Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Brief History of Sewage

This is perhaps my one and only attempt to write a semi-scholarly article on a historical subject. Public sanitation is commonly ignored, but of vital importance to human health. Water is likely to become the most valuable natural resource in the coming decades, but we treat it very wastefully, assuming perhaps that it is a limitless resource and that the Earth has an unlimited ability to cleanse it. I think that the advent of the flush toilet has also led to the development of the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality.

It's interesting that we see one of the greatest achievements of human "civilisation" as the development of cities (and now mega-cities), but this has had huge negative impacts on the general health of the population living within them. It was only through the work of true visionaries like Joseph Bazalgette, mentioned below, that many of us can now live fairly healthy disease-free lives within cities (like Mexico City where I am at the moment), with fairly reliable access to clean water. However, continued population growth and migration to cities threatens to undermine a lot of the advancements that have been made, and it must be remembered that (according to UNICEF) almost half of the population in the developing world - about 2.5 billion people - still lack access to basic sanitation.

A Brief History of Sewage

Friday, December 30, 2011

Celebrities and Science

It appears these days that there is no shortage of celebrities ready to make pronouncements on scientific subjects, and no shortage of people ready to take them seriously. Very often this is fairly harmless stuff, for example fad diets or Snooki's theory of why the sea is salty. However, republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann's recent claim that the HPV cancer vaccine is harmful, has drawn considerable criticism due to the fact that not only has she politicized a medical issue but may have damaged vaccination rates and therefore put lives at risk.

I'm interested in discussing whether celebrities should be able to use their influence to debate scientific issues, or whether this is a job only for "experts". Who are the experts, and do they sometimes lack the ability to educate and advise the public properly? Politics and medical ethics certainly come into close contact all the time, but there is a need for politicians to avoid soundbites which may ultimately harm public health.

Sense about Science is one of a number of charitable organisations which aims to promote public understanding of science and combat poor reporting and scientific ignorance in the media (The James Randi Educational Foundation has similar aims), going even as far to offer help and advice to celebrities. Sense about Science publishes a list of the worst celebrity science claims at the end of each year. Here is a round-up of the worst of 2011:

Celebrities and Science 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Palm Reading

Palm reading (also known as palmistry or chiromancy) remains one of my favorite pseudosciences. One of its first proponents was Aristotle, who introduced the practice to Alexander the Great as a means of revealing the character of his soldiers. It was (and is) practiced in many regions, including India, Sumeria, Tibet, Babylonia, Europe, Egypt and Persia.

It centres on the idea that lines on the hand are an indication of somebody's character (as a result of what has happened to them in the past) and can therefore be used to divine their future.

The claim that the condition of the hands can be indicative of somebody's health and therefore give information about their character is feasible to some extent - some genetic conditions do give rise to subtle changes in the structure of the hands. However, pseudoscientific claims that this can be extrapolated to indicate future events seems more than a little far fetched to me.

The handout below is my attempt to produce a guide to doing your own palmistry in order to make up your own mind: Palm Reading for Dummies

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dr. Ben Goldacre on Bad Science

More optical illusions

This is an interesting one as you may perceive the image spinning either clockwise or anti-clockwise. If you concentrate on the feet you may be able to make it appear to reverse its direction of spin. It was commonly believed that this depended on which side of the brain was being used, and subsequently people read into this a gender bias, but this has been proved to be false.

Here is another version where white outlines have been added to the figure. If you squint to obscure the outlines, you should be able to see both figures rotating in the same direction:

The spinning dancer is similar to the more familiar Necker-cube:

Depending on your point of focus, you can change the perspective of the large cube to make it appear as if it is either facing out of the page or into it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Logical Thinking

Here is a nice exercise I´ve been using for ages (apologies to whoever I originally stole it from). The idea is to apply logic to a number of facts given in a story and then test the truth of your conclusions. After reading the story, mark each statement with 'T' if it is definitely true, 'F' if it is definitely false and '?' if there is insufficient information to make a decision. Once you have given an answer, don't go back and change it after reading the subsequent statements.
The old man had just turned off the lights in the shop and was preparing to lock up when a youth appeared and demanded money. The owner opened the cash register; the contents were grabbed, and the man ran away. The police were informed immediately.

