Tag Archives: Bad-Science

Not paying enough attention

I only registered the existence of a new UK ID promotion centre after a comment here from Grumpy Bob led me to his blog. I must start paying attention. Just when you think that the ID nonsense is dead, it pops up again, Whack-a-mole style.

Here’s the Guardian version of the story.

This organisation – which claims to represent a non-zero number of scientists – is organising a UK tour featuring Michael Behe. (or “Prof Mike Behe, Professor of Chemistry at Lehigh University, USA,” as they chummily put it.)

There are huge numbers of comments on the Guardian piece, most of which make excellent points. Yet again.

On the Guardian blog page, you can’t miss the shot of the smiling avuncular Dr Alistair Noble, who has plenty of form in this area. You may however overlook this:

The small print of the website says the centre’s activity “is organised under a charitable trust governed by the laws of Guernsey, Channel Islands.
The centre receives funding from individuals and organisations who support its aims… “. (From the Guardian)

Channel Islands. Odd choice of a banking institution for a Scottish lay preacher. Must make it quite a trek to pay in the pennies contributed by enthusiastic individuals…

…Noble denies that the centre is a British branch of Discovery: “We are friends with Discovery and we talk to them, but we are not formally linked. We would be interested in developing links with Europe. We don’t get money from America – it is funded from Britain.” (From the Guardian)

Well, we wouldn’t know about that, would we? What with the trust being set up in the Channel Islands?

Quantum physicality

Quantum physics has become the new handbag-dog accessory for actors and tv presenters.

You think I’m making this up. Here are some sources:
Courtney Love
Anne Hathaway
Takulah Riley
Anne-Marie Jordan, Actress.
Josie Lawrence
Flux Theatre Ensemble

and so on beyond the point at which I can bear to google any more.

All-time best example of the emerging celeb-quantum physics crossover must be this one: Peaches Geldof in conversation with Fearne Cotton. Kathryn Flett provides an accurate transcript there. The most appealing quote is

“I’m really interested in quantum physics. Which is how I got involved in, like, spirituality and stuff, and, like, the religious path I choose to go down, and stuff.”

An odd aspect of a professed interest in quantum physics is the way it’s so often part of a worldview that involves “spirituality and stuff”

Here’s a youtube video where the fruit-flavoured Geldof offspring explains her scientology beliefs.

I have to admit that I don’t understand quantum physics. In my school Physics lessons I couldn’t master Mechanics, ffs. So maybe quantum physics does prove that any bullshit crap must be true. (There’s a good example on Ben Goldacre’s BadScience.net)

However, lLooking into it any further to check this out would involve me in having to do hard maths. Which I already know I couldn’t manage. So I may have to yield and accept the Z-list-Celeb Model of quantum relativity as the long-awaited new Theory of Everything.

US Plans to Ban Irish Coffee….

Echoing the prohibition that hung round the great depression, the current global economic crisis seems to be encouraging people to ban things, almost at random.

From New Scientist:

THE US Food and Drug Administration is unimpressed by the fad for drinks that contain a double hit – alcohol and caffeine. Unless makers supply the FDA with scientific evidence that the drinks are safe they could be banned within months.

Another wonderful, yet unthinking, bit of legislation is sure to follow. Gone are the days when people can enjoy a cup of coffee with a shot of whisky after their meal. [Please feel free to twitter away on this!]

Monkeys and wordprocessors

A Civitas* survey of teachers claims that they believe trained monkeys could pass A Level exams, according to the Metro. And the Press Association.

One director of A-levels, based in the North West, told researchers: “You could train a monkey to do the questions today.”
Another head of sixth-form from the East Midlands said: “This is Mickey Mouse stuff – what they learn at A-level today is not sufficient for GCSE. The system is an absolute shambles. The standard of the candidates is very low – it’s a national disgrace.” (from the Press Association)

(How bad at teaching must these surveyed teachers be, then, if their human pupils fail? )

I, for one, welcome our new simian overlords.

So – in the interests of helping monkeys to achieve University entrance qualifications – I’ve drafted an A Level paper that monkeys (or at least the orangutan, in Terry Pratchett’s novels, who says “Ook”) could have a fair shot at passing.
——————————————————-
Paper II English Written, Advanced Level, June 2009

Answer ALL questions. Write on both sides of the paper. Points will be deducted for bad spelling.

Time: 100 years

1 You are provided with a typewriter. Type out the complete works of Shakespeare.

===============================================
Paper II English Oral, Advanced Level, June 2009

1. Complete the following sentences by saying the missing syllables:

A “War and Peace” is a b…
B “A thief” is another word for a cr…
C The castle chess piece is also known as a r…

2. Express your response to the following statements through appropriate gestures:

A When I read about mock surveys carried out by spurious “think tanks”, I feel like doing this.
B When I can’t find any mention of said “survey” of “teachers” on the thinktank’s website, I feel like doing this.
C This survey is a load of ….
(Extra credit may be earned by baboons here)

==============================================

Supplementary Notes
* Civitas is a “thinktank” which is also a registered charity. That means it gets tax relief on donations. Which seems quite amazing, given that it seems to have no purpose but to spread right-wing propaganda.
No wait, it also funds an education establishment, which luckily brings it under the remit of the Charity Commission’s qualifications.
To quote Sarah Hall writing in the Guardian in 2004.

Rightwing thinktank’s school aims to teach traditional culture
A rightwing thinktank which promotes pamphlets opposing immigration and asylum is writing to supporters urging them to help fund a school because it fears “our culture is in serious decline – one might say meltdown”….

While the cat’s away

Ben Goldacre seems to be on holiday. (His most recent post on badscience.net was dated 18 July.) The temporary absence of the scourge of pseudo-science may have given the green light to new levels of absurdity.

The Times Science Editor, no less, wrote that

Women are getting more beautiful
FOR the female half of the population, it may bring a satisfied smile. Scientists have found that evolution is driving women to become ever more beautiful, while men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.
The researchers have found beautiful women have more children than their plainer counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female. Those daughters, once adult, also tend to be attractive and so repeat the pattern

Now, being in the female half of the population, I’m not showing a satisfied smile. In fact, he only physical expression that you could detect me making would be the Sign language sign for “bullshit”, which a QI repeat showed last week.

(Arms crossed on your chest, with the fingers of one hand making horns and the fingers of the other hand opening and closing as if to drop a load. How beautifully expressive is that?)

If I knew the Sign Language for “ideological and sexist bullshit”, I’d be putting that here instead. But I bet even Steven Fry doesn’t know that one.

“Beautiful” women have more children? Can anyone pretend for one second that there is an objective standard for beauty? Ideals of beauty vary enormously over time and between cultures. Indeed,you wouldn’t find agreement on a common standard between people living a few miles apart. (Certainly not in the city where I live.)

And “having more children”, nay even, having more female children? WTF. That might have been a sign of evolutionary success in the paleolithic, but would surely have depended much more on the capacity to raise children to adulthood than to breed them even then. In modern societies, having a smaller number of offspring is pretty well directly associated with higher levels of education, health and wealth, at the household level, and with economic development, at the social level.

To follow the “logic” of this argument, uglier women would be more reproductively successful in modern society, then, surely?

Quite apart from anything else – because I’m bored with pointing out blatant absurdities in this report – just look around. Opening your eyes on any public street will soon put paid to any idea that good-looking people reproduce more than homely people.

This is the nub of the science bit:

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts. He used data gathered in America, in which 1,244 women and 997 men were followed through four decades of life. Their attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study, which also collected data on the number of children they had.

Hmm, that sounds sciencey but, just having numbers in doesn’t make it science. (Pause to remember that “up to 16%” more children can include anything from fewer children right up to 16% more. )

I can’t find this study online, although there are plenty of newmedia refernces to it. The only works I can find with the name of Markus Jokