it worse. Problems are not fixed by sweeping them under the carpet; they require patience, occasional confrontation, regular dialog and sometimes even an attempt at understanding those people whose views you find repugnant. The most intellectually and socially fair thing I can do is challenge their assertions; I may NEVER convince those passionately opposed to my views, but I may help sway people on the middle ground, which is where lasting change comes from. My task it to show their position is untenable, not take away their right to have that position.   [**And I'm just kidding - unless of course you're a postmodern philosopher in which case kindly stop..]



Of course, this right extends both ways; I write on a variety of things that get people's backs up - My recent Irish Times pieces on secularism, abortion rights, nuclear power and homeopathy have generated quite a bit of hatemail and angry letters to the editor - even a few threats to me.  Yet these people have no right to STOP me writing, nor should they be allowed ban my output even though many of them might find it offensive; they can however present their own views if they so wish. But I shudder to think of what would happen if they had the capacity to shut down anyone who disagree with their world view.




Just a fraction of the unhinged commentary my last piece got. Some of it is inspired in its craziness. .It would have been less weird if that hadn't been the 3rd time she'd conjured up the visual of me getting myself off. Someone has a fetish....


I also try not to attribute to malice what can be attributed to thoughtlessness, insensitivity or conditioning. People can tell or laugh at awful jokes without being awful people - my physics undergraduate class had a particular thing about bad taste dead baby jokes, despite the guys and girls in that class being some of the kindest, fairest people I've ever come across. Equally, I've heard physicians and nurses make incredibly dark jokes about death, policemen joke about violent crime and even a river-rescue friend of mine joke about bodies coming apart in water - all of this is also bad taste or Gallow's humour to some, but I do not for one second think this impinges on their integrity or ability to do their job, nor does it demean their characters that this might provide light relief. I myself endured a lot of violence as a teenager and would be the first to crack a joke about it.  For these reasons, I am not quick to condemn people's sense of humour, unless they don't find Spinal Tap funny. Because then they're simply wrong of course...



This one goes up to 11.....



I am in general wary of knee-jerk anger - there are many, many bad things in the world. And while sticking our names on a petition might make us feel better, does this slacktivism actually address the problems at hand ? No. Not one iota. In fact, there's a school of thought that indicates e-petitions do little apart from make people feel better. Unless the law is actively being broken, then the cost of having freedom of speech is sometimes having to hear things you find offensive. And although I know the intentions of my friends who forward me on these petitions is no doubt good, I cannot intellectually reconcile their or my hurt feelings with the demand to censure anyone with whom you disagree. Living in a democracy with freedom of speech means sometimes you'll be offended.

I leave you in the more than capable hands of Stephen Fry on this subject...


Another hero of mine...







Monday, September 10, 2012

A few thoughts on Alom Shaha, confrontation and Atheism+

Just the other night I have the pleasure of hearing Alom Shaha speak at Oxford SITP - Alom is the author of The young Atheist's handbook and despite the title, this book is not a guide to godlessness but rather a memoir of a deeply personal journey, and I recommend it heartily. He writes with an engaging honest style, rather than a breathless polemic rant.  During the course of the discussion, someone asked how he could thought we could best convert believers; at this stage Alom's polite demeanour momentarily broke down and a sigh escaped him - why, he argued, should we have any interest in converting believers, unless they're trying to force something on us?

The majority of the room nodded in agreement at this pronouncement, with a few exceptions. Alex Gabriel shook his head and declared Alom was "an accomodationist" - I should clarify this was a not a heckle, and Alex's thoughts can be seen here. Alom stopped, and declared he may be - but was that such a bad thing? People have the freedom of conscience, and so long as they're not pushing their beliefs on us, why do we need to convert anyone? He pointed out that despite the assertion by many atheists that they were merely following logic, the online discourse of many of them contradicted this stance and he doubted it was always logic that made people atheists, as people lie on a spectrum between intellectual and emotive, and to some people, himself included,  God just doesn't "feel" right. 