  1. A young man appeared after the lights had been turned off.
  2. The old man was preparing to go home.
  3. The robber demanded money.
  4. Someone opened the cash register.
  5. The robber demanded money from the owner.
  6. The person who opened the cash register was a man.
  7. The cash register contained money, but we are not told how much.
  8. The gender of the owner was not revealed in the story.
  9. The robber did not demand money.
  10. After the young man grabbed the contents of the cash register, he ran away.
  11. A young man appeared after the lights had been turned off.
  12. The robber was a man.
  13. The owner was a man.
  14. The owner appeared and demanded money.
  15. The man ran away after he had demanded money. 
If anyone wants to know my answers to this one, please let me know.

Coming up with a good knowledge issue

Here is some good advice about writing your knowledge issues. It's very important to read this and understand it, as knowledge issues have to form the central part of both the TOK presentation and essay: Understanding Knowledge Issues

Monday, September 12, 2011

Peter Popoff

Here is James Randi's take on the question I raised in my previous post - can faith healers like Peter Popoff be potentially dangerous?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

James Randi

James Randi is a Canadian-American magician and sceptic. He is best known as a challenger of paranormal claims and pseudoscience. He began his magic career as "The Amazing Randi", but after retiring from the stage at age 60, he began investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, and has become best known as a "debunker" (He prefers not to use this term, and instead calls himself an "investigator"). He has written numerous books about pseudoscience, so-called psychics and those he regards as frauds and hoaxers.

Since the 1970s he has offered the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize" (now standing at 1 million US dollars) to anyone who can prove they possess psychic powers under controlled testing. To date, nobody has been able to claim this reward. He has been the defendant in a number of high profile court cases (particularly involving Uri Geller), where various self-proclaimed psychics have claimed that he has defamed them (similarly to Simon Singh's case). He claims never to have paid any money in damages, although he does admit that defending himself has cost him a considerable sum of money over the years.

In this clip he talks about his writing, his TV appearances, his battles with Uri Geller and (particularly interestingly, I thought) his exposure as a fraud of American faith healer Peter Popoff.

It strikes me watching this that if people truly believe something, then very often, no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them (belief can be stronger than knowledge). This is obvious when you consider that despite having had to admit his fraud and subsequently declaring bankruptcy, Peter Popoff is rebuilding his career, and judging by his new and flashy website, has rebuilt his following. Of course, it could be argued that Popoff is targeting a vulnerable section of society - and he is a powerful speaker in some ways. It has also been suggested to me that perhaps his "act" helped some people, confirmed their faith, and maybe in some ways healed them (sometimes physically). After all, the placebo effect is a powerful phenomena and not well understood. [Admittedly, I wrote this last part before I saw footage of one of Popoff's shows in which he encouraged members of his audience to come up to the stage and throw away their medication!]

It is interesting to watch some of Randi's earlier appearances on TV. In the following clip he meets psychic performer James Hydrick in what appears to be an 1980s version of the X-factor. Hydrick attempted to claim the Randi Foundation Prize, but mysteriously under controlled conditions his powers deserted him (as they often seem to do with psychic performers). Hydrick later admitted that his act was a simple trick that he learned in prison:

Friday, August 26, 2011


A lecture on creativity from Monty Python's John Cleese:

John Cleese - a lecture on Creativity from janalleman on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Knowledge and belief

... or when does belief become knowledge:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Maps and Stories

Here is a scientific paper I came across recently that discusses how we gain knowledge:

Monday, July 25, 2011

The History of English

This is a nice video produced by the Open University in the UK to give a brief overview of how English developed over the last thousand years. It is a good example of how closely language is linked to history, although some of the "history" is a bit tongue-in-cheek:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Morality without religion

One theory of ethics (and it could be argued therefore morality) is the existence of religion. Certainly many religious figures have argued that religion (their own) is the glue that holds society together and prevents us from entering a moral abyss. During his 2007 visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI said:
"Where God is absent - God with the human face of Jesus Christ - these [moral] values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arise concerning them.
I do not mean that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values".
Another commonly touted argument is that amoral (or immoral) figures throughout history (such as Stalin) professed to being atheists.

Not everyone would agree with this. The Greek philosopher Plato (228-348 BC) believed that ethics could not be derived from religion. He raised the question:
"Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good?"
If it is possible for something to be inherently good, then it seems it is not necessary to appeal to the existence of God (and therefore organised religion) as the basis of ethics and morals. Of course, other ideas of the genesis of ethics exist: moral relativism, self-interest, duty ethics and utilitarianism. Therefore it could be argued that ethics and morals can exist completely independently of religion.

Richard Dawkins would not be expected to agree with the religious ethics argument. In the video below he sets out his beliefs that it is possible for an atheist to be a moral person. He also discusses his view that morals developed through natural selection as altruism developed in our ancestors.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How long is a piece of string?

In a Horizon documentary made for the BBC in 2009, comedian and professional dunce Alan Davies set out to measure a piece of string he bought in a hardware shop. After meeting a series of pompous and condescending experts he decided it's an impossible task. According to the mathematician his string may be of infinite length, while the physicists tell him that until he goes about measuring it, it actually has no length (the observer effect).

Its an interesting exercise which brings together branches of natural sciences, maths and philosophy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Our perception of time

I've noticed a new fad on youtube recently. A number of people have taken photographs of themselves or other people in the same position every day over a number of years and posted them as time-lapse movies. It does give a very different perception of the passage of time:

Does our perception depend on our expectations?

I copied this article from the website Its a good example of how we seem to be pre-programmed in terms of how we respond to certain things based on our expectations (and prejudices?).

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After three minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A three-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly..

45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. A few people had stopped to listen and one woman thanked him and may in fact have recognised him. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before this, he sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

The questions raised:
*In a common place/environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
*Do we stop to appreciate it?
*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made.
How many other things are we missing?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is a former Oxford professor of the public understanding of science and author of the 2006 best-selling book 'The God Delusion'. In it he contends that a belief in the existence of God is contrary to all evidence and is therefore a fallacy, and argues that religion is the root of many evils. He has been described as a 'fundamentalist atheist'.

The book has divided opinion. In Turkey for example Dawkins' website was banned. A number of books have been published in defense of religion, rebutting his arguments. If you trawl through the internet its also obvious that he has developed a cult following, but has also to some extent become demonised. Over the last few years he has started to travel, debatating the issues on global television. He has appeared on televised debates in Mexico and the US, and even dropped in to the Bill O'Reilly Show on Fox News.

In 2007 he produced a two part documentary series on British television (Channel 4). I've copied youtube links for the first episode below if you are interested in seeing it. Remember that it's his personal opinion. It's interesting to analyse his language when he talks respectively about science and religion, and he does tend to come across as occasionally arrogant and condescending, depending on your point of view:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Arguments in favour of the existence of God

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American evangelical Christian theologian and philosopher. He is currently a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola, a private Christian university in southern California. He is a good speaker and is well known for appearing in debates championing the existence of God. In this youtube clip he sets out his arguments. Some of them could be taken straight out of a TOK textbook while I feel that others are rather circular arguments and have premises based in his own faith. I do, however, think this clip makes a nice starting point for a discussion on this topic, whatever your own position is:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prescribed Essay Titles 2011-2012

Here are the TOK essay titles as published on the IB website. Your essay will be marked according to the assessment criteria. Remember to centre your essay on knowledge issues and, where appropriate, refer to other parts of your IB programme and to your experiences as a knower. Always justify your statements and provide relevant examples to illustrate your arguments. Pay attention to the implications of your arguments, and remember to consider what can be said against them. Include a word count and your list of references using the Harvard System.

