Saturday, March 31, 2012

Francis Bacon and the Scientific Method

Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was a leading figure in the fields of natural philosophy and scientific methodology. He was a lawyer and member of Parliament and rose to the rank of Queen's Counsel under Elizabeth I and Lord Chancellor under James I. His political career ended in disgrace (and brief imprisonment in the Tower of London) when he was found guilty of accepting bribes.

He wrote on questions of law, state and religion, and contemporary politics. However, today he is best remembered for his work on systemising the gathering of scientific knowledge. He emphasised the importance of inductive reasoning and in doing so developed the scientific method as we know it today. Although the Royal Society (the world's first scientific institution) was not founded until 1660, after his death, he is widely credited as its inspiration.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Logicomix is a graphic novel written by Greek writer Apostolos Doxiadis and theoretical computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou of the University of California, Berkeley. It follows the life of British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell and his attempt to unite mathematics under the umbrella of logic - what became known as "the Foundational Quest", together with his friends Alfred North Whitehead and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Russell was a quiet, intelligent, introspective man who was haunted by the demons of depression and dissatisfaction with being unable to complete his life's work. Indeed, one of the book’s recurring themes is the connection between logic and madness. Russell himself was surrounded in his family by mental illness, and several of the logicians and philosophers who appear in the story went insane or suffered from mental instability.

Below is the book's glossary which gives the background to a number of the topics that appear in it and its main characters. It gives a nice summary of the work of most of the main figures in logic throughout history:
Logicomix Glossary

Monday, March 26, 2012

Even More Optical Illusions

Works best as a larger image. Click on the picture to enlarge it:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

If I could walk and talk and squeak and squawk with the animals...

A while ago I posted some thoughts about communication and language in animals and the work of various researchers in this field (particularly the case of Koko the Gorilla). Here is a BBC article which discusses other examples, particularly efforts to "talk" with dolphins.

It seems to me that, while it is perfectly possible for humans to communicate with animals, their ability to use language (the animals, not the researchers) is far from being proven and (as it says in the article below), we are still a far cry from the world of Dr. Dolittle.

Will We Ever Talk to the Animals

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bilingualism and Brain Function

In this article for the New York Times, the writer looks into claims that children who speak more than one language generally have better brain power. This is a strong claim and goes against perceived wisdom that teaching a second language to a child could interfere with clear thinking and decision-making. One of the academic studies cited in the article can be found in full here.

Why Bilingual People Are Smarter

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Monty Hall Problem

The Monty Hall Problem is a 'veridical paradox' (something which seems to defy intuition - as with the Achilles and the tortoise paradox). It was invented (discovered?) by Marylin Vos Savant and first published in Parade Magazine in 1990. It is named after US game show host Monty Hall, although other than supplying his name he has nothing to do with the problem.

In the game show you must chose one of three doors. Behind one is the star prize, and behind the other two are (for some reason) goats. You've chosen one of the doors, hoping that the car is behind it, but if you've chosen badly, you get the goat.

Monty then teases you by opening one of the two unselected doors and revealing a goat (he always chooses a losing door), and he offers you the option of switching doors.

The question is: is there an advantage in switching doors? Should you change your choice in order to increase your chances of winning the car.

The intuitive answer is that there is no advantage in changing your mind, since it seems there is now a 50/50 chance that you will win the car. However, it turns out that given this type of choice you should change your mind. I have found a nice program here that proves the point. It is a simulator in which you can run the scenario automatically up to 1000 times, electing either to keep your original choice or change your mind each time.

If this still seems counter-intuitive, this guy explains it much better than I can, in terms of probabilistic outcomes:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Ethics of IVF

One of the most controversial aspects of modern medical ethics is the use of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Ethical views appear, in general, to have changed considerably in western countries since the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in Britain in 1978 - so much so that it is now largely accepted that homosexual couples can seek IVF treatment and the sex of a baby may be determined prior to pregnancy.

Most religious groups seem to have given IVF qualified acceptance. The Anglican Church, for instance, allows IVF within marriage, but forbids the donation of eggs and sperm. The Hindu religion allows IVF, but only if the gametes used in the procedure come from a married couple seeking pregnancy. Hindus may also donate sperm, but the donor must be a close relative of the infertile husband. Buddhists have a very liberal attitude towards assisted pregnancy - it is permitted for both married and unmarried couples and men are free to donate sperm. While Islam allows IVF treatment, it must be within the bounds of marriage. After divorce or death of one of the spouses, preserved sperm or eggs are not permitted to be used, since the Muslim marriage contact would be seen to have been broken. My understanding of Jewish Law is that since the scriptures direct Jews to procreate, if this is not possible via a normal pregnancy, it is acceptable for this to be achieved by artificial means. There does not appear to be a clear consensus among rabbis over some aspects of IVF such as the implantation of multiple embryos (some of which may of course not result in a viable pregnancy).