Everybody sing the mandolin part! Do do dooo doo doo - do do do dooo do do!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blog update plus Irish Times piece on why the Green movement need to embrace nuclear power

Hey folks; am currently on holidays in France and if you've ever tried typing on a French Keyboard you'll see why I have tried to avoid posting here while I'm supposed to be enjoying my break. However, due to the increasingly abusive behavior of certain posters, I decided to implement a new comment system (DISQUS) so I could simply mute the more aggressive of these people; please note it is not my policy to delete comments, and all the old ones are currently being transferred over and should be viewable again in about 24 hours.

To reiterate, I am all in favour of deep discussion but there is no place for ad hom attacks and denigration. Because of this, I am introducing this moderation facility as I do not think it is fair one unduly loud bully can put people off from talking about a subject. Please note I will NOT be aggressively moderating so do not feel the need to hold back too much, just try to respect one another!

I'm back next week, but in the interim enjoy this little piece I had in the Irish Times on why the Green movement need to embrace nuclear power. Bonus points if you spot the Top Gun reference in the article I slipped in...

Negative punwriter, the pattern is full...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why physics precludes homeopathy from having any real effect - a summary of some recently published work

Last year I spent a few months in Australia, a serious competitor for the woo capital of the world with clinics in every town offering everything from crystal healing to aura reading to colonic irrigation, though one would presume not at the same time of course. Naturally in such a place, homeopathy is widely practiced, despite some high profile tragic cases . Anyway, upon my oft quite inebriated travels I came across many a proponent of the weird and wacky, including a professional homeopath. Despite my repeated explanations about the placebo effect, regression to the mean, and how this all meant homeopathy was bunk, she steadfastly quoted anecdote after anecdote. So I decided to be a little devious; I asked her for a loan of her homeopathy texts so I might educate myself better. She gladly obliged, gloating slightly that she had got the attention of a sceptical hard scientist as she bequeathed me her tomes and a handful of papers she said "prove" homeopathy works. "You can't fail to be inspired by them!" she stated confidently.

On that note, she was right, but I doubt she'll like the result. What I read inspired me to write a review paper, which has just been published in the journal Focus on alternative and complementary therapies with the snappy acronym FACT. The paper is entitled Proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are physically impossible. The abstract is shown below; if you're an academic type in medicine or the hard sciences with journal access, you can read the full paper here. With the kind permission of the legendary Professor Edzard Ernst, this post is a synopsis of what might be a very interesting paper to those interested in finding out why homeopathy doesn't work. So without further preamble, let's talk about what the paper says and why homeopathy can't work without violating basic physical laws. I've cut down the math and referencing to the minimal needed is this explanation, but do comment if you want any more explanation!


Monday, July 23, 2012

Wikipedia-philia - How to use (and not use) Wikipedia

I have a confession to make - I have an obsession. A constant fixation that keeps me awake at night; a dark habit that perpetuates itself, growing ever stronger with each indulgence. Yes, dear reader -I am a Wikipedia addict.

Despite the fact it has consumed an obscene amount of my time since 2005, I am entirely unrepentant. I'm even kind of proud. Through constant clicking from one article to another, I have garnered copious volumes of information on a subjects from medieval history to quantum field theory , often at the expense of sleep. On the plus side, it has made me a formidable force at table quizzes.

But this post isn't a JUST going to be a love letter to what may be one of the most valuable resources of the 21st century. There's a creeping quasi-intellectual cynicism about Wikipedia - an assumption that such a collaboration is inherently untrustworthy. This isn't strictly true, but using Wikipedia (or actually, any source) correctly requires a modicum of savvy, so allow me to try and give you "The Golden rule of using Wikipedia"


You know your Wikipediphilia is out of hand when it starts interrupting your porn viewing...

We've all been there; in the middle of some internet argument, someone will link to Wikipedia and with nary a glance at the article, the opposer will retort in haughty tones that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone and is 'obviously' unreliable. This is despite the fact that even in 2005 Nature concluded it was at least as good as Encyclopedia Britannica , and a series of other studies have validated this conclusion. Yet while checks continue to improve, the odd nefarious or deluded individual can conceivably introduce outright bunk into an article. These incidents are usually rectified quickly, but never the less, it is good practice to validate whatever you read. The golden rule for Wikipedia, or indeed any encyclopedia or source is simply


  • ALWAYS follow the citation sources for an article, given in the little blue brackets to check two things; (I) that the source itself is reliable and (II) that the source is in agreement with the tone of the article. 