Please see my other posts under "writing an essay" for help and advice. Examiners mark essays against the title as set, using the TOK essay criteria. Please make sure you are familiar with the criteria before starting your essay. Respond to the title exactly as given; do not alter it in any way. Your essay must be between 1200 and 1600 words in length. Remember also that your TOK presentation and essay must be submitted in the same language.

1. Knowledge is generated through the interaction of critical and creative thinking. Evaluate this statement in two areas of knowledge.

2. Compare and contrast knowledge which can be expressed in words/symbols with knowledge that cannot be expressed in this way. Consider CAS and one more area of knowledge.

3. Using history and at least one other area of knowledge, examine the claim that it is possible to attain knowledge despite problems of bias and selection.

4. When should we discard explanations that are intuitively appealing?

5. What is it about theories in the human sciences and natural sciences that makes them convincing?

6. ‘It is more important to discover new ways of thinking about what is already known rather than to discover new data or facts’. To what extent would agree with this claim?

7. ‘The vocabulary we have does more than communicate our knowledge; it shapes what we can know’. Evaluate this claim with references to different areas of knowledge.

8. Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of using faith as a basis for knowledge in religion and in one area of knowledge from the TOK diagram.

9. As an IB student, how has your learning of literature and science contributed to your understanding of individuals and societies?

10. ‘Through different methods of justification, we can reach conclusions in ethics that are as-well supported as those provided in mathematics’. To what extent would you agree?

And the same titles in Spanish:

1. La interacción entre el pensamiento crítico y el creativo genera conociemiento. Evalúe esta afirmación en relación con dos áreas de conocimiento.

2. Compare y contraste el conocimiento que se puede expresar con palabras y con símbolos y el conocimiento que no se puede expresar de estas formas. Considere CAS y una o varias áreas de conocimiento.

3. Examine la afirmación de que es posible adquirir conocimiento a pesar de los problemas de parcialidad y selección en historia y al menos otra área de conocimiento.

4. ¿Cuándo deberíamos descartar explicaciones que son intuitivamente interesantes?

5. ¿Qué es lo que hace que las teorías en las ciencias humanas y las ciencias naturales sean convincentes?

6. 'Es más importante descubrir nuevas formas de pensar sobre lo que ya sabemos que descrubrir nuevos datos o hechos'. ¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con esta afirmación?

7. 'Nuestro vocabulario no solo comunica nuestro conocimiento: da forma a lo que podemos saber'. Evalúe esta afirmación con referencia a diferentes áreas de conocimiento.

8. Analice las fortalezas y limitaciones de utilizar la fe como fundamento para el conocimiento en religión y en un área de conocimiento del diagrama de TdC.

9. Como alumno del IB, ¿cómo ha contribuido su aprendizaje de literatura y ciencias a su comprensión de los individuos y las sociedades?

10. 'Mediante diferentes métodos de justificación, en la ética podemos llegar a conclusiones tan bien fundametades como en las matemáticas'. ¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con esta afirmación?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The King's Speech

I recently watched this film, and I thought it deserved all the plaudits and its success at the Oscars (the most boring of all awards ceremonies). At its heart I think it's a commentary about the power and importance of language. This becomes particularly obvious when Bertie is sitting watching a film of Hitler speaking and mesmerizing his audience.

The monarch's job then, as now, is to be a talking head. As Bertie's father George V (Michael Gambon) shouts at one point "This family has been reduced to that basest of all creatures - we've become actors!". The film explores what it must be like to be forced to become a public speaker and effectively be unable to speak.

I also came across a radio interview in which Colin Firth discusses the film and the real George VI. He is incidentally an excellent speaker, and is managing to make a career out of gracious awards acceptance speeches at the moment: