Failure to grasp the point

Truly, the world is a pendulum. A great post on Why Evolution is True about the vestigial grasp observed in human infants was countered by a silly post on Uncommon Descent.

WEIT discussed how the instinctive grasping reflex observed in newborn babies can best be interpreted as a relic of behaviour in pre-hominids (new-born babies hanging on to their mothers)

This is not a revolutionary new idea. I am amazed that it is even contentious. This was accepted wisdom in the UK several years ago.

O’Reilly’s counter starts from the position of apparently never having heard of the idea that “anecdote is not evidence”.

When my first child was very young, she had a habit of grasping my hair while feeding. My hair was long at that time.
It seemed to please and comfort her.

(Can I be the only person who sees it as a commentary on O’Reilly’s attitude to her offspring that – believing pleasure and comfort to be the only reason for the baby’s hair-grasping – O’Reilly immediately got her hair cut? )

However, grasping has many uses for a human infant – it is the principle [sic – a pedant] way the infant contacts reality (unfortunately by attempting to put things in its mouth), that being the only sense that is even moderately well developed.

This sentence is too ambiguous to follow. She seems to have meant to put the end of the sentence in the bracket, so I’ll ignore the bit about taste.

We are left with grasping being described as the main way in which an infant contacts reality. What? Does this make any sense?

In case you can’t answer that rhetorical question, let me answer it for you. “No.”

So what? Well, this Uncommon Descent post was O’Reilly’s “answer” to:

Incidentally, what do the ID and the Evolution-is-limited-in-scope (Behe, et all) do with data like this:

“Mouth random words” is what they do, apparently.

Oh, and betray that they implicitly acknowledge the role of evolution 🙂 :

However, I also suspect that it has been a long time since any such skill as hanging on to mother was needed.

A long time? As in “the sort of time scales and species changes that evolution would predict”?

A miracle for E-Bay

A piece of toast has miraculously appeared on a wikipedia image of Jesus.

miraculous appearnce of toast

miraculous appearnce of toast

Giving bad science a bad name

“Coffee cures Alzheimer’s.” This sounds like great news for me personally, given that generally I drink enough coffee per day to wake up the population of a small town.

Am I drinking the right amount, though? How much do you need to drink to avoid – nay, cure – the dread disease?

The Independent claims that a modest cup a day will do it.

A coffee a day ensures the memory will stay

The BBC has a more demanding coffee-drinking schedule. And it’s a lot more tentative about the good it will do.

Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’
A possible treatment for dementia?
Drinking five cups of coffee a day could reverse memory problems seen in Alzheimer’s disease, US scientists say.

Wait, a mere two cups of coffee might do it.

The mice were given the equivalent of five 8 oz (227 grams) cups of coffee a day – about 500 milligrams of caffeine.
The researchers say this is the same as is found in two cups of “specialty” coffees such as lattes or cappuccinos from coffee shops, 14 cups of tea, or 20 soft drinks.

It may be too pedantic to point out that a latte or cappuccino are defined by the milk, rather than by the caffeine content. I take it they are using these as shorthand for “real” rather than instant coffee. Ground coffee or espresso may just be too unfashionable to mention.

The Daily Express actually led with this news item covering its front page, in some print editions. It thinks two coffees is the magic quantity.

TWO CUPS OF COFFEE A DAY STOPS ALZHEIMER’S
DRINKING two cups of coffee a day reverses the effects of Alzheimer’s, ground-breaking research has revealed.
Scientists say powerful evidence shows caffeine not only helps to stave off the disease but can even treat it, as it helps to sharpen the memory.

This news item is a mite less groundbreaking than it appears. There was a similar story last year. The protective volume of coffee was one cup a day.

“This is the best evidence yet that caffeine equivalent to one cup of coffee a day can help protect the brain against cholesterol.

In that experiment, it was rabbits that got the caffeine. The poor buggers were killed, of course, but at least they they were just regular rabbits, as far as I can make out.*

Not so the mice. They were bred to have symptoms of Alzheimers. I am sure you will correct my neuroscience idiocy but – is that really the same as human beings having Alzheimers? Or so close to the same as dammit?

(I have serious doubts about the applicability of this research to humans. Serious enough to say that – in the astronomically unlikely event that I were ever on a university ethics committee – I’d have said to these experimenters “Not a chance. You haven’t justified doing the Frankenstein thing of breeding creatures to be sick, in this case. First try some epidemiological studies of people.”)

The interesting thing is that the research report itself doesn’t even claim that coffee cures Alzheimers.

Researchers in the US have shown that caffeine can boost memory in mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms.
At the moment it is not clear whether caffeine can have the same effect in people. Researchers are now carrying out trials to see if caffeine can be beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s.(from the Alzheimers Research Trust website)

However, a casual scan of a few news items would leave you thinking that you only need to force a few doppio espressos down the throats of your formerly caffeine-free older relatives and they could emerge brighteyed from dementia.

(* Another paper in the same journal reckoned that

Acetaminophen inhibits neuronal inflammation and protects neurons from oxidative stress

I think that’s paracetemol to us. I’ll start swallowing two with my morning latte.)

Give the public what they want

Based on the top Google searches that brought stray readers here today, there would be zillions of visitors to any post that referred to:

* morris dancers or morris dancing
* schwarzenegger
* adam curtis or charlie brooker
* quiche gay
* chip 666
* fine art
* castle with a moat or fairytale castle
* Viking names
* 5 fruit and veg a day

These searches do actually reach posts – usually from long ago. Sometimes I have to search this site myself, to find any post relating to a weird search term, because the idea that some particular searches brought anyone here seems inherently unlikely.

If we’d known that we’d hit the popularity motherlode with these topics, maybe we should have had the foresight to make the target posts more interesting.

I’m taking the opposite tack and using these words – nay, even tagging with them – just for the comedic satisfaction of seeing the number of hits go through the roof today. I.e., a day when there is no actual content in the post.

So, sorry, if you came here because of one of these search terms. Just think of yourself as taking part in a non-peer-reviewed experiment with the nature of internet “popularity.” Without any analysis of the results, either. But then, this experiment won’t give rise to any spurious pseudo-science or pseudo-consultation in the media, so it’s all good.

All the space in the world?

Give me a minute to get over the shock of finding myself in agreement with Cameron Diaz. *pause*

A Guardian CIF Green post by Brendan O’Neill accuses Diaz of expressing a fashionable “Malthusianism” for saying that there are too many people in the world. He claims

We’ve got all the space in the world
Cameron Diaz is parading the latest Malthusian fashion, that the world has too many people. Ignore her, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.
It’s official: Malthusianism, the belief that there are too many people on the planet, has become fashionable. A-list fashionable. Alongside the grumpy old men in grey suits who have traditionally made up the Malthusian lobby, Hollywood starlets now bemoan the burden of humanity on the planet.

Nah. Brendan’s argument is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I really hope you weren’t getting paid for this CIF piece, Brendan. Because that would be a non-zero portion of the planet’s limited resources getting misdirected.

Yes, we have got all the space in the world.

That’s pretty much true by definition. It just means the world has its own allotment of space.

However, it doesn’t mean the world isn’t overpopulated, nor that the earth can absorb a few more billion human life forms.

Air, water, fuel, the survival of other species, our dependence on a working ecosystem – somehow, these don’t factor into Brendan’s vision of the world. He just takes as an item of faith that the food supply can be expanded more or less indefinitely through industrial production. Through the application of the human ingenuity of billions of people.

Give me a break. Even if that were true – and if you could ignore the effects on the ecosystem and generate raw materials through magic (which I can’t believe for a minute) – what specific evidence does Brendan have that people will start coming together to apply rational solutions to the creation, use, disposal and fair distribution of materials?