Of the major world religions, Catholicism appears to take the most authoritarian and conservative stance, in line with its absolutist take on morality and ethics. It accepts that Catholic couples may seek medical treatment for infertility, but does not permit the use of IVF or the donation of eggs or sperm. The Vatican's position is that it is immoral to separate sex and procreation. In June 2006 Pope Benedict XVI made a series of statements to clarify his view of IVF treatment:
  • The human being has the right to be generated, not produced, to come to life not in virtue of an artificial process but of a human act in the full sense of the term: the union between a man and a woman. 
  • Never before in history has human procreation, and therefore the family, which is its natural place, been so threatened as in today's culture. 
  • Procreation must always take place within the family.
  • ...true love is only that which comes from the union of a man and a woman.
  • A true family comes from the union of two people from different sexes.

Robert Winston is a pioneer of some techniques of IVF and is currently professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London. He was an advisor to the World Health Organisation as part of their programme on human reproduction between 1975 and 1977, and is now a celebrity after presenting numerous science documentaries on British television. He currently sits in the House of Lords on the side of the Labour Party and therefore also has political affiliations. In the following podcast he sets out his views on the ethics of IVF treatment:

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Conquest of Mexico

The Siege of Tenochtitlan (what is now Mexico City) occurred in 1521, and resulted in the defeat of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma and the eventual victory of the Conquistador, Hernán Cortés. It was interesting for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably that it was a clash of two of the age's most powerful civilisations, and was one of its greatest naval battles, strangely occurring hundreds of miles from the ocean and two kilometres above sea level (Cortés had his ships and cannons transported over land and reassembled prior to the fighting). It signaled the end of the Aztec Empire, the dismantling of Aztec culture and infrastructure and the expansion of Spanish colonialism and wealth.

I found a BBC podcast in which a group of historians discuss the events of the siege and what happened before and after, including their perspective of life under Aztec rule prior to the arrival of the Spanish. It treats Cortés somewhat sympathetically, which is not a view that I've found to be very prevalent during my time living in Mexico City.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Politics of Language

In this fantastic RSA animation of his lecture 'Language as a Window into Human Nature", linguist Steven Pinker explains how we unconsciously follow rules of language which change depending on the relationship between the speakers. He makes interesting parallels to the idea of altruism, dominance and subservience which I mentioned in a previous post with regard to Richard Dawkins' ideas of how morality developed in humans from pre-existing instincts. It is also interesting to consider that the basis of many forms of autism appears to be a lack of unconscious awareness of these complex rules.

Friday, March 9, 2012

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian and essayist. He was a controversial figure, known for his religious sceptisism (a dangerous position at the time - he wanted to make a career as an academic, but was always denied an academic post due to his apparent atheism). He is often cited as a principle influence on many important figures in philosophy and science, including Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, amongst others.

In this BBC podcast, his life and legacy are discussed:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Extra Sensory Perception

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has produced some classroom resources to help teachers and students explore pseudosciences and the knowledge claims they make. In the module below, the claims of proponents of extra sensory perception (ESP) are set out, together with materials which are commonly used to test for psychic abilities. Here is Hollywood's take on the use of Zener cards:

  JREF11edmod Esp LO (1)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Multiple Sclerosis and CCSVI

There are many blogs and websites which look at the application of the scientific method in clinical medicine (Dr. Ben Goldacre's work is particularly prevalent) and the efficacy of carrying out clinical trails on patients with incurable diseases. There are very strong links between science and ethics in this field, but certain cases also touch on pseudoscience. Medical researchers often find themselves convinced that they have discovered the cause of or made a breakthrough in the treatment of medical conditions without carrying out the rigourous testing that is required, often finding very vocal support amongst the sufferers they set out to help. The most famous recent case was that of Dr. Andrew Wakefield who published his belief that a link existed between autism and childhood vaccination using the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. He was later struck off by the British Medical Association after they concluded that he had willfully distorted his evidence, which was actually only for a very small cohort of children. In the meantime, vaccination rates dropped to dangerously low rates in parts of the US and Europe and there were well-publicized outbreaks of measles as a result.

A similar ongoing debate concerns the supposed  link between multiple sclerosis (MS) and Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency (CCSVI) - the blockage of veins which drain blood from the brain. This hypothesis was first proposed by Italian vascular surgeon Dr. Paolo Zamboni in 2008. It goes against the current scientific consensus, and there have been mixed results when other researchers have attempted to reproduce Dr. Zamboni's clinical findings. Opinions are polarised, perhaps because Dr. Zamboni has proposed fairly simple and inexpensive techniques to open veins in the brain, therefore giving hope to many thousands of MS sufferers.

In this article for the James Randi Educational Foundation, Dr. Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, looks at the evidence and discusses how ethical questions of this kind can best be decided: 
CCSVI and the Politics of Medicine

Saturday, March 3, 2012