Sunday, December 30, 2012

Science in 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Official Languages

I knew that South Africa has three different capital cities, but until today I didn't know it has eleven official languages. This BBC documentary shows the importance, political divisiveness and difficulties involved in maintaining different languages in a single country. Part 3 includes a very interesting discussion of the origins of the Afrikaans language and its future in post-apartheid South Africa:

part 1
part 2
part 3

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The End of the World is Nigh

One of the most widely held but irrational beliefs around today is that the apocalypse is just around the corner. Hopefully some TOK students will still be around after December 21st of this year, when the Mayan calendar allegedly predicts the end of the world (this appears, incidentally, to be a misconception based on the fact that one counting period is due to end and another to begin), and this post might actually get a few hits. If we do survive, I confidently predict that most doom-mongers will simply explain the miscalculation away, switch to a different date and continue to prepare for the worst.

It appears to me that beliefs like this are ingrained in many people due to an unconscious (or perhaps conscious) feeling that they exist only to be witness to something truly extraordinary at some point in their lives (known as religious 'solipsism'). Perhaps this is a by-product of  our evolutionary past, allowing us to value our own survival (or maybe just an indication of a big ego). However something weird is at work in cases like this where huge numbers of people ignore reason in favour of blind belief. Some kind of backlash against scientific evidence and authority also seems to be at work; so much so, that with approximately a quarter of the American public believing that the world will end during their lifetime, NASA has decided to publish a document to refute their claims.

The tortured logic of some apocalyptic claims is actually quite amusing (especially where 'scientific evidence' appears to be cherry-picked to support them). As always, a quote by my favourite blogger, Ben Goldacre, is appropriate here: "...You can't reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into" (Bad Science, Harper Collins, London, 2009). In the clip below, American radio evangelist Harold Camping predicts the end of the world on May 21st, 2011. This came after he had incorrectly prophesied the End on two previous occasions:

I think its a childish character trait of mine, but I really enjoy making predictions that come true and then being able to tell people "I told you so". While correctly predicting the apocalypse would be the ultimate 'I told you so' moment, it's unfortunate that there would be nobody around to actually say this to. And if the world doesn't end on December 21st, 2012... well, I told you so.

Our Obsession With the Apocalypse

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


"I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research."
― Albert Einstein

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere."
― Carl Sagan

"Imagination means nothing without doing."
― Charlie Chaplin 

"Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humour to console him for what he is."
Francis Bacon

"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends."
William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

"Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination."
― John Dewey

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine - it is stranger than we CAN imagine."
― Arthur Stanley Eddington (paraphrased by Richard Dawkins)

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
― John Lennon   
There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who, with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun."
― Pablo Picasso

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics which deals with the wildly differing outcomes resulting from small differences in inputs. Its discovery (invention?) is accredited to American meteorologist Edward Lorenz who was trying to come up with a computer program to predict weather patterns in 1961. He discovered that tiny changes can lead to large effects. So tiny, in fact, that this led to the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing could have an effect on weather patterns in New York a month later. Chaos Theory resulted in paradigm shifts not only in mathematics, but across the natural sciences. It dealt a blow to the idea that events in nature can be thought of as being deterministic - in much the same way that Heiseberg's Uncertainty Principle did.

A Butterfly in Beijing

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Importance of Imagination

There are many examples of great thinkers experiencing a flash of inspiration or a 'eureka' moment. Some put their insight down to particular or different ways of visualising things. This, by definition, is imagination, or 'the ability to form new images and sensations that are not perceived through sight, hearing, or other senses'.

One nice story of imagination playing a role in scientific discovery is the account of the dreams of German chemist August Kekulé. It was the vivid images of his dreams that allowed him to visualise the structures of organic molecules (most famously as a snake eating its own tail).