In essence, this is all you need to know about using Wikipedia correctly; if the citations are reliable, and the material supports the conclusions in the article, then it is fine. But never skimp on this crucial step. There are a few subtle other points and Wikipedia themselves have an excellent article on how to use Wikipedia for research that is well worth a read but CHECK YOUR SOURCES in gigantic capital letters is the take home message.

The converse of this is not to be a total cretin when someone links you to a Wikipedia article; I have lost count of the amount of times I have linked someone on Twitter to Wikipedia article, usually because they have utterly wrong about something which the very first paragraph would put them right on, to which they reply something condescending about expecting a higher standard of evidence.

Let me be perfectly clear - if you're that person, you're an idiot. If I linked you to a Wikipedia article, it was solely because all the information you needed on the subject or whatever particular delusion you were labouring under was CONTAINED WITHIN THAT ONE LINK. When you reply something dismissive, all you're doing is telling me you're a pseudo-intellectual who lacks the cognitive capacity to read and check what you're reading is correct. Wikipedia isn't the research source; it's a damn useful way of putting a wealth of information about a topic in one place.

Wikipedia is one of those projects that reminds me there is still some shred of hope for humanity - that people give their free time to collect, share and index human thought is inspiring. Experts maintain many of the articles, with the net effect of improving discourse and understanding. I've tried to contribute in my own small way as an academic by adding to articles pertaining to my doctoral and research areas, and I know many scientists who have done the same. Wikipedia will make us better critical thinkers in a more democratic manner, and better informed people as a result. Let's resist denigrating it and see if for the wonderful and free resource it truly is.



If you would like to donate to Wikipedia please follow this link 













Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The bad science of Youth defence and abortion myths - and why I'm impressed with the youth of Ireland

 A little thought about my recent Irish Times piece on the Irish Abortion debate, how Ireland just might be joining the 21st century and a thank you for the overwhemingly encouraging reaction that restores some faith in humanity to your cynical and deeply misanthropic author..

Regular readers of my blog might get a strange sense of deja vu if you happened to cast your eyes over my  Irish Times column on Friday June 29th entitled "Facts still sacred despite Ireland's spectrum of conflicting views an abortion". The reason for this nagging sense of familiarity is because it is essentially a more formal version of a blog post I did on abortion last year. So why tackle it again ? Perhaps because these charming posters have started to pop up all over Ireland for Youth Defence's latest super expensive exercise in manipulation and guilt tactics...


Oh boy... here we go. Again. Thank you so much, youth defence

Saturday, June 2, 2012

That good old religion chestnut...

Sorry about the delay in updating the blog folks; have been rather manic in preparing for my move to the UK. This is just a short piece regarding a recent opinion slot I had in the Irish Times, and the ensuing furore over it;  Back in May, I wrote an opinion column which ran in the paper of record under the title "Evil, militant anti-christian secularism is simply a myth" and generated a lot of debate and traffic. For the record,  I suggested the slightly shorter title "The myth of militant secularism" but you can't fault an editor for wanting to raise the ire of the pious more expediently! You can read the original piece here and my argument can be bullet pointed something like this

  • Because secularism allows everyone to practice what they believe in private without mandating for any particular belief, militant secularism is a cynical oxymoron which makes about as much sense as aggressive pacifism or hard line tolerance. 
  • No particular set of religious beliefs should be legislated for above any other; no one should receive special treatment because of their religion and certainly no one should experience discrimination because of it. 
  • Claims by certain religious pundits that their rights are being violated are disingenuous; rather they are outraged at their long entitled position being made equal to those of all faiths.  



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science and Politics don't mix







 A little bit about the Barbara Ellen post natal depression furore, another cheap shot at Santorum and why science and hardline ideology don't mix

There are some things that just don't really mix;  fire and water, caviar and cream soda, small children and high voltage power sources etc. In bad pairings, one of the elements twists and dominates the other; But there are even less comfortable bedfellows in the form of science and politics. And predictably, it is science that is all too often twisted and abused.

It would be very easy to illustrate this with an attack on the American right; their propedency to climate change denial, creationism, frankly repugnant attacks on reproductive rights, occasional hilarious diatribes about croco-ducks and Rick Santorum makes them ripe for parody this side of the Atlantic. Here in liberal-ish Europe we roll our eyes and shrug, which we do very well, having learnt the Gallic shrug from our French brethren and then go back to our wine drinking, beer brewing, love-making, or David Hasselhoff listening depending on where in the continent we are.



If you do all these things at once,it's called the Pan-European.

Liberal in Europe isn't the denigrating kind of insult that it is in America; it doesn't lead to mass outrage, public disowning and cross-burnings. We reserve that bile for the Eurovision. If you're based in the US it is entirely another story, and I highly recommend you visit my friend Dr. Jen Gunter's blog on how the American right are attacking reproductive rights. As a European left-leaning liberal , it would extremely easy to use the American right as an example of politics trying to twist science to fit its rhetoric; it is precisely the kind of fact twisting, truth bending, outright denialism that too often occurs when an ideology encounters actual research on the subject. When the ideology proclaims one thing, and the actual  research finds something else, it is the science which tends to be attacked or dismissed, not the rhetoric.


You know Rick, they say those most repressed are the most homophobic...

There's no question the American right do this regularly, but I feel I would be remiss and hypocritical to not notice such bad form in ideologies I tend to support; now, here is a little piece by an Observer journalist Barbara Ellen, ostensibly on my side of the political spectrum; I'm not linking to the piece as I feel the piece is an utter troll piece designed to produce controversy and clicks, a more highbrow version of the Samantha Brick fiasco - which I also won't link to. But allow me set discuss the tone of the piece.



Must.... resist....urge...to...feed... troll!

Oh wow. Straight from the tagline it goes for the jugular, and throws in a scientific clanger for good measure; Ellen immediately claims postpartum depression is directly related to the physical act of childbirth, which is not supported by any scientific literature. Sure there is some evidence that it is linked to hormonal factors, and yet other evidence indicating hormonal factors do not play a huge role. There is also the evolutionary psychology theories to boot. Ellen casts doubt and trivialises the medically established fact that men can and do suffer severe post partum depression. In her article, there are numerous other horrendous smears and a total lack of understanding about depression. But while I'm troll feeding, allow me to quote her cinching line -

"One hesitates to use the term womb-envy, but what else could it be? Can't females have anything just for themselves, without men barging in, not even a foul, debilitating condition directly related to the physical act of pregnancy and childbirth? What next: women staking a claim to the trauma of penile dysfunction? It was a long, hard road for womankind, getting postnatal depression recognised as a condition, and also to receive medical attention or even routine sympathy. It seems to me that saying men can also get it is just cheapening this achievement."

And there you have it; not content with re-writing medical science, Ellen casts it in a pseudo-historical light. Post partum depression is not some new trendy concept that men has 'stolen', it has been recognised since the time of Hippocrates. This is text-book bending science to fit an ideology. I wonder if Ms Ellen has been told yet that men can get breast cancer too ? "Cheapening the achievement" is a shockingly distasteful line - I have both male and female friends who have suffered dreadfully from postpartum depression, and is it no achievement -  regardless of etiology, depression is a serious illness and requires help. I admit while I usually laugh trolls off, this line caused me to sputter a little, especially as I lost a friend to depression just last year - oh, and she was female too, not that it matters - That is just the point; gender, race, age do not matter when it comes to mental health.

Now, Barbara Ellen exists to generate controversy, and I know this; either that or she is some empathy deficient individual who thinks it's ok to refer to depression as "sulky self-interest". The comments on the article are almost universally negative towards the piece, and many commentators in medicine and psychology on twitter were quick to correct the inflammatory post. One of my favourite psychologists on twitter, Dr. Petra Boynton promptly responded

Owned: By science!

Mind hacks wrote an equally cutting academic demolition of Ellen's diatribe; It wasn't just academics who took issue with the piece - Mic Wright wrote a powerful piece called "Belittling depression: Barbara Ellen is the Jan Moir that Twitter doesn’t seem to notice". Jan Moir by the way, is the political opposite number troll from the Daily Mail who tried to link the tragic death of Stephen Gately from a pulmonary edema to his homosexuality - another example of trying to bend science to politics, and no, I'm not going to link to it either. Mic's piece is visceral and powerful, and well worth a read. You would have thought that was the end of the story; troll piece gets torn apart, science blows it out of water, we all have biscuits. After all, that's the rational approach. 

