Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Celebrities and Science

The charitable trust Sense About Science has released its list of the worst celebrity science claims of 2012. Last year I posted the 2011 list, which was equally funny, but no less worrying. It is still true that celebrity science claims receive much more coverage in the popular media than real scientists and in many ways are therefore extremely influential.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Project Steve

In 2001 The Discovery Institute, a fundamentalist conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle, Washington, released a document named A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. This is a list of scientists who were prepared to state that they were 'sceptical about the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life' and 'dispute that all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution'. As of the August 2008 update, it consisted of 761 signatures. The Discovery Institute and other creationist organisations such as Answers In Genesis regularly refer to the document to support their view that intelligent design should be taught as a genuine science.

I think it is one of the more persuasive arguments of creationists, however it is fairly easy to see some fundamental flaws in the tactic of producing a list of supporters to uphold a knowledge claim. Firstly, a list of this size represents only around 0.023 % of the world's scientists (Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins,  Denis Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers (eds), Chicago University Press, 2001). Secondly, a closer perusal shows that many of the scientists have no affiliation to the biological sciences (although of course one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of authority worship). Thirdly, The Discovery Institute appears to have gathered their signatories under an extremely sweeping statement. Doubting that 'all known scientific evidence supports evolution' does not necessarily equate to a belief in creationism or intelligent design. The wording of the statement itself appears to me to be rather specious, since the modern understanding of evolution includes mechanisms other than random mutations and natural selection (including, for example, genetic drift).

In an effort to counter the impact of A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, the National Center for Science Education produced its own list of supporters of Darwinism. In a demonstration of 'scientific humour', the list is limited to scientists with the name 'Steve' or variations thereof (it was named in honour of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould). Since Steves represent around only 1% of scientists the pool of signatories is therefore small. Despite this, the list is larger and contains more biologists and more eminent scientists than the original. The 300th signature was that of Stephen Hawking. At the time of writing, the Steve-o-Meter stands at 1271 signatories, and can be accessed here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists

Nutritionism is (a rather pejorative) term which describes the idea that it's an individual nutrient, not food, that is healthy, and that effectively 'good' and 'bad' nutrients exist. While scientifically recognised experts in diet and nutrition exist in many countries (usually referred to as 'dieticians'), nutritionists are unregulated and may be self-taught.

If it is not a recognised science, and therefore not subject to scientific rigor and peer-review. is it therefore acceptable to refer to nutritionism as pseudoscience? Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science) argues that is is. In this two-part podcast he investigates the rise of the celebrity lifestyle nutritionist and argues that the advice they give may be dangerous and in some cases fraudulent:

episode 1
episode 2

Monday, June 3, 2013

In Defense of 'Useless Knowledge'

I had a conversation with my head teacher a while ago in which he told me his thoughts about how the education system is likely to evolve in the near future. He feels that education is moving away from the learning of facts and more towards the development of skills. This is perhaps undeniable - for example TOK itself is supposed to develop the skills of critical thinking rather than rote learning. Eventually the role of the teacher (at least in the way we understand it today) may become redundant. Knowledge is so easily accessible today that it is becoming externalised (specifically to the internet). This means that students are becoming freer to concentrate on subjects that interest them or those which will be more useful in their chosen career.

A few interesting things occur to me here. Firstly, the externalisation of knowledge is reminiscent of European society prior to the Renaissance. At that time, the population at large was happy to leave (religious) knowledge in the hands of the Church, and in a previous post I discussed how St. Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in changing this and introducing the basic ideas of scientific thinking. Does acceptance that general knowledge should be left in the hands of others really therefore represent progress? After all, many teachers would say they are currently fighting a losing battle against insidious 'wikipediaism'. Secondly, will the society of the future be made of people with very specific skills but very little general knowledge? At the very least, that would certainly make games of trivial pursuit rather boring.

My feeling is that total dependence on skills-based education could lead to diminishing the enjoyment of learning for its own sake (although perhaps this is a bit extreme). I also have given some consideration to the idea of how we decide what knowledge is 'useful' or 'useless' for our students (or perhaps whether there is such a thing as 'useless knowledge'). This reminded me of an essay by Bertrand Russell, which I've reproduced below. Interestingly, he worries about the pressure that society at that time was putting on students to learn skills rather than gain knowledge. Upon reading, it does appear dated now (he published it in 1935). He consistently refers to the education of 'boys' rather than 'children' and his representations of women come across as a little sexist. He defends the assimilation of knowledge for its own sake, the satisfaction that learning brings and the dangers that a lack of knowledge pose in a society. It is, of course, a product of the time in which Russell was writing - Europe had been through a World War less than a generation before, and Nazism was on the rise. Russell was a pacifist (at that time) and a fervent opponent of Nazism. He felt that the rise of Hitler and increased militarism was brought about by lack of knowledge within the German populace.