The Reveries of Kekule

Monday, October 22, 2012

Science on Trial

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced today to six years in prison over the deadly earthquake that hit the town of  L'Aquila in 2009, and killed 309 people. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

The scientists convened a meeting of local residents after a number of smaller quakes had hit the town and then gave assurances that there was no indication that a major incident was likely. The court has held them to account for providing 'inexact, incomplete and contradictory' information about the danger of the tremors. This was compounded by accurate predictions of the disaster by local physicist, Giampaolo Giuliani. However, his predictions appear to be based on disputed tests.

The prediction of earthquakes remains a very inexact science and in many ways this court case has been seen as a trail of science itself and its inherent uncertainties. It may set a dangerous precident, since in future scientists may be unwilling to share their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits.

Here is how the BBC reported the trial a year ago, prior to publication of the verdicts:

And here, a BBC World Service podcast I found which includes a short discussion on the trial, the verdicts and the possible effects on the reporting of scientific findings in Italy:

Science on Trial

Friday, October 19, 2012

Can Eating Chocolate Help You to Win a Nobel Prize?

Here's a nice example that shows that just because something correlates statistically it doesn't necessarily mean that a relationship actually exists. New York cardiologist Dr. Franz Messerli found a correlation between the consumption of chocolate and the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to a country. However, he doesn't claim that one is related to the other.

This shows that even correctly applied statistics can give false conclusions and perhaps that over-reliance on statistical trends can be flawed.

Chocolate Consumption and Nobel Prizes

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Mandelbrot Plot

Monday, October 8, 2012

Vandalising Art

Last week a man strolled into the Tate Modern Gallery in London and wrote a message (including his name) on a Mark Rothko painting. Vladamir Umanets is now waiting to be arrested, but in the meantime has contacted the BBC to explain his actions. He claims to be the founder of a new art movement which he calls 'yellowism'. He says he was making an artistic statement, and (comparing himself to Marcel Duchamp) that "Art allows us to take what someone's done and put a new message on it."

A BBC article that I read related to this story shows that it is not unusual for great works of art to be targeted by people usually intent on making either artistic or political statements. One of the most famous instances (although by no means the first) occurred at the Tate Gallery in 2000 when two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped onto Tracey Emin's Bed in their underpants and began a pillow fight, to applause from onlookers, before being removed by the gallery's security guards. They called their work Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey's Bed.
Vandalism of Art

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Science vs Philosophy

Undeniably, the success of the scientific method in uncovering truths about the world around us has led to paradigm changes in other subjects - particularly those that involve the study of human behaviour such as psychology. New subjects (such as political science) have come into existence as a result and scientific thinking has even taken a foothold in artistic subjects, for example when literary theory in its current form began to become accepted the mid-twentieth century.

This is a transcript of a conversation between philosopher Julian Baggini and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss taken from the British newspaper, The Guardian. Baggini suggests that the creep of science into other subjects has begun to undermine them and that philosophy in particular is suffering as a result. It is interesting to compare their thoughts to those in previous articles I've posted on the subject of science vs religion.

Science vs Philosophy

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Game Theory

I've posted about Game Theory (the application of mathematics and reason to optimise decision making) before. It was a term coined by mathematician John von Neumann in 1944 and is now used in fields as diverse as economics, political science, psychology, logic, biology and military stretegy.

I came across a really nice example recently. It is a situation known as the 'prisoner's dilemma' - where two subjects have the choice to cooperate (which is in the best interests of both), or attempt a gamble to win everything for themselves. This is the classic version of the dilemma quoted by Wikipedia:
"Two men are arrested, but the police do not have enough information for a conviction. The police separate the two men, and offer both the same deal: if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates with/assists his partner), the betrayer goes free and the one that remains silent gets a one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail on a minor charge. If each 'rats out' the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept secret from his partner. What should they do? If it is assumed that each player is only concerned with lessening his own time in jail, the game becomes a non-zero sum game where the two players may either assist or betray the other. The sole concern of the prisoners seems to be increasing his own reward. The interesting symmetry of this problem is that the optimal decision for each is to betray the other, even though they would be better off if they both cooperated."
Here is a clip from the British TV game show 'Golden Balls'. The only twist on the classic version of the situation above is that both contestants are allowed to speak to each other prior to making their decisions. The guy on the right has obviously read about the Prisoner's Dilemma before and has a strategy sorted out in order to optimise his chances of winning the money (or at least not losing it). His partner seems to be left in a state of panic.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Introduction to Sense Perception