Emmm... not quite. Some personally attacked Wright for his piece, which can still be viewed on his Twitter timeline; everything from being a misogynist to "appropriating women's conditions - what next, will you claim you get PMT?!" sneers. Wright also received at least one emailed death threat, and that is a little jarring even if it is totally unlikely it will be carried out. What is worse is these all came from self described feminists and that makes me sad - I AM a self described feminist. I've taken stick for my pro-choice work and believe in equality regardless of a person's gender, race, sexuality or anything else. Yet these people do not speak for me and I suspect the vast majority of feminists would see Ellen's work for the bile it is. It is not misogynistic to criticize a piece; that the author is a woman is incidental. That the piece was wrong and spiteful is what invites that criticism.


Yet this just goes to show that no matter what the ideology, right or left, liberal or conservative that there will be elements who don't need proof, and will not change their opinion in the light of new information. These people scare me, and are the reason science and politics don't mix; science demands that in the light of evidence, even the most hard held belief can be adjusted. Ideology all too often denies evidence to preserve faith in it. Until we learn to think in an evidence based manner rather than a rhetoric based manner, there will be no easy solutions.














Sunday, April 1, 2012

A cure for cancer....

Just a few minutes ago I read a very concise and informative piece on why there is no single "cure for cancer" by Michael Freeman. It's well worth a read here - full disclosure: I have written for the journal thrice before (On statistics, nuclear power and homeopathy) but had nothing to do with the creation of this particular article. The article itself is well worth a read and explains clearly why there is no one cure for cancer, as it is an entire class of diseases all involving run-away and aggressive cell growth. But check out the very first comment on the article...


Yes folks, crack out the tin foil hats - it's conspiracy time!


This kind of argument comes up time and time again in cancer research - it goes something like "there IS a cure for cancer but big pharma are covering it up to make money!" And a surprisingly large amount of people believe this -  in the example above, about one third of commenters supported the comment, implying a certain sympathy for the position of the poster. This wasn't a comment in isolation, I see it all the time. Just a few comments later in the same article we have this..


Just add a few lines about Freemasons, Jewish cabals and new world order and we're DONE!


These kind of arguments follow a familiar pattern - immediately after such assertions, there are others agreeing and suggesting their very own 'proven' cancer cures, from vitamin B17 to TBC to licking the underside of a gazelle during a full moon or some such. Essentially, the logic is that big pharma is engaged in some en masse conspiracy to withhold the cure.


Withholding the cure - What would Robert Smith think?!


These claims, though popular, are easy to show as bunk. This is not a defense of big pharmacy, who often engage in frankly appalling practices, but rather a discussion of why there is no cure and why even if there was a conspiracy would be a ludicrous idea. To see just how ludicrous, consider the following points - 

  • Cancer is not one disease - it is an entire class of malignant neoplasms, growing aggressively and invasively. There is quite simply a world of difference between different growths and tumours; some will respond to surgery, some to radiotherapy and some to chemotherapy. Some sadly are too difficult to treat or not likely to respond to anything. The survival rates for different cancers vary hugely - non-melanoma skin cancer is easy to treat and results in very few deaths. Pancreatic cancer on the other hand is almost invariably fatal. The idea of a single magic bullet to treat all these various forms with different causes, pathologies and responses is utterly unbelievable.

  • If big pharma did possess a cure for cancer, then surely they would not have CEOS, senior executives and high level researchers dying of cancer. Pretend this is the case; where then would that knowledge extend to ? Lower level researchers and workers could not be kept from the truth for ever, and the whole conspiracy would inevitably collapse. This problem is only compounded if the secret is shared between all big pharmaceutical companies, multiplying the number of potential leaks. A secret like that is not possible to contain long, no matter how unethical the companies involved.

  •  Finally, the obvious point - if there was a cure for cancer, why on earth would a company NOT sell it ? Their business is to sell cures and treatments, and a cure for an entire class of disease that affects over a third of us throughout life would always have a market. It would make not one modicum of sense to cover up such an advance! Or as I put less eloquently on my reply on thejournal.ie ..


Not going to win points for subtle reasoning....


The idea there is a cure is simply not supported by any evidence, and the fallacy is based on a (occasionally justified) hatred of big pharma; but cancer is not that simple, and anyone postulating a simple solution to a complex condition should be viewed with an air of sceptical caution.  There are enough myths and misunderstandings about cancer without postulating the outlandish.

Edit: After receiving a threat from one of the posters in question I have amended the post edit out their identity. The individual ascertained some personal information about me, including where I worked and I decided to yield to avoid any drama. This is pointless, as it can clearly be seen if you look at the comment in the original thread.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Somebody think of the children! How Adi Roche and the Chernobyl children project misrepresent science

 A very short post on my issues with Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's project....

Given the main point of this blog is to separate science from pseudoscience, I sometimes have to take unpopular positions; And today I feel it's vital to call Adi Roche and the Chernobyl Children's Project International out for misinforming the public. Adi Roche is the director and co-founder of the CCPI, and even ran for president of Ireland. She very nearly won it too, only allegations that she was a bully by former charity workers, including the co-founder sunk her bid. That is irrelevant here however - what concerns me is her and the CCPI's blatant disregard for science and flagrant misinformation. I've waxed lyrical before about radiophobia hysteria and radiation panic, both for The Journal and in regards to both Fukushima and Chernobyl on this blog before, so I'll endeavour to not repeat myself too much.

Adi Roche is an incredible self-publicist, and anything she says or does will get covered by the press. That may be a good thing for generating donations to her charity but seemingly not for public understanding of science - Just yesterday she visited Fukushima as an invited expert on radiation, and in what may be an  egregious abuse of the word expert, came out with her usual line:
  
"Japan is a global leader in technology and standards and yet even they have failed to deal with a nuclear reactor explosion. Nuclear energy is just not safe and one wonders how many horrors have to be inflicted on the world by it before governments accept this"

Oh dear. In an opportunistic display, Ms Roche manages to crassly manipulate a great natural disaster to further her own interests. First off, Fukushima was scheduled for decommission as it was over 40 years old. It was only designed to withstand a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and this was one of the reasons it was wound down. State of the art this was not. There was no nuclear explosion, nor could there ever be; there were in fact three partial core meltdowns. Ms Roche is conflating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons either out of genuine ignornance or more cynically, because it suits her to do so. In a rhetorical coup de grace she says nuclear power isn't safe and wrings her hand about the horror. Oh the horror! Yet this horror exists mainly in her imagination; nuclear is by far the safest form of power production with least amount of deaths attributable to it.


The Horror! The Horror!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stand back - I have a license to science!

Recently I was giving a talk on bad science / medicine journalism to the lovely people of Dublin Skeptics in the Pub, which you can download in PDF format here if you're so inclined. The discussion that came up afterwards was interesting and something popped up that deserves some debate - should there be a scientific license ?

This would be something akin to the medical register rules that GPs are expected to abide by - a document from an independent panel that guarantees both the holder's credentials and more importantly holds the owner to scientific integrity. This independent panel would further have the ability to strike off a scientist who abused their position. Sound outlandish ? Perhaps, but since it generated interesting discussion from the scientists at the talk, let's discuss it further...


A (terrible) artists impression of what a science license might look like....

For the purposes of this argument, let's define two important terms

Scientist : Any person engaged in active research and / or science teaching, including medical researchers / medical doctors. 

Research : Investigation into any scientific / medical phenomena utilising the scientific method.

Scientists are in a strange position - they investigate the world around us, a world that is often contrary to expectation. In some quarters and countries, they rank among the most trusted and are afforded an element of trust - an IPSOS poll found that 71% of respondents thought scientists were likely to tell the truth. A Nature survey also found 84% polled ranked scientists among the most trusted group on the planet, though given it came from Nature readers selection bias may be an issue. Yet if we contrast this with the scorn poured on evolutionary biologists and climate scientists in certain sectors of the ostensibly developed world an interesting dichotomy arises; that apparent trust can turn to overt negativity.  Scientists are then in a delicate position - they do research, and sometimes the findings of that research is at odds with people's personal biases and people may not understand nor like this - That is a huge issue but not one we're interested in right now. Let's assume that over all, scientists are generally a trusted group.


Trust me! I'm a scientist!

Even to other scientists, trust is implicit in the scientific peer review process. We assume that people will not fake data, or twist findings and thankfully the vast, vast majority do not. But it has happened, and when it does, it sets research back. or wastes precious research time by making other groups examine these claims. Here's just a few cases that spring to mind...

  • In 2002 Jan Hendrik Schon was fired from Bell Labs for faking semi-conductor data. At this stage he was publishing about a paper every 8 days in leading scientific journals, a phenomenal amount.
  • In 2005 celebrated Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have falsified data and engaged in overt deception by claiming he had succeeded in producing a human clone.
  • In 2002, Andrew wakefield wrongly and knowingly claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism for financial gain, prompting mass panic and needless deaths of children.

These were clear cases of scientific deception for career, financial or personal gain. Science is a self-correcting process and these frauds were exposed in due course, but each prompted serious questions over how they manipulated the system and indeed, how much time (and in some cases, lives) they wasted in the process. Worse still is when a renegade scientist manipulates this trust with a non-expert group, attempting to use their status to push nonsense. Sadly, even if the credentials are real, it does not guarantee the veracity of the speaker - Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Joe Mercola and Dr. Mehmet Oz all spring to mind as genuine titles spewing fake information. They are fully aware that too many people view science as something mysterious akin to an arcane religion practiced in Ivory towers by academics, and are all too happy to exploit those very same people who treat their pronouncements with almost religious fervour as if their status as a scientist or doctor means they are beyond reproach. Just look at Gillian McKeith obtaining a fake PhD just so she could hide behind the title of doctor and give her quackery the impression of depth and it becomes apparent that it is possible to abuse one's scientific position.

Could a scientific license maintain a higher standard from those qualified and also rid the world of degree mills and fake PhDs ? Furthermore, could it stop the contempible and intellectually shallow trick of someone holding a PhD in a certain field pretending to a be an authority on a different one, and hoping the public don't notice ? This happened only recently in the shamefull Wall Street Journal letter slamming climate change as a myth, signed by scientists - all of whom were not climatologists or even field experts and had vested interests for doing so.


Ivory Tower - Not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Check and mate.

It's worth reiterating the VAST majority of scientists would never engage in such appalling practice, but never the less we live in an age when science is simultaneously attacked and praised in roughly equal measure. We just have to look at the phenomena of climate change deniers constantly trying to smear scientists publishing on climate change to see but one example. The only recourse left to scientists is to have utter integrity, which the most do uphold, but under massive pressure things can be fudged. A recent BMJ poll reported 13% of researchers knew of colleagues that had fabricated or edited data for a paper. This is likely due to the massive and increasing pressure to publish or perish but of course this isn't an excuse. Predictably, once this poll was released every quack under the sun seized on this as evidence the scientific establishment is hiding the truth from them about Global warming, evolution, alternative medicine, killer bees, Elvis's current location, and presumably why people who comment on Daily Mail articles find their cousins were so damn attractive.


That's rich coming from a source that advocates vitamin D as a cancer cure...

So perhaps if there was a system of scientific integrity that all practicing scientists were sworn to abide by then such problems could be massively reduced ? About this I'm not sure, so let's see the Pros and Cons.

Pros
  • Register would clearly demark ethical obligations of scientists.
  • Could dismiss scientists in contempt of charter.
  • Clear guidelines for scientists to operate under.
  • May improve public perception of science.
  • Potentially very cool membership card
Cons
  •  Difficult to enforce.
  • May be overkill - academic disgrace usually enough.
  • Potential for abuse and wrongful censure.
  • May foster mistrust among researchers.
  • Yet another bloody document / cost


So my question to scientists and lay people out there is do you think a scientific license would be a good idea, or a bad one ? I have no position on it (though I do like carrying various forms of ID and want to use science as a verb...) but I'd be eager to hear what others think. Feel free to click the poll and give some feedback!

Do you think scientists should have a charter and require a license to practice ?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Quantum of nonsense Part I - A Crash course in quantum theory

 This is the first part of a two parter, discussing the use of the world 'quantum' by quacks. And rather than just jump into why they're quacks, I thought I'd split the post into two and give a brief history of quantum theory. Believe me, it's far stranger and more enjoyable than anything a purveyor of woo could spin. And I put some cute kittens in for good measure.

Quantum mechanics is weird - Discoveries in this field have been wonderfully counter-intuitive, prompting the legendary Niels Bohr to state "..those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.". In fact, so profound are some of the questions it raises about reality that the ineffable Richard Feynman once said "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.". Because the subject is so incredibly jaw-droppingly at odds with what we're used to in our macroscopic world, the fact that the microscopic behaves quite differently dazzles people.

But it is this very dazzling property that has made purveyors of nonsense grasp it, and use it as a stamp to justify their outlandish claims. The field of quantum mysticism and quantum healing is the use of modern physics terms to lend weight to a loose connection of new age and spiritual jargon, totally mangling the beautiful science in the process - Works by Deepak Chopra, Robert Anton Wilson, Gary Zukev et al have offered quantum mechanics as some kind of magical deus ex machina to explain away any gaping holes in their new ages drivel.  Only here's the kicker - invoking quantum mechanics to 'explain' these, or indeed any human experiences is so stupid, it's not even wrong. So I decided to write a post condemning these utter quacks, when I came to the realisation that starting off that way might deny my readers an insight into the utterly crazy world of quantum mechanics. So I decided to split the post into two, with the first part a quick crash course into the brain shaking world of the very small and some other time I shall do a follow up on why new-agers and quacks love the word quantum and how they get it wrong everytime....



Einstein reacts to Deepak Chopra's latest take on Quantum healing...


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it - and I feel fine!

 A rant about John Cusak grimmacing, why the world isn't ending in 2012 and some adventures in base 12. Yes, it's the requisite 2012 post! Also I've just found out I've been shortlisted for a blog award from The Skeptic magazine which is a great honour - thanks so much for your nominations and support! 

To say the Mayans were an odd lot may be a tiny bit of an understatement. One minute happily making major advances in mathematics and astronomy, the next casually ripping the still beating heart out a living child's chest to celebrate the new year, which is what I imagine a party in Rick Santorum's house might be like. But the Mayans will be all over the news this year, despite the fact the society collapsed sometime between around the 8th century. Why is this ? Because, the popular press will tell you, the super accurate ultra astronomer Mayans predicted the end of the world in December 2012! And you know, it was in that awful 2012 movie so there must be something to it! Exclamation mark!


An entire movie based on John Cusak looking mildly annoyed about some CGI. I've ranted on it before..


Monday, February 6, 2012

20 years since the X case - Ireland's eternal shame

Today makes 20 years since the X case. 20 long years of hand waving, moralising, procrastinating, faffing about and delaying. 20 long years since a 14 year old girl was raped repeatedly by a man who impregnated her - and 20 years since the Irish state made a mockery out of justice and put religious considerations before the victims rights, before eventually doing the decent thing under massive social pressure.

International readers of my blog might wonder what the X case is, and indeed so might some of the younger Irish readers, so allow me to recap. In December 1991, a young girl is raped by a family 'friend' who impregnates her. The pregnancy and rape are reported to the Irish police in January 1992. The family decide to travel to the UK to procure an abortion, and ask the Irish police if they require DNA evidence from the foetus.

So far, the family have done everything right - their daughter has been the victim of a depraved act by a evil sadist. Remember, rape is not a crime of passion, it is a crime of power - In fact, the court judgements call the perpetrator "an evil and depraved man". They are doing everything in their power to protect their daughter, and bring the heinous individual to justice. Surely one would think the Irish state did all in their power to assist ?


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

3 men and their damn tiger's first birthday - Thanks You! Feedback welcomed....

Happy new year folks - By now I trust most of you have recovered from your hangovers / extreme debauchery over what our American friends call 'the Holiday season'. I hope my guide to alcohol served some practical use and none of you got arrested or killed anyone. Unless you did kill someone, in which case you'll probably been arrested already. Anyhow, I digress -  lots of things are a foot here and I have a few original stories in the pipeline - apologies they're taking so long but I'd prefer to release well researched pieces at a slower rate than re-hash questionable ones.  In the interim I'd like to thank you for reading and sharing this little site, it's been far more successful thus far that I'd hoped and I'm lucky to have a small but appreciative audience. So here's a little round up of some of the highlights this year for me, and I would love your feedback about future content!


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