science

The Turnout 2 – On Homeopathy, with Michael Marsh

5AgJv6Fn_400x400For the 2nd episode of The Turnout I spoke with journalist Michael Marshall of The Good Thinking Society (as well as the Be Reasonable podcast and others).

Michael was the man behind the 10:23 campaign  which was a …

mass overdose of homeopathy outside branches of Boots UK in several major cities throughout the country, to publicly demonstrate the inefficacy of homeopathic products and protest against their sale.

I asked Michael about the history of homeopathy and what it actually is, or indeed isn’t. I also asked him about it’s availability on the NHS in various parts of the country and what should be done about it.

We also got on to some of the wider dangers of “medicines” that are not based on any solid science.

Hope you enjoy

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Wind And Pish

“Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is.”

That’s pretty damning already, but it isn’t the full quote…

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.”

Barton CommitteesI just discovered this quote. I stopped it halfway as it is usually left at that when people mention it. The full thing, if you read it carefully, doesn’t actually get much better.

So who was this genius?

It was Joe Barton. In the image on the right is a list of the committees he is on. He is a Republican congressman and a member of the Tea Party caucus as well.

Now let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that he is a climate change denier (I don’t like that term but hey-ho), a fierce defender of oil and energy companies (he issued an apology which he later retracted to BP for the trouble they got into after the Gulf of Mexico spill), and concentrate just on the quote itself.

The way I see it there are two possibilities here.

The first is simply that he is stupid enough to believe what he is saying, and that should be worrying.

If it isn’t, read the quote and the committees he is on again – someone with that level of scientific ignorance should be nowhere near those committees.

The second is that he thinks that the public, i.e. you, or the other politicians with which he is working are stupid enough to believe it.

This should be equally worrying. If he really thinks that this is the level of argument required to get his way in seriously important committees, then that doesn’t say much for the public or his fellow politicians.

 apathy

How To Ruin A Good Idea

So a lot of scientists are saying that the 3-D printer could be the big one, the game-changer, the thing that after which nothing is the same again.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc.

This technology is already available and can be used to make an unbelievable amount of things. It is also becoming cheaper all the time and the designs it can make are more and more advanced.

It’s already happening.
In the future this technology could be used to make machine parts (it already is to some extent), to make machines, houses, medicines, even replacement body parts, basically anything you can think of to make life better…and it could be cheap too.

So what was one of the first things an American company came up with for this astounding technology.

Yes, you guessed right

Plans to print a gun halted as 3D printer is seized

A US project to create a printable gun has been derailed after the company supplying the 3D printer withdrew it.

In a letter published on the Wiki Weapon website, Stratasys said that it did not allow its printers “to be used for illegal purposes”

Defense Distributed, the group behind the project, had planned to share 3D weapon blueprints online.

“This project could very well change the way we think about gun control and consumption,” it said on its site.

“How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the internet?”

It’s predictably depressing.

Way Off The Lamarck

“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

Albert Einstein

I was lucky enough to get 6 hours in Paris the other day and went for a wander around Notre Dame. Before you get there though there is the Jardin Des Plantes and I thought I would take a walk around. Didn’t have enough money on me to go into the evolution museum even though I wanted to but this statue caught my eye I was a little taken aback. Take a look…

When I first saw the statue my first thought, a little unfairly, was that Lamarck was responsible for the theory of evolution in the same way that cheese was responsible for the great train robbery – not at all (actually that was my second thought, my first was “wait a f**king minute!”). However, on thinking it over maybe a fairer way to look at it might be like da Vinci and the helicopter in that although their ideas would not have worked, they were among the first attempts to solve certain problems.

I’m fairly sure if you asked a French person now who was responsible for the theory of evolution they would say Darwin. It is highly probable that the trumpeting of Lamarck in France represented part of the battle between the British and French empires, the two major powers of that era, in that they were trying also to be perceived to be intellectually and culturally dominant. A similar stooshie went on over who discovered Neptune with the British trying to claim it from the French.

Although this is intellectually dishonest behaviour, I suppose it would be preferable to the kind of thing that the Americans are putting out these days to show their cultural dominance.

The Jardins Des Plantes is a nice place though, and there are a few more pictures if you click on the READ MORE below.

(more…)

Alfred Wegener

Rita: You think Einstein walked around thinkin’ everyone was a bunch of dumb shits?

Pvt. Joe Bowers: Yeah. Hadn’t thought of that.

Rita: Now you know why he built that bomb.

(From the film Idiocracy)

We have all heard often about how Darwin was right and not many understood what he was saying whilst others wished to attack him for religious or political motives. It must have been truly difficult for him and it is a sad story but at least in his lifetime he managed to see that the majority were beginning to accept his ideas.

One poor soul who never got to have that final pleasure was Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) and his story is in some ways, but not all, similar to that of Darwin. Wegener was the man who proposed the theory of plate tectonics and was ridiculed for it.

One of the similarities with Darwin are that “Wegener was not the first to suggest that the continents had once been connected, but he was the first to present extensive evidence from several fields”. Darwin wasn’t the first to suggest that some from of evolution was taking place but he provided mountains of evidence for it.

Another of the similarities is that although both of them had the right idea, they were missing or wrong about part of the mechanism. In Darwin’s case his method of natural selection is true but missed the role of genes, which he had no way of knowing about. In Wegener’s case he believed the continents “plow through the ocean floor”. He may have believed that  as studies of the earth’s crust under the ocean had not been done at the time.

A third similarity is that while they were being attacked for their theories, they also had some supporters who tried to explain their theories.

The major difference, and why I am writing this, is that  I’ve always found it a sad thought that someone who understood first (though not completely) one of the major things about how the planet works, never lived to see the world catch up with him and Wegener didn’t live to see himself vindicated .

I’ll let him finish…

“Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence. . . It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine ‘truth’ here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw.”

Alfred Wegener. The Origins of Continents and Oceans (4th edition)

Planet Green Interview

A while back I was interviewed by author Mickey Z for the website Planet Green about my other website Exit Stage Right.

Here is the interview…

Michael Greenwell Puts the Focus on Extinction with “Exit Stage Right” (Interview)

Only his DJ career should be extinct

Scotland’s Michael Greenwell has worked, at various times, as a university tutor, a barman, a DJ (“not a very good one,” he clarifies), an office lackey, supermarket worker, president of a small charity, a researcher, a librarian, a volunteer worker in Nepal during the civil war there, and “some other things that were too tedious to mention.” Nowadays, he explains, “I am always in the education sector in one way or another.”

Part of his role as educator is the creation of a blog called Exit Stage Right, where you’ll find this mission statement of sorts:

“We are in the early stages of what could easily become the biggest mass extinction the planet has ever seen. This site is a resource for anyone to use to keep track of what has just become extinct or what is in serious danger.”

Jeff Corwin, author of 100 Heartbeats, would likely agree: “Every 20 minutes we lose an animal species,” Corwin explains. “If this rate continues, by century’s end, 50% of all living species will be gone. It is a phenomenon known as the sixth extinction. The fifth extinction took place 65 million years ago when a meteor smashed into the Earth, killing off the dinosaurs and many other species and opening the door for the rise of mammals. Currently, the sixth extinction is on track to dwarf the fifth.”

Thus, promoting awareness and action on the crucial issue of extinction is part of Michael Greenwell’s activist life and spirit. “I used to be an inveterate marcher but have pretty much given up on it now and like everyone else am looking for a way to effect real change without precipitating disaster or inviting the imposition of further constraints upon the public,” he says.

To hear more of his thoughts, check out the interview below…

My Conversation With Michael Greenwell

Planet Green: How did you get started on the issue of extinction?

Michael Greenwell: A few years ago, I started to notice the increasing frequency of the “Only 200 of this thing left” or “__________ on verge of extinction” stories that pop up every couple of weeks on page 11. Like anyone else I thought “Oh, that’s terrible” but I started to wonder why these things were not front page news. It is an entirely different category of story to a story about some politician being an idiot in one way or another (don’t get me started on celebrities), because if a politician is sacked or voted out there is always another vainglorious clown waiting to take his or her place. Unlike politicians, in the animal extinction issue, “gone” means “gone forever and not coming back” which is a much more serious thing.

PG: How did that lead to the creation of your blog?