I rediscovered this document I made a long time ago as a cover lesson when I was going to be absent. After reading it again, I thought it stands up quite well as an introduction to sense perception and a means to start thinking about various aspects and problems of perception. I made it for my own students who are all bilingual and fluent in English and Spanish.
Perception Intro

Monday, September 10, 2012

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has made it its mission to expose what it considers to be fraudulent or misleading behaviour by people in positions of influence and power. In his most famous cases, Randi turned his own attention to faith healers, and in particular Peter Popoff.

Recently the JREF has focused on practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). This has become a hot topic in the UK, where healthcare is publicly funded through the National Health Service (NHS). Despite vocal opposition by the British Medical Association, many medical practices now offer alternative treatments such as acupuncture or homeopathy and homeopathic hospitals have been founded in London, Liverpool and Bristol.

The British government currently provides financial support for alternative therapies amounting to around £4 million per year (source The British Homeopathic Association), and many argue that this is a good deal in terms of the perceived benefits. There is significant celebrity endorsement of CAM, and Prince Charles has been particularly outspoken on the issue. There exists, however, no credible scientific and statistically significant evidence that CAM works any better than placebo (as reported exhaustively by Dr. Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science blog).

Many people would say that it is an individual's right to believe what they like, and even if these beliefs turn out to be based on untruths they may still be sources of comfort, especially in times of distress (a relativistic point of view). The placebo effect is powerful and little understood and therefore it could also be argued that it is beneficial to allow or even encourage people to maintain their existing beliefs, particularly in relation to their own health. This does sound somewhat patronising, however, and is suggestive of willful support of public ignorance.

In the article below, Dr. Steven Novella (member of the JREF and clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine) proposes that CAM should be considered not just to have no medical merit but to be actively dangerous to public health. He discusses a real life situation in which a woman with a cancerous growth decided to consult a practitioner of alternative rather than conventional medicine.
Is It Dangerous to Believe in CAM?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ethical Orientations

One theory of ethics proposes that there are two basic ethical orientations: the ethic of care and the ethic of justice. The former is based on the importance of relationships and individual responsibility, while the latter is based on the application of a sense of fairness or law. Proponents of this idea would hold that your ethical orientation can be determined by the way you approach ethical dilemmas, although they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The questionnaire below is an attempt to allow you to determine your own ethical orientation:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Prescribed Essay Titles 2012-2013

The IB has just released the TOK essay titles for completion for the May 2013 session. I've reproduced them in English and Spanish below, together with the guidelines:

Your theory of knowledge essay for examination must be submitted to your teacher for authentication. It must be written on one of the six titles (questions) provided below. You may chose any title but are recommended to consult with your teacher. Your essay will be marked according to the assessment criteria published in the Theory of Knowledge guide. The focus of your essay should be knowledge issues. 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. If you use external sources, cite them according to a recognized convention.

Note that statements in quotations in these titles are not necessarily authentic: they present a real point of view but may not be direct quotes. It is appropriate to analyse them but it is unnecessarily, even unwise, to spend time on researching a context for them.

Examiners mark against the title as set. 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, double spaced and typed in size 12 font.

  1. In what way may disagreement aid the pursuit of knowledge in the natural and human sciences?

  2. "Only seeing general patterns can give us knowledge. Only seeing particular examples can give us understanding." To what extent do you agree with these assertions?

  3. "The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility." Evaluate this claim.