A recognition that the earth can’t hold an infinite number of humans doesn’t imply that you are a follower of all the thoughts of a 19th century economist who also noticed this.

Nor does it mean that you want to kill off loads of existing people (as Brendan suggests) nor that you share any other ideas with the BNP (as Brendan suggests) nor with the Duke of Edinburgh (as Brendan suggests) nor even with David Attenborough (as Brendan suggests.)

This is the central problem with Malthusianism: it looks upon population growth as the only variable, and everything else – from food production to industrial development to human ingenuity itself – as fixed. In short, founded on a negative view of humanity as incapable of resolving its problems or improving the world, it can only see more humans as something to worry about, a harbinger of disaster. In this sense population scaremongering is a fatal distraction, focusing people’s attention on the “problem” of overpopulation rather than on what we can do collectively to make the planet a better, wealthier, more fruitful place for hundreds of billions of human beings.

It seems that nothing can shake Brendan’s utopian vision of collective human action to make the planet better. But some very basic biology lessons might shake his faith in the capacity of the any species to survive if it becomes too numerous for its environment.

Hundreds of billions, indeed. Has he got any idea of what the world population is? If there were hundreds of billions we’d have to start rationing air.

He ends with this wonderfully comic bit. Comic because it treats a 30-year-old newsbite from a musician with no expertise in the subject as if it was intrinsically more worthy than an uninformed rant from Joe Normal in the pub.
Comic, because it implies that money can somehow feed people. (Chocolate coins, maybe)
And it’s a comic piece of celeb-quoting, because, in any case, Lennon’s last sentence undercuts the whole assumption that there is enough of everything for everybody

So ignore Ms Diaz. I preferred it when celebs had a more positive outlook. Asked on a 1970s chat show about overpopulation, John Lennon said it was a “myth”: “We have enough food and money to feed everybody. There’s enough room for us, and some of them can go to the moon anyway.”

Something good

Did you know that cloudspotting was a proper hobby, with a club you can join and everything?

Like trainspotting or twitching. But more random, more generally accessible and with fewer names for categories to learn.

I found this out from this morning’s BBC Breakfast Show. Sadly, half the UK must have found it out at the same time, because the server on the Cloud Appreciation Society has been intermittently incapable of serving up content all day, due to what it calls “incapacity problems”.

If you are either very lucky or patient enough to wait a few days, the site gallery has some stunning pictures.

Mind-reading

I’d barely started to grasp the concept of click-jacking. (And surf-jacking , modem-jacking, car-jacking, rate-jacking etc.)

Now, we also have to worry about “brain-jacking”, according to the Times.

It sounds like science fiction, but politicians, lawyers and advertisers are falling over themselves to buy into the latest scientific discovery: brainjacking. Soon our secret desires and not so innocent thoughts could become public knowledge. John Naish investigates an uncomfortable trend (sub-heading to the Times article)

The idea that machines can determine our true thoughts and feelings isn’t just silly (although, on present showing, it certainly seem to be that) but dangerous. It has already been used in several Indian cases that involved serious crimes, despite the opposition of scientists:

Although an Indian government panel of scientists says this technique, Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature profiling (BEOS), should be ignored, its use in India is spreading

I was pretty scathing about lie-detection technology a few weeks ago.

This sparked the researcher Aiden Gregg to put up an elegant defence of his work in the comments here. I was feeling a bit guilty for randomly splattering out knee-jerk scepticism, when his careful research itself couldn’t be held to blame for how it might be misused by people who don’t understand probabilities. But he said this:

However, as an asserted lie detector, the VSA may intimidate benefit claimants into bring more truthful in general. Ironically, this would involve telling a lie to deter lying.

I don’t think that ironically is the right word, here. I think that unethically is more appropriate. (And that’s ignoring the tendency of the innocent to feel guilty in the face of any interrogation and intimidated in the face of prying authority. Although, maybe, deterring as many claimants as possible is the true objective.)

The Indian courts might be able to intimidate the gullible-guilty into thinking that their brains have given them away. This will not work on the less-gullible guilty. The process could even work to give them an unearned apparent veracity.

The process is basically a conjurer’s mind-reading trick, with science-y looking props. If I had access to a million-dollars, so that I could offer a Randi-style million dollar challenge, I’d happily bet myself against a mind-reading machine as being just as likely to tell who was lying. I think I’m quite good at it. I wouldn’t claim more than 85% success rate but nor do the machine-minders.

So, not having a million dollars, I am setting up the “Ned Ludd Memorial Mind-reading Machine-breaking Challenge.” I will give ÂŁ20 to the first person who can best my truth-detection skills with some new-fangled electrodes-in-skull contraption.

Creating an absurdity

I see that mouthy atheists are to blame for the spread of creationism. ROTFL. * chortle immoderately * etc

Well, so it says in the Guardian special on the rise of creationism.

They also claim that the aggression of the new atheists is helping them. They paint Dawkins as a “recruiting sergeant” for creationism because he links evolutionary thinking with atheism. “He has been a real help to the ministry, ” says Randall Hardy.
Creationists argue that the new atheists are fuelling the dogmatism; Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford and a theistic evolutionary, last week threw that accusation back at them. “Creationists totally misunderstand the Bible,” he said. “Genesis is in the business of story, myth, poetry, metaphor. They [creationists and atheists] feed off one another. The debate has an unreality about it. Those of us who are not fundamentalists can’t find a place.”

Thus, even the relatively sane Bishop of Oxford puts atheism and creationism in the same conceptual “fundamentalist” box. And the full-blown creationist believes that -people who believe in God think they can’t believe in evolution, just because Dawkins links evolutionary thinking with atheism,

That is giving Dawkins much more influence than he can possibly dream of having. I refuse to believe that most people have even the vaguest ideas about evolution. Nor that more than a tiny minority of the population have ever read the God Delusion or even watched a Dawkins tv programme. (You would think that, almost by definition, people stupid enough to believe in creationism are too stupid to read erudite books or watch demanding tv)

Indeed, even the article undercuts the implications that there are grounds for this “Blame atheists for creationism” viewpoint.

Almost all Christians used to go along with the idea that Genesis was a bit suspect on dates, and that the six days of the Bible were metaphorical, with each day representing a vast geological age. The majority of Anglicans, theistic evolutionists who have no difficulty in believing in a Darwinian God, would still abide by that. But the publication in 1961 of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, which set out to give a scientific demonstration of the literal truth of the Bible, emboldened those who refused to accept evolution.

1961? Dawkins was 20 then. I’m pretty certain this predates The God Delusion by a few decades. Well, Wikipedia informs me that the God Delusion was published in 2006.

What on earth was fuelling creationism in the intervening decades, then, if noisy atheists are to blame now?

Or are we to start dating the “New Atheism” in creationist terms, so that we are to accept not only that dinosaurs walked with men but that an undergraduate Dawkins managed to spark the rise in creationism with his strident atheist complaints?

This article does provide creationist “answers” to two questions that have long baffled me.

  • Question: Why didn’t Noah take all the dinosaurs into the ark if humans and dinoasurs were all happily living together?
    Answer:

    Creationists, who argue that the world was created no more than 10,000 years ago, believe dinosaurs and man co-existed in the pre-Flood period (they date the Flood to around 1,600 years after the creation), that there were dinosaurs on the ark, but that they were eventually wiped out by the changes in climate which followed the Flood.

    Ah, it wasn’t that Noah just didn’t like dinosaurs. (Mentally upscale the conceptual size of ark needed, from one the size of France to one the size of Asia) He did his level best to save them but somehow they proved unable to survive in a changed environment. (Oh, you mean, like evolutionary processes?)

  • Question 2:
    What have creationists got against the biological sciences that they don’t have against mathematics or physics or geography?

    Answer:
    It seems that biology is nothing special. They are indeed just as willing to abandon all sciences where they conflict with the Bible.

    …..virtually all existing science has to be rewritten – and the creationists are ready to do the rewriting. The speed of light, Rosevear argues, used to be 300 times faster than it is now – necessary for creationists to explain cosmology and the distance of other solar systems from our own; the great cataclysm of the Flood explains the formation of sedimentary rock and the distribution of fossils; …

The Guardian writer either assumes that almost any reader will see the creationists as self-evident nutters or he lacks the most basic information-processing skills. For example, he uncritically reports “findings” from all those surveys (e.g for Theos :-)) that supposedly show that sizeable minorities of the population are creationists.

And his naivety seems incomprehensible when he says this:

British creationism is surprisingly independent from the far bigger, better funded, more vocal, highly politicised movement in the US, where creationists and intelligent design organisations (often a front for Christian creationists) are fighting perpetual legal battles to get creationist teaching into the classrooms of state schools.

The Portsmouth Genesis Expo may be a saggy old cloth cat to the Cincinnati Creation Museum’s roaring lion. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t manifestations of the same species, seen once in tragedy (Creation Museum) ; the second time in farce (Genesis Expo).

If I had to choose between whether to blame “The New Atheism” or the media (who present the opinions of lunatics as if they have some validity, in a “two sides to every argument” distortion of the concept of balance) for the rise of creationist lunacy, I know where I’d lay most of the blame.

.

Darwin and the Tree of Life

Possibly the best “educational” program I have seen on television in as long as I can remember. Better than Michio Kaku, better than all the discovery channel shows, better than all the rest.

I am talking about a wonderful BBC1 program – Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life – which has just finished. If you missed it, I cant stress how much you really should watch this on iPlayer. It is a part-Open University funded education program, supported by an interesting BBC Darwin website, where you can catch a glimpse of the program if it isnt on the iPlayer yet.

In a nutshell, David Attenborough shows his fantastic qualities as a presenter and takes the viewer on a tour through the history of the theory of evolution. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the science and has a presentational style that is unmatched. I was actually saddened at one point in the program, when I realised that 30 years ago people were more accepting of evolution and our place in the world than they are today. Thanks to the idiocy of fundamentalist religion we really are going back in time.

Attenborough calmly and politely mocks the ideas that all species were created as they are with no change and gives a wonderful (if brief) example of how the eye is a good example of evolution at work. It is all well done and while the hardened scientist may object at some simplification, this is a program which explains evolution in an hour for the general public. To that end some abbreviation of the tree of life is understandable.

Sadly, the BBC website sort of undermines Attenborough’s fantastic work with this line:

David shares his personal view on Darwin’s controversial idea.

Now, while it was indeed controversial in the 1860’s it is now valid science with solid evidential backing. The controversy is not real. Implying it is still there plays into the hands of the idiots and anti-educationalists. Shame really.

This program shows that, despite its faults, the BBC really can pull it out of the bag when it comes to “important” programs.

Bad science of the day – minority report

There’s a new contender for the Holy Grail object: The Magic Machine that Can Tell Truth from Lies.

On the face of it, this one seems even more useless than the old-style polygraph. It can be beaten by the simple expedient of “answeringquicklywithouthesitation.”.

The Times reported that psychologist Aiden Gregg has developed:

A new lie detector test shows that it takes on average 30% longer to tell a fib than to be honest.

That sounds an impressive test for truth – objective quantifiable, replicable, easy to measure, and so on.

Gregg said he built the test because he suspected that criminals were finding increasing ways to hide their dishonesty. …..
… The psychologist warned that existing lie detectors such as polygraphs – which monitor physiological changes such as blood pressure and body temperature – implicate too many innocent people. (from the Times)

Government funding for security is so reliable in these cash-strapped times for universities. So, in one way, it’s a great idea, from an academic’s perspective.