MG: I thought about just putting all the stories I could find on the issue on one site with no fear or favor about where it comes from—just a link to where the story comes from and then the info. I hoped maybe to get some general readers but also that maybe some activists and scientists that work in the field would take a look at it and use it as a resource. That has happily been the case. Aside from that you would be surprised at some of the abuse I have got for it.

PG: Is there a common thread in such abuse?

MG: Usually it is of the “animals will hurt you if they get a chance so why should we give a shit about them?” variety. This is so ridiculous I don’t even bother responding to it usually.

PG: Conversely, have you heard from readers who’ve thanked you for the blog and now see extinction as an urgent issue?

MG: Yes. Notwithstanding the abuse I get quite a lot of correspondence about it all. I often get emails from teenagers asking for help with a school project about something which is a positive sign. If i can I direct them to where they want to be looking for more information on the subject or groups they want to join. There are also a lot of people who tell me that they had never realised the problem was this serious and so on. A lot of conservationist groups send me their press releases too. Finally, I occasionally receive emails from people asking me to endorse their eco-product or enviro-tourism. I haven’t yet seen one of these that I would consider having anything to do with.

PG: If you could reach as wide an audience as possible with information about extinction and the human role in this maddening trend, what would you tell them?

MG: I was thinking the about it the other day when I was showing Supersize Me to a group of students. The doctor was telling Morgan Spurlock about how the human liver is resilient and can heal itself but that by doing his McDeaths experiment he was literally pickling his liver with toxic food like was done in Leaving in Las Vegas with alcohol. I thought that there was an analogy there. The ecosystem is resilient, it can take a lot of shit that you might throw at it. Even if it takes a temporary hit it can rebound and replenish itself…some individual cells will be gone of course but other ones are made. This is the natural way of it in normal times. However, if you just continually throw toxins at it day after day after day then there comes a point when it just breaks down and there are only 2 ways out…transplant or death. As there is no transplant to another planet available (and even if there was, should it make a difference?) we and everything else only have one way to go if we don’t stop our toxic diet. And the doctor has been telling us for a long long time that we need to start looking after ourselves better.

Another Video by Michael Greenwell

PG: Okay, what can we do to start looking after ourselves better?

MG: Ideal world or right here right now?

PG: A little of both?

MG: On these issues the public are way ahead of the politicians. We have to change first. We can’t wait for them because we don’t have enough time left. That isn’t to say we should let them off the hook either. Having said that, consumer choices sometimes seem like the difference with voting Tory or Labour or Democrat or Republican. Like coke and diet coke. Essentially it is like choosing to be shot in the head 5 times or shot in the head 4 times. So if there is something to be done in the field of consumption (did you know that that is what they used to call Tuberculosis?) then the choice is not really between this thing and another supposedly more ethical thing. It is rather between this thing and nothing or repairing the old thing instead of throwing it away. Use and buy LESS is the message…instead of use and buy different, even it is tougher than choosing one thing or the other to consume. Buy less stuff, use less power. LESS is a very difficult message to transmit because everywhere we look we see the message MORE on every billboard, TV screen and in every newspaper and magazine. This is at least something practical we can do to reduce the damage. Ideally, we could realize that we are a species that is capable of improving our surroundings and work out why we seem so often to do the exact opposite. Like what I am trying to do with Exit Stage Right…. the first step is seeing that you have a serious problem.

PG: Where can readers find your work on the Web?

MG: I am a conscientious objector to Facebook. You can get me on Twitter and there is Exit Stage Right and my home page.

Diamond Planet Finder Is A Star

You probably read recently about the scientists who found a planet  that may or may not be effectively a large diamond.

The story got a lot of coverage but one of the scientists involved, Matthew Bailes, has done something rather brave in a recent article and should be applauded for it. He used the opportunity given to him by this discovery to defend the climate scientists that are under attack by industry and lobby groups.

Here is a slightly shortened version of what he said…

Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.

I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.

Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.

Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.

Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.

Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.

But luckily we’re not climate scientists.

It may come as a big surprise to many, but there is actually no difference between how science works in astronomy and climate change – or any other scientific discipline for that matter.

We make observations, run simulations, test and propose hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings.

Of course we all make mistakes. But eventually the prevailing wisdom of the community triumphs and the field advances.

It’s wonderful to be a part of that process.

But on occasion those from the fringe of the scientific community will push a position that is simply not credible against the weight of evidence.

This occurs within any discipline. But it seems it’s only in the field of climate science that such people are given airtime and column inches to espouse their views.

Those who want to ignore what’s happening to Earth feel they need to be able to quote “alternative studies”, regardless of the scientific merit of those studies.

In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.

When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.

Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.

The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.

The full thing is here.

This guy has taken his 15 minutes of fame (as he called it himself) and used it to say something that is bang on the money and was in dire need of saying. Downplaying his own discovery in order to support his colleagues and the environment is not to be sniffed at. The problem is however, that probably the discourse he has given us here will be drowned out by pure nonsense, such as homeopathy* ,  or pure spin (and nonsense) that clutters up science reporting in the popular press.

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*Feel free to take this opportunity to accuse me of working for big pharma (though you couldn’t be more wrong. But before you do, I would like you to consider this. Big pharmaceutical companies obviously do not always behave well. However, there is no logical path from that fact to the idea that homeopathy must work.

Yuri Gagarin

That would be a happy birthday to Yuri Gagarin the first human being ever to go into space who, by any standards, has to be a hero.

I read a biography of him a few years ago of which the name escapes me for the moment.  It was very interesting but seemed to suggest foul play surrounding his death (in a plane crash) that has never been proven.

What is certainly true about him as that after his incredible achievement, the propaganda role he was asked/forced to play never sat well with him and he became increasingly upset with, and alientated from, the leadership of the former communist regime. They were never happy about his unwillingness to support them wholeheartedly and therefore relations became somewhat frosty (no cold war pun intended).

He just wished to fly again and this desire unfortunately led to his death. This reluctance to be a poster boy for the regime may be the reason for the lack of attributable quotes and speeches by him.

Anyway, here are a couple from him…

“What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…. The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…. When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquiose, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.”

“No I didn’t see God. I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.”



2010 Ig Nobel AWARDS

In case all the hullaballoo with the Chinese and the Vatican being a bit angry about the Nobel prizes that were handed out made you miss the real story, the IgNobel awards were handed out a couple of weeks ago.

Here are some of the winners as documented in the Guardian

Medicine prize

Psychologists Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest at the University of Amsterdam share the award for discovering that breathing difficulties brought on by asthma can be alleviated by repeated rollercoaster rides.

Physics prize

Awarded to Lianne Parkin and her team at the University of Otago in New Zealand for demonstrating that people are less likely to slip over on icy footpaths if they wear their socks outside their shoes instead of inside.

Biology prize

A description of the sexual antics of the short-nosed fruit bat earned the award for Gareth Jones at Bristol University and collaborators in China. The team showed that females who performed oral sex on their mates copulated for longer. “It is the first documented case of fellatio by adult animals other than humans to my knowledge, and opens questions about whether female animals can manipulate males via sexual activity, perhaps in this case to improve their chances of successful fertilisation,” Jones told the Guardian. He planned to demonstrate the behaviour at the ceremony using puppets.

Writing about the research for the Huffington Post last year, the primatologist Frans de Waal said: “The fellatio story on bats is a bright spot in an otherwise miserable record that denies animals the pleasure principle, homosexuality, and other forms of non-reproductive sex.”

Peace prize

Awarded to psychologist Richard Stephens and others at Keele University for confirming that swearing relieves pain. Stephens, who began the study after striking his thumb with a hammer, found volunteers could tolerate more pain if they repeated swearwords rather than neutral words. He suspects that “swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception”.

Engineering prize

The task of monitoring dangerous bugs in whales at sea is a formidable one. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and others at the Institute of Zoology in London developed a way to collect fluids ejected from whales’ blowholes by attaching petri dishes to the underside of small, remote-controlled helicopters and hovering them overhead.

Management prize

To Alessandro Pluchino and team at the University of Catania for demonstrating mathematically that companies work more efficiently if staff are promoted at random.

Chemistry prize

For research in 2005 that overturned the long-held belief that oil and water do not mix, the prize was awarded to Eric Adams at MIT and others, including researchers at BP.

Economics prize

Awarded jointly to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Magnetar for “creating and promoting new ways to invest money – ways that maximise financial gain and minimise financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.”