  4. The traditional TOK diagram indicates four ways of knowing Propose the inclusion of a fifth way of knowing selected from intuition, memory or imagination, and explore the knowledge issues it may raise in two areas of knowledge.

  5. "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." (Christopher Hitchens). Do you agree?

  6. Can we know when to trust our emotions in the pursuit of knowledge? Consider history and one other area of knowledge.

  1. ¿De qué maneras las diferencias de opinión pueden ayudar en la búsqueda del conocimiento en las ciencias naturales y humanas?

  2. "Solo la observación de patrones generales nos puede dar conocimiento. Solo la observación de ejemplos específicos nos puede hacer comprender". ¿En qué medida está de acuerdo con estas afirmaciones?

  3. "La posesión de conocimiento conlleva una responsabilidad ética". Evalúe esta afirmación.

  4. El diagrama tradicional de Teoría del Conocimiento indica que hay cuatro formas de conocimiento. Proponga la incusión de una quinta forma (escoja entre intuición, memoria o imaginación) y explore las cuestiones de conocimiento que puedan surgir en dos áreas de conocimiento.

  5. "Lo que puede ser afirmado sin pruebas también puede ser descartado sin pruebas." (Christopher Hitchens). ¿Está de acuerdo?

  6. En la búsqueda del conocimiento, ¿podemos saber cuándo fiarnos de nuestras emociones? Considere la historia y otra área del conocimiento. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How the Brain Develops

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Can you always trust reason?

Thankyou to Dave Grant of Greengates School, Mexico City, for sending me this. It is a debate taken from the website of the British newspaper the Guardian. The motion is "reason is always right".

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ethics and the Free Market

Michael Sandel is Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University. He has commented extensively on the free market and how it affects public ethics. It is interesting to think about how money and our perception of wealth affect our ethical decisions, as he outlines in this video clip:

I've provided a link below to a discussion in which he and an audience at the London School of Economics address the ethical question of whether a nurse should be paid more than a banker:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Power of Shakespeare

Robben Island lies 6.9 km west of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. It has been used to jail political prisoners since the seventeenth century and it was there that Nobel laureate and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 27 years (together with many other opponents of apartheid).

I listened to a BBC podcast recently (see below) which told the story of a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, belonging to one of the prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam.

He disguised it as a religious book by decorating it with pictures of Hindu gods in order to avoid it being confiscated by prison guards (inmates were allowed to keep only religious texts), and it became known, somewhat spuriously, as The Robben Island Bible. As he served his sentence, between 1972 and 1978, Venkatrathnam passed the book between the inmates and they signed their names next to their favourite passages.

This has been seen as a vindication the power of Shakespeare (and language) and the book has been hailed as a modern icon, not least by the British Museum which is displaying it as part of its exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

It is very poignant to read the passage highlighted by Mandela (from Julius Caesar), knowing in hindsight that he would leave prison, unbroken, to become president of his country. At the time, he, himself, might have expected to die on Robben Island, and there was no prospect of release. However, I have also read comments from a number of his fellow prisoners (including some high ranking members of the African National Congress) who don't regard the book as iconic (as reported in the Toronto Star below). Some of those who signed it saw it merely as a 'study aid', and it is perhaps understandable that some apartheid prisoners failed to develop a deep reverence for these pieces of European literature.
Robben Island Bible

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bad Statistics

Paraphrasing an article originally published by Ben Goldacre on his Bad Science blog in 2008:

"In 1954 a man called Darrell Huff published a book called How to Lie with Statistics. Chapter one is called 'the sample with built in bias'.

Huff sets up his headline: 'The average Yaleman, Class of 1924, makes $25,111 a year!' said Time magazine. That figure sounded pretty high: Huff chases it, and points out the flaws. How did they find all these people they asked? Who did they miss? Losers tend to drop off the alma mater radar, whereas successful people are in Who’s Who and the College Record. Did this introduce selection bias into the sample? And how did they pose the question? Can that really be salary rather than investment income? Can you trust people when they self-declare their income? Is the figure spuriously precise? And so on.