I came across a nice anonymous quotation recently which is relevant here:

'[Specialistists are] people who know more and more about less and less, until they know all about nothing.'

from A Short History of Everything, by Ronald Wright, Carroll and Graff (2005).

Bertrand Russell - Useless Knowledge 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Jesus appears in pot of marmite

I spotted a story in the news this week about a Welsh family who found the image of Jesus on the lid of a pot of sandwich spread. What do you think?:

I know that God moves in mysterious ways, but this is a bit too mysterious for my liking. It appears to be a case of a perceiving something that you want to in an otherwise random assortment of shapes. The family, themselves, appear to take comfort in the appearance of the image, saying "We've had a tough couple of months; my mum's been really ill and it's comforting to think that if he is there, he's watching over us."

After a quick perusal of google I have realised these kinds of sightings are a lot more common than you might think. In recent years Jesus' face has appeared on, among other things, a beer bottle, a fish stick, a shower curtain, a nebula, a pancake and a tortilla:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blaise Pascal vs. Homer Simpson

Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher. He was a religious man who came up with a probabilistic argument for belief in God, now well known as Pascal's Wager. This states that, regardless of the evidence, it is infinitely safer to trust in God's existence, since you have everything to gain if correct, and nothing to lose if wrong.

To me, this is hardly profound, since surely an omnipotent God would see right through such a ruse. In addition it would be a rather mean-spirited and capricious God who was prepared to reward you just for taking a gamble.

I recently came across a reworking of this from a different philosopher. Homer Simpson's Wager posits that its best not to pray to any god, since if you get it wrong you'll just end up pissing off the real one.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Religion vs Secularism

In this debate (recorded in Sydney, Australia, in March 2013) British philosopher A.C. Grayling joins Sean Faircloth, director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan and the Hon. Pru Goward M.P. to discuss the influence of religion in Australia and the U.S. The speakers discuss whether the church and state should or can ever be decisively divided, and where each institution stands among evolving social and political values:

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sylvia Browne

Sylvia Browne (1936-) is a self-styled psychic and spiritual medium. She used to appear regularly on the Montel Williams Show where she gave audience members advice on subjects such as love, finances and missing family members. She seems to have been remarkably unsuccessful when it comes to locating missing people - In 2010 the Skeptical Inquirer Magazine analysed the 115 predictions she made on Montel Williams and claimed her success rate to be precisely zero.

Despite this, she has remained one of the US's most high profile psychics (together with James van Praagh) with a huge number of followers and admirers. However, this week she is facing her biggest challenge, and a considerable backlash on social media following the escape of Amanda Berry from her abductors ten years after she was kidnapped (together with two other women - Gina deJesus and Michelle Knight, and Amanda's own daughter). Browne told Louwana Miller, the mother of Amanda Berry, on the TV show 'She's not alive, honey. Your daughter's not the kind who wouldn't call'. Louwana Miller died in 2006 unaware that her daughter was still alive.

James Randi has been a constant critic of Sylvia Browne and consistently states that belief in psychic readings is dangerous. I think psychics are largely immune from criticism since there is a general feeling that their predictions can't do any harm and may in fact be useful. Randi argues that they prey on the vulnerable and naive and may lead people to come to false conclusions which may be damaging to individuals and families. He makes this claim in the podcast below, recorded for CBC Radio:

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Philosophy Postcards

As tweeted by Richard van de Lagemaat on his TOK Tweet this week, here is a series of images by graphic designer GenĂ­s Carrerasin in which he uses simple images to describe many philosophical concepts covered in TOK. In describing his work, Carrerasin says “I wanted to make philosophy look better, to feel more contemporary and relevant. For me shapes and colors are a way to communicate, a way that can break through language and age barriers. As a graphic designer, this is the only way I knew.”

Best viewed full screen in order to make out the written definitions.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Conspiracy Theories

An article in Scientific American this week looks at the reasons why some people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories, even if they contradict each other. Similarly to articles I've posted previously, the author suggests that a willingness to believe in such ideas correlate with a mistrust of science (and western politics). It also appears that some apparently outlandish ideas are a lot more mainstream than you might think, with 37 percent of Americans believing that global warming is a hoax, 21 percent believing in a US government cover up of alien existence and 28 percent believing in a secret elite conspiring to take over the world.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The World's Smallest Movie

Researchers at IBM have created an stop-motion animation using individual carbon atoms as pixels. The atoms were moved around between frames using a scanning tunneling microscope.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Intuition and Bad Mathematics

One would hope that the justice system is one aspect of everyday life based firmly on reason rather than intuition. However, the article below investigates how court judgements may be flawed if they are based on a weak grasp of statistics. Since scientific and forensic evidence has to be presented in terms of statistics, this does lead to a rather worrying state of affairs and means that the interpretation of expert opinion is vitally important in court judgements.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Role of the Catholic Church