But I can’t see anything in this report that backs up its claims as a Holy Grail Machine.

The experiments were done in an environment which was not pressured. Completely unlike a real-world instance, subjects would have no reasons to be anxious about telling either lies or truth. However, thinking up experimental “lies” would mean subjects had to take more time than the took to tell non-lies.

If you were an innocent suspect sitting in front of one of these machines, for real, you would be worried about your answers. You might hesitate before saying anything, as you pondered possible implications. On the other hand, if you were guilty but had practised a good story, you could just reel it out. Quickly.

This machine might work for finding out which of a group of scared twelve-year-olds had graffittied the bus stop. (Although, elementary normal investigation skills would surely achieve that more time-effectively and actually produce valid evidence.)

Practised liars are convincing. They can smile and wail and even sob convincingly, witness Karen Matthews’ performances. The time-delay counting machine would never have uncovered what was true or false in what she said. Any innocent mother, in the position that Karen Matthews pretended to be, would not answer normally. She would fail the test, while the sort of person who could lie about such an event to their closest family and friends would probably come across as being truthful.

Flawed as this whole lie-detector machine concept is, you can pretty well guarantee that politicians will NOT welcome it unless they are confident that they can beat it easily.

So, if it does get the government go-ahead after its trials, you can at least be confident that it doesn’t work at all.

Joke science

Coffee makes you hallucinate. (Yeah, right….) Well, it says so in a piece of research reported in lots of today’s UK papers.

The NHS Choices website says that

This bizarre claim is based on research into 219 students who answered questionnaires on caffeine intake, hallucinations and feelings of persecution. Various other news sources have reported the study, including the Daily Mail, which says that “drinking cup after cup of coffee dramatically increases the risk of hallucinating”.

Hmm, what percentage of 219 students reporting that they hallucinate after drinking coffee isn’t taking the piss? (~0% is my rough guess.)

This hallucinogenic coffee must be the best-kept secret on the planet. After centuries of coffee drinking, noone else has ever reported a caffeine -induced hallucination but these researchers found enough coffee-trippers in of a sample of 219 students to generate comparative results.

The NHS website demolishes the “coffee makes you hallucinate” claims quite comprehensively. This is reassuring in terms of the quality of NHS advice, after spuriously precise numbers of fruit-and-vegetables to eat or steps to take every day had made me a tad sceptical.

It’s obvious why the press excitedly report such nonsense (Ben Goldacre has pretty well said everything that needs to be said on that subject). But why do research projects that a 10 year-old could find gaping flaws in get done at all?

(sparing their blushes, no names) …of the Department of Psychology, Durham University carried out this research. No sources of funding were reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Oh yes, publication targets for academics and universities. Publish or be damned.

Black Hole found in Milky Way

From the BBC News website:

There is a giant black hole at the centre of our galaxy, a study has confirmed.

German astronomers tracked the movement of 28 stars circling the centre of the Milky Way, using the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

The black hole is four million times heavier than our Sun, according to the paper in The Astrophysical Journal.

You can read more on the BBC site (I cant find any other links about it yet)

The world smiles with you

The British Medical Journal reported today that happiness was infectious.
(James H Fowler, Nicholas A Christakis, 2008, Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network:longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study, BMJ 2008;337:a2338 doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338) (How’s that for a serious reference?)

Well, Fowler and Christakis didn’t exactly say that happiness is infectious. That was what the free bus newspaper said in the pop-science report. But it doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

From the abstract:

Objectives To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks …
Results Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.

I’ll sidestep a long debate over their methods and conclusions* and just temporarily assume the conclusions are correct. Some of itheir data supports a standard “common sense” conclusion. If you are generally “happy”, you make people around you feel happier. Unhappy people make other people feel sad. Most people would agree on the basis of their own anecdotal evidence.

You could account for a lot of the effect through the processes of human interaction. We all spend most of our time communicating in one way or another. It would be strange if emotions expressed in our communications didn’t influence other people.

All the same, it’s a fascinating suggestion that emotions are being transmitted as if they were infections. “Memes”, maybe, although I don’t like using the term, except as a metaphor, and it’s far too easy for metaphors to get taken as literal truths. (Universe created in seven days, for instance.)

The BMJ article doesn’t suggest an explanatory transmission mechanism. This is disappointing, given that they have managed to come up with a measurable concept of “happiness”. Sort of sidestepping centuries of philosophical debate, really. Not invalidating it – a few indices can’t account for human consciousness – but approximating emotions in a quantifiable way, so the researchers could do statistical tests and chart their results.

Off the top of my head, I can guess at a few possible mechanisms – admittedly, all are crackpot theories, but they could be tested – such as people tending to synchronise their brainwaves with those of people they are close to; the action of pheremones; subconscious mirroring of others’ physical state, and so on.

Footnotes, even, as well as references.
* E.g Sampling factors that might have influenced the results included genetics (they focused on family groups), environment (living in a spatially limited area and, so, probably in the same social strata) and the tendency of people to associate with people that they identify with (they looked at friends.)

Science of science standards

Abandon your moderate smugness about your academic skills and try to answer any of these old maths and chemistry exam questions:
Old mathematics paper
5 decades Chemistry papers

Well, I think I could get a few right, especially with a bit of a run-up to revise and some practice. But I would still have failed dismally. I couldn’t even get near to passing an exam that I’ve actually got the paper qualifications for – from the days when it was “harder”.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has petitioned the government about a fall in school science standards.

Armed with the first hard evidence of a catastrophic slippage in school science examinations standards, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has launched a Downing Street e-petition calling for urgent intervention to halt the slide.
And tomorrow morning a devastating RSC report demolishing the myth of record-breaking science education performance will land on the desks of all Members of Parliament.
The RSC report, also being supplied to industrialists and educationalists, raises major concerns over the disappearance from schools science examinations of vital problem-solving, critical thinking and mathematical manipulation…..
… Even bright students with enthusiastic teachers are being compelled to “learn to the test”, answering undemanding questions to satisfy the needs of league tables and national targets. The RSC has powerful evidence of the decline in standards, adding to the revelation that students are able to receive a “good pass” with a mark of 20%.

I’m not saying that they are wrong. They make very valid points in the report .

However, the public face of their “first hard evidence” seems more like a publicity stunt than science. In its pop-science media version, it certainly looks like the application of poor social science The RSC “hard evidence” is their exam test (5 decades Chemistry papers)

The RSC ran a competition based on exam questions culled from 50 years of chemistry O Level/GCSE exams. They found that the students (identified as “the most promising scientists” by their schools) who sat the tests “averaged just 25% of available marks.”

“Although the winner of the RSC competition got 94%, the fact that many highly intelligent youngsters were unfamiliar with solving these types of questions, obtaining on average 35% correct from recent papers from the 2000s and just 15% from the 1960s, points to a systemic failure and misplaced priorities in the educational system, rather than shortcomings in individual teachers or students. (From the RSC website)

Hmm. The content of the Chemistry curriculum has surely changed over 50 years. The percentage of correct answers fell as the questions went further back in time. This suggests at least one alternative explanation – the less familiar they were with the material, the worse the students did.

(Which is not surprising, given that teachers have had to “teach to the test” whenever they have prepared students for public exams. Students would be quite annoyed if they found themselves being prepared for exams from 50 years ago, because – however good their knowledge might be, it still wouldn’t allow them to do well on a 2008 paper.)

Surely, control samples should have been used. For instance, groups of students who weren’t already identified as the science stars; groups of students given only recent questions; groups of adults asked to sit the same tests and/ or recent exams. It would also have been more convincing if they hadn’t marked and set the tests themselves.

Not worth the bother? Obviously, because this would imply it was a real investigation, not a way to get their petition some public interest. (Such as I am showing here…. D’oh. Chemists:1 Me:0)

The RSC aren’t stupid. Their full report shows that they are aware that changes in the subject make it impossible to draw easy conclusions. They point out that they aren’t blaming teachers or students.

However, unless they are almost too unworldly to shop for their own pipettes, they would know that this will get publicity only because the whole report will be presented in terms of “exams are getting easier”.

This is an ongoing debate. It’s sometimes seen as a bit churlish to suggest that exams are easier, presenting some implied insult to the efforts of current students.

However, by very simple mathematics, if education policies are qualification-driven, demanding very high target levels of achievement, exam qualifications must get easier.

It is not possible to demand that 100% of 16 year-olds pass exams unless those exams are so easy that anyone can pass them (By definition. The clue’s in the target figure, for the mathematically-challenged.)

What teacher in their right mind would enter their dimmest or least interested students for a tough chemistry exam? Why would they encourage any students whom they think won’t get a good exam mark to develop an interest in science, when their school will go tumbling down the league tables if only 5% manage a pass?

The RSC is actually saying this. Their real argument is about the system not the easiness of exams.

But who’s going to notice that while we are all feeding our own prejudices about the youth of today getting dumber? (Try one of those exam papers if you ever start to believe that.)

Getting climate change and asbestos wrong

You’d think that there had been enough pop science articles about climate change for even the thickest journalists to have grasped that “global warming” is

  • short-hand for complicated climatic processes, more accurately referred to as anthropogenic climate change, which don’t necessarily involve warming in any given place. (For instance, the diversion of the Gulf Stream could make the UK colder.)
  • not specifically identifiable in any given day’s or year’s temperatures in any particular place. Climate is not necessarily the same as weather

I assume that Christopher Booker is not a complete fool. He’s expensively educated, and he studied at Cambridge. So, it’s hard to see why he’s spreading ideas as confused as those in his Telegraph article, where seems imply that climate change is pretty well only “global warming” and the fact that some Russian measurements are wrong makes it all false anyway. (I paraphrase)

The world has never seen such freezing heat
A surreal scientific blunder last week raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming. On Monday, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore’s chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.(from the Telegraph)

Oh dear, Christopher, the point really isn’t whether a given month is “hot”.

How can you explain this to someone who believes that it is somehow discrediting Al Gore’s arguments to mention Al Gore’s name in the context that someone he knows has been misled by being supplied with a handful of duff numbers?

The science is too difficult for me to understand, but I’m pretty confident that it rests on millions of different types of observations, over many years and all parts of the world. And the work has been analysed and peer-reviewed by legions of climate scientists.

So, it’s not actually proven. (And, granted that my own assessment that the climate has changed dramatically over my lifetime, let alone Christopher Booker’s, is anecdotal.) But there seems to be such a serious weight of evidence to support it, it would be pretty dumb to imagine it is contradicted by one month’s error figures.

Pretty well as dumb as this complete misunderstanding of the evidence on asbestosis, for example, on the basis of some spuriously-qualified scientist :

Booker’s articles in The Daily Telegraph on asbestos and also on global warming have been challenged by George Monbiot in an article in The Guardian newspaper
Booker’s scientific claims, which include the false assertion that white asbestos (chrysotile) is “chemically identical to talcum powder” were analysed in detail by Richard Wilson in his book Don’t Get Fooled Again (2008).
Wilson also highlighted Christopher Booker’s repeated endorsement of the alleged scientific expertise of John Bridle, who has claimed to be “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”, but who in 2005 was convicted under the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act of making false claims about his qualifications, and who the BBC has accused of basing his reputation on “lies about his credentials, unaccredited tests, and self aggrandisement”.(from the Criticism section of Brooker’s Wikipedia entry)