In the intervening fifty years this book has sold one and a half million copies, it’s the greatest selling stats book of all time (a very tough market) and it remains in print."

Perhaps one and a half million copies is not going to single-handedly change public attitudes towards statistics, however, you might expect statistical reporting to have improved somewhat. This is certainly not the case in the mainstream media where spurious surveys with headline grabbing conclusions are quoted on a daily basis (I will have to try to dig out some examples to support this accusation), making the same mistakes that Huff was fighting against in the '50s. Perhaps the worst thing is that so few journalists are actually prepared to question the data and consider inbuilt bias. I suppose newspapers have effectively passed this responsibility on to the reader.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012


I saw this piece of art at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, UK this week, and failed to be really blown away by it.

Despite the fact that it is now accepted as one of the most influential pieces of art of the twentieth century (and the first piece of conceptual art), the original was lost soon after it was originally exhibited in 1917 and there are now only a few copies in art collections in galleries around the world. These were officially sanctioned by the artist, Marcel Duchamp, in the 1960s.

The Liverpool Tate made an interesting study recently by exhibiting some of their most famous acquisitions in public places around the city. Fountain, for example, was shown in a public toilet. Here is a short film which explores the reactions of some local people to it:

The Fountain

Friday, July 6, 2012

Can you see time?

People with a condition known as synaesthesia apparantly can. This is caused by an unusually high number of connections between two areas of the brain's sensory cortex, making the perception of space and time inseperable. The article below describes how synaesthetes perceive the world around them. You can also visit the website of the UK Synaesthesia Association here.

I was interested to read in the article that synaesthetes have a heightened sense of empathy. In the same way, therefore, that some could argue that autistic people have a different take on ethics (as I posted previously), the same could be said for people with synaesthesia.

In this audio clip, the synaesthetic woman mentioned in the article, Holly Branigan, tries to describe how she 'visualises' time.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

More Presentation Advice

Here is a prezi from Jeff Taylor which gives some really nice advice on how to structure your presentation. It includes a lot of feedback from examiners about problems with presentations they have marked and therefore should help you to avoid some of the more common pitfalls.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Slips of the Ear

'Slips of the ear' are problems of perception (or 'auditory illusions') relating to how the brain misinterprets aural information. If something we hear doesn't really make much sense, the brain tries to give it meaning and this frequently leads to misunderstandings of what was meant to be conveyed. Here is a (humorous) example:

These problems are especially prevalent in people who are learning a foreign language and have not developed a sufficient vocabulary or level of language use to spot differences between words with similar sounds. Here is an interesting academic paper on this subject: Slips of the Ear

Kusumarasdyati (2006) 'I'm orangeful' or 'I'm already awful': slips of the ear performed by learners of English as a foreign language. In Peter Jeffery (Eds) Creative Dissent: Constructive Solutions (pp.1-9) Australian Association for Research in Education, Parramatta, Sydney, Australia.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What is Consciousness?

Saturday, June 23, 2012


This is a really nice document produced by the website information is beautiful to show the different types of fallacies split into categories.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Planet of Snail

Planet of Snail is an award-winning documentary about Young-Chan, a South Korean blind and deaf man. It follows his loving relationship with his partner Soon-Ho and shows how he communicates and perceives the world around him through only the sense of touch. It is a modern parallel of the life of Helen Keller.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Autism, Empathy and Ethics

I posted a video recently in an attempt to show the link between ethics and empathy. If you define ethics along the lines of the practical application of morals in society (as we have in the class), then it follows that without some form of empathy (to understand the effect of your actions on others) you are unable to employ a true ethical code.

A common (mis)conception is that people with autism lack the ability to empathise. I'll admit to being guilty of thinking like this in the past. If this is true then it could be argued that autistic people lack the ability to be ethical. In her blog existence is wonderful, Anne Corwin (who has herself been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome) shows this is a fallacy, and that while autistic people perhaps have a different take on empathy, they cannot be catagorised as non-ethical. She makes the point that the act of labelling and categorising people is, in itself, very harmful.

This makes me think that coming up with a useful and usable definition of ethics is much more difficult than you might think. Incidentally, if you are interested in seeing the autism-spectrum quotient test that she refers to in the article, I have found a copy of it here.
Autism and Empathy

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Harvard System

For your essay, it is vitally important to reference properly. This will help you to organise your essay properly and also avoid any accusations of plagerism. There are a few recognised styles you can use, but I would suggest the Harvard System. This is most commonly used in scientific writing. De Montfort University in the UK has produced the guide I have attached below to help you to reference correctly using the Harvard System: Harvard System

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Elephant 'Art'

In the class we spoke about three possible criteria used to define what makes a piece of art (Richard van de Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, 2005):
  • The intention of the artist 
  • The quality of the work
  • The response of the spectators 
If you accept these criteria (and of course each of them has inherent problems), it's not easy to argue that the painting shown in the video below is not a piece of art, and that the painter is not a real artist.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Morality in Animals

I've posted some ideas about this subject previously (in particular the thoughts of Richard Dawkins on the origin of morality). In this TED Talk Frans de Waal, professor of Primate Behaviour at the Emory University Psychology Department in Atlanta, Georgia (famous for their work with Chantek the orangutan), gives his views on the existence of moral behaviour in animals.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Child with Three Biological Parents?

Recent IVF research in the UK has focused on the possibility of tackling rare genetic disorders by creating embryos from DNA obtained from three separate individuals. With the treatment now a distinct possibility, attention has turned to the ethical implications. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a UK-based think-tank which meets up to six times per year to discuss current issues has given it a potential green light. However, as with all cases of this type, opinion is divided, with many seeing it as a slippery slope towards the legalisation of 'designer babies'.

In the clip from the BBC Today Programme a parent who lost her baby to a mitochondrial disease discusses her hopes that she could receive the treatment to help her through another pregnancy. She is joined by two health professionals with very differing views on the matter.

3 Person IVF

Monday, June 11, 2012

Presentation Advice

I think different TOK teachers have slightly different ideas about what makes an excellent presentation. I've made a document below to give some of mine. I'd welcome any questions about this in the comments section, or any suggestions about how this document could be improved:
Giving a Good TOK Presentation

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Teaching Evolution in South Korea

You might think that the fight of creationists to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools is restricted to the United States. However, it emerged this week (as reported in the article from Nature, below) that the South Korean Government has instructed publishers to consider removing references to evolution in high-school biology textbooks.

I was surprised to read that a sizable minority of biology teachers in South Korea are sceptical of the theory of evolution by natural selection, believing that 'much of the scientific community doubts if evolution occurs'.
Creationism in South Korea

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Sistine Chapel

The Vatican has produced an interactive flash animation which allows you to take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Man Regrows Finger Using Pixie Dust

In 2008, an apparently astonishing science story appeared on news programmes around the world. Lee Spievak of Cincinnati, Ohio, lost the end of the middle finger of his right hand when it was sliced off by the propeller of a model aeroplane. Over a four week period his finger regrew. The 'miraculous' regrowth was attributed to the use of a powder developed by the biotech firm Acell, which Mr. Spievak has dubbed 'pixie dust'. This is how BBC News reported it:

The story received considerable criticism. On his bad science blog, Dr. Ben Goldacre pointed out that on the pictures broadcast by the BBC, Mr. Spievak's nail bed appears to be intact and, although the injury seems quite severe, it is by no means unusual for spontaneous healing to occur in cases like this. He quotes Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, UK: “It looked to have been an ordinary fingertip injury with quite unremarkable healing. This is junk science.”

The graphics used to explain the healing process in the story appear to be misleading as they show virtually a whole finger regrowing, rather than the tip. Furthermore, it later transpired that the accident occurred in 2005, three years before, and Mr. Spievak's brother is, in fact, the founder of Acell (which did of course gain considerable positive publicity). No proper (double-blind) medical tests had been carried out at the time to determine the efficacy of the 'pixie dust' and there was no evidence it played any part in the healing process.

Ben Goldacre maintains that this is a prime case of a false science story being misreported by being assigned not to health or science correspondents (who would have been expected to recognise its flaws) but to non-specialist, generalist journalists. This is one of his great bug-bears and something you could argue is a major barrier to the public understanding of science.

To its credit, the BBC took some steps to retract the story, and allowed Goldacre to give an interview on its flagship radio news broadcast, The Today Programme:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Using Statistics

Hans Rosling is professor of global health at Sweden's Karolinska Institute. He began his career as a physician, spending many years in Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease (konzo) and discovering its cause: hunger and badly processed cassava. He co-founded Medecins sans Frontiers (Sweden), and has written a respected textbook (Global Health: An Introductory Textbook, Studentlitteratur AB, Sweden, 2006).

His work is grounded in solid statistics (often drawn from United Nations data), and he has developed interesting and innovative methods of displaying his data through which he is able to appeal even to the most hardened statistic-phobes. He is able to clearly show the importance of collecting and understanding real data (in the mathematical sense) in order to understand the current situation and properly plan for the future.

Much of his current work focuses on the developing world, which he shows is no longer worlds away from the west. In this TED talk he shows that the First and Third Worlds are on the same trajectory toward health, prosperity and longer life, and many countries are moving towards this goal twice as quickly as the west once did. He feels the obstacles to true understanding of the situation are merely problems of perception and our preconceived ideas.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reason and the Universality of Human Rights

In December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a full list of all 30 articles of which can be found here. The Assembly called upon all member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories." In 1976 it was adopted as international law, having been ratified by a sufficient number of nations. It is now perhaps the cornerstone of international political ethics.

It was constructed, of course, as a consequence of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and was based on the reasoning that all human beings are "born fee and equal in dignity and rights" (Article 1). However its wording has been subjected to considerable criticism over a number of years. Proponents of alternative schooling, for example, are against the adoption of "universal elementary education" (Article 26), while organisations such as Amnesty International have argued that there is a need to adopt a right of refusal to kill in times of war (currently not mentioned by the Declaration). Some Muslim countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan) have critisised the UDHR for failing to take the religious context of Islam into account. In 1990 the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) was adopted by member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, as an alternative.

The biggest problem has been one of enforcing the terms of the Declaration and reprimanding those who violate them. Implicit in this is the fact that some countries interpret the articles differently to others. However, the UN Security Council has always found it difficult to get its members to come to a consensus where it is necessary to use force. This weakness was exposed in September, 2002, when President George W. Bush brought his case against Iraq to the General Assembly and challenged the UN to take action against Baghdad for failing to disarm. Unable to get the UN Security Council to act, Bush succeeded in securing permission from the US Congress to act against Iraq without UN approval. The American message seemed clear: as a senior administration official put it at the time, "we don't need the Security Council." This could be interpreted as proof that the logic of universal human rights enshrined in the Declaration is flawed, as suggested by author Will Self in this BBC podcast:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Women in the Film Industry

Following my previous post about sexism in the scientific community, I was reminded of similar stories which have emerged recently about the treatment of women working in the film industry. Many people were angered this year when the shortlist for the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival was announced and no films by female directors were included. The organisers countered that although there were women on the longlist, it wasn't thought that their films merited nomination and that all of the films were judged irrespective of the gender of their director. However, a bit of internet research has revealed to me this is the 63rd time in the festival's 65 year history that all of the nominated directors were male, so perhaps there is a little more to it.

It could be argued that women perhaps make films that don't generally sit well with male-dominated juries. However it is also true that there simply aren't many female directors (or producers). The reasons why women are either reticent to enter the industry or why so few make it into the upper echelons appear to be complex, but are perhaps deeply rooted in our cultural history which demarcates male and female roles. It may also explain why sexism and lack of representation of women could become self-perpetuating in this business.

Hollywood blockbuster movies tend to be targeted directly at a mainly young male audience and this significantly affects how women are portrayed on the big screen. I read about an amazing statistic recently which has become known as the Bechdel Test (after author Allison Bechdel, who came up with it). To pass the test, a film simply has to portray two female characters in one scene, having a meaningful conversation together about anything other than men. It is truly remarkable how many Hollywood movies fail in this respect.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Women in Science

In 1967 Jocelyn Bell was working on her PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge University when she detected a series of radio pulses with a regular period of about 1.3 seconds. At first it was thought that they might be man-made, or even an indication of extra-terrestrial intelligence, but later it was shown that they originated from a type of rotating neutron star which was subsequently dubbed a 'pulsar'.

Despite the fact that her supervisor, Dr. Antony Hewish, was originally sceptical of the pulsar idea (believing the radio waves were terrestrial in origin), and although Bell made the initial discovery and constructed much of the radio telescope and associated equipment herself (over a two year period), when the findings were published she was only listed as the fifth author. Subsequently, in 1974, when the significance of the discovery was fully appreciated, Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics together with his colleague, Dr. Martin Ryle (the first time it was awarded for an astronomical observation). Bell's contribution was largely ignored and she was excluded from the award.

In recent years this has been seen as a prime example of the struggle that women researchers face to gain recognition in the male-dominated world of academic science. Even at the time, the lack of recognition she received was somewhat controversial. Reknowned astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, for example, strongly condemned the Nobel Awards Committee for overlooking her (he was also always critical of the way scientific study was carried out at Cambridge, where he was a student and taught for a time). Bell herself felt she had been snubbed and, in addition, she was later forced out of full time research after the birth of her first child.

She worked hard to overcome the prejudice she perceived, and from 1973 onwards she worked as a tutor, examiner and lecturer at the Open University, in the UK. She was appointed professor in 1991 and went on to work as a visiting professor at Princeton University, becoming President of the Institute of Physics in 2010 (the first woman to hold that position). She is outspoken about the treatment of women in the scientific community and has become a spokesperson for the issue. In the interview below she gives her thoughts on these issues. Interestingly she feels there is a cultural component to the prejudice which is specific to English-speaking countries:

The experiences of Jocelyn Bell were not without precedent, and much is still to be done to achieve true equality in the scientific workplace. The most celebrated, and in some ways the most tragic, case is that of Rosalind Franklin.

While James Watson and Francis Crick were working to elucidate the structure (and, subsequently, the function) of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, Franklin was doing similar work at King's College, London. Some of her results were given to Crick and Watson without her permission and they used them to build their famous DNA model and win the race to solve perhaps the greatest puzzle in modern science. Crick, Watson and Franklin's supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology (there is no prize for biology) in 1962, and Franklin's contribution was largely forgotten. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958 as a result of exposure to radiation during her research. Watson was famously dismissive of her in early editions of his book, The Double Helix:A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Atheneum, New York, 1968), although he did try to correct this to a degree in later editions. Franklin's story has been portrayed in a number of biographies (most notably Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, Harper Collins, London, 2002) and in a film, Life Story.

Rosalind Franklin

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The Scale of the Universe 2 This interactive flash animation was produced in association with NASA ( to show the incredible difference in scale between the smallest objects in the universe (1 yoctometre, or 1x10^-27m, the approximate diameter of a neutrino), and some of the largest (for example the largest observed galaxy, with a diameter of approximately 5 million light years, or 5x10^22m). The human brain has not evolved to comprehend sizes at these extremes, and we can really only associate with those that are close to the size of our own bodies and our immediate surroundings.

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