Here's a good debate from which considers the motion 'This house believes the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world'.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Map of Scientific Thinkers

UK blogger Crispin Jago has produced an interactive map of scientific thinkers based on the London Underground.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Japanese History Lessons

Here's a BBC article (written by a former IB student) about history teaching in Japanese schools. She suggests that students' perception of events during the Sino-Japanese War and Second World War may have serious effects on international relations in the region, and therefore history teachers have considerable responsibility in shaping future events as well as accounts of those in the past. As in many countries, history teaching has become very politicised, and debates seem to be raging between the authors of different textbooks about how history should be presented in the classroom.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Child Abuse and False Memories

In 1987, in the county of Cleveland, England,121 cases of suspected child sexual abuse were diagnosed by paediatricians Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt. All of the children were subsequently removed from their families (57 families in all).

After a number of trials, the cases involving 96 of the 121 children were dismissed by the courts, and they were returned to their parents. In a number of cases, it was adjudged that the doctors had misinterpreted some physical evidence, while the memories of abuse cited by some of the children were queried. It appeared that some of the children may have experienced ‘false memories’ (as in a number of similar cases) which developed during therapy.

Dr. Higgs still vehemently defends her actions, and she believes she acted correctly. Meanwhile, over the intervening years a debate has developed between those who believe that false memories such as these can be created easily and those who argue that doubting the memories of possible victims may allow abusers to escape prosecution. The article from the British newspaper, The Independent, below, sets out these arguments (although it is rather old now):

Monday, March 4, 2013


- Neil Degrasse Tyson

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bertrand Russell... Again

“Science does not aim at establishing immutable truths and eternal dogmas; its aim is to approach the truth by successive approximations, without claiming that at any stage final and complete accuracy has been achieved.”

- Bertrand Russell

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Perception and Art

Eric Kandel (born November 7, 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He specialises in research into the nature of memory, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000. Here he talks about the links between art, perception, emotion and biology:


Monday, February 11, 2013

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Knowledge and Responsibility

As hideous as the ongoing Lance Armstrong debacle has been, it has provided some interesting talking points in terms of TOK. His recent confession to drug use throughout his career has led to his fans retrospectively reassessing their knowledge of him and his achievements.

He was especially vehement when attacking those who questioned his reputation, and wrote two (fraudulent) autobiographies: It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (2000) and Every Second Counts (2003). Until he was forced into his confession he and his supporters denied that he was guilty of any wrongdoing, and now he is undergoing an agonising and embarrassing fall from the heights of fame and adulation.

As reported in the article below, Armstrong is now facing a class action lawsuit in the U.S., brought by disenchanted fans who bought his books. This poses questions about the extent to which those who disseminate false information are ethically, legally and financially responsible for it.

There are some parallels with the story of the scientists and government official in Italy who were found guilty of manslaughter in 2012 after failing to accurately predict an earthquake in the village of L'Aquila. However, they disseminated false information unknowingly, while Armstrong was all too aware that he was doing so knowingly.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Scepticism, or skepticism (if you are in the U.S.), derives from the Greek work skeptomai, which means to think or consider. It is generally used to denote doubt or incredulity about particular ideas, or a wider view about the impossibility of having certain knowledge. This uncertainty is a philosophical position, and philosophical scepticism refers to the systematic doubt and testing of ideas.

Recently, sceptics (or skeptics) have become synonymous with two particular groups of people: those who doubt the accepted scientific consensus (for instance "climate change sceptics") and those who question these questioners (James Randi, for example, refers to himself as a skeptic). It's interesting that two completely disparate sets of thinkers could give themselves the same label.

In this (rather long) podcast a group of academics discus the philosophical origins and importance of scepticism in developing knowledge and belief.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Art of Photography

Joel Meyerowitz (born March, 1938) is a New York street, portrait and landscape photographer. He began his career in 1962 and was an early advocate of the use of color photography at a time when there was significant resistance to it acceptance as serious art.
Here he talks about photography as an art form:


Friday, January 18, 2013

New Words in the English Language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is published on-line ( every quarter, and is usually considered to be the definitive guide to the English language. In general the OED publishes around 2,000 new and revised entries (those where new or updated definitions are given for pre-existing words) each quarter.

English has never procured an official Academy to regulate its use, as have other languages including French and Spanish, so you could argue it is much freer to evolve and reflect the cultures in which it is spoken. However, the choice of which words should be included in each new edition of the dictionary is taken by a few individuals. Their aim is to highlight words that have entered the language naturally over a period of a few years, rather than to artificially invent new ones. The OED explains the selection process as follows:
Finding new words 
Oxford University Press has one of the largest and most wide-ranging language research programmes in the world. Our most important resources are the Oxford English Corpus and the Oxford Reading Programme. The Corpus consists of entire documents sourced largely from the World Wide Web, while the Reading Programme is an electronic collection of sentences or short extracts drawn from a huge variety of writing, from song lyrics and popular fiction to scientific journals. It's based on the contributions of an international network of readers who are on the lookout for instances of new words and meanings or other language changes.
Keeping track and making choices 
We continually monitor the Corpus and the Reading Programme to track new words coming into the language: when we have evidence of a new term being used in a variety of different sources (not just by one writer) it becomes a candidate for inclusion in one of our dictionaries. For every new dictionary or online update we assess all the most recent terms that have emerged and select those which we judge to be the most significant or important and those which we think are likely to stand the test of time. 
In previous centuries dictionaries tended to contain lists of words that their writers thought might be useful, even if there was no evidence that anyone had ever actually used these words. This is not the case today. New terms have to be recorded in a print or online source before they can be considered: it's not enough just to hear them in conversation or on television, although we do analyse material from Internet message boards and TV scripts.
It used to be the case that a new term had to be used over a period of two or three years before we could consider adding it to a print dictionary. In today's digital age, the situation has changed. New terms can achieve enormous currency with a wide audience in a much shorter space of time, and people expect to find these new 'high-profile' words in their dictionaries. This presents an additional challenge to lexicographers trying to assess whether a term is ephemeral or whether it will become a permanent feature of the language.
Personal inventions
People often send us words they have made up and ask if we will add their invented terms to one of our dictionaries. Unfortunately, the answer is usually no, because we only add words that we consider to have genuinely entered the language: we assess this by looking at all the evidence we have in our databases. Of course, some invented words do catch on and become an established part of English, either because they fill a gap or because they are describing something new. Examples of this type of invented word include wiki, quark, spoof, and hobbit. (last accessed 17/01/2013)
The complete list of words recently added to the OED can be found here. looking at many of the new additions, it does seem to me that (despite the OED's attempts to chose words which are likely to stand the test of time) many of them may become redundant as times change and cultural references become obscure. Below are some examples, together with their definitions:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A History of the Universe in 200 Words

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Strong nuclear interaction. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Density perturbations. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Cluster formation. Reionization? Violent relaxation. Virialization. Biased galaxy formation? Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Compression. Opaque hydrogen. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Condensation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Water dissociation. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms. Oxidation. Mutation. Natural selection and evolution. Respiration. Cell differentiation. Sexual reproduction. Fossilization. Land exploration. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Glaciation. Homo sapiens manifestation. Animal domestication. Food surplus production. Civilization! Innovation. Exploration. Religion. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Exploration. Colonization. Taxation without representation. Revolution. Constitution. Election. Expansion. Industrialization. Rebellion. Emancipation Proclamation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Immigration. World conflagration. League of Nations. Suffrage extension. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. United Nations. Space exploration. Assassinations. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Computerization. World Trade Organization. Terrorism. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?

Copyright 1996-1997 by Eric Schulman.

This piece was the inspiration for the book A Briefer History of Time and led to the Annals of Improbable Research Universal History Translation Project. Reprinted from the AIR, Volume III, Number 1, January/February 1997.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nonsense Mathematics

Here's a nice article tweeted by Richard van de Lagemaat this week. It appears that most of us are much more likely to accept the authority of an article if it includes some mathematics (regardless of whether or not these actually make any sense). Its indicative of the awe in which we generally hold professional mathematicians, but perhaps also shows a lack of understanding of maths by the general public. It also makes an interesting companion to the article I posted previously about 'why we mistrust science'.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mobius Strips

A Mobius Strip is a surface obtained by sticking the ends of a band together, giving it a single twist in the process. It was discovered by German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius and immortalised by some of the work of Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. Today, it is probably best known as the basis of the ubiquitous recycling symbol.

The shape itself and those obtained by cutting it are somewhat counter-intuitive. For example it appears only to have one surface and one side. If you trace a pencil line across the centre or edge of a Mobius Strip, you find yourself back at the position you started from.

The study of Mobius Strips and shapes like them gave rise to a new branch of mathematics called 'topology', which is concerned with the basic properties of space and connectedness. This developed from discussing questions about simple geometry to the structure of the Universe itself. The shape is also often used in religious analogies when discussing the multifacetedness of God.

Incidentally, I often wondered why those Heath Robinson-style contraptions (which usually seem to be attached to tractors on farms) use a belt twisted into a Mobius shape. Its obvious to me now that by doing so you double the surface area of the belt in contact with the machinery and therefore prolong its life.

The youtube clip below shows some nice bamboozling tricks you can play by creating Mobius Strips in paper and then cutting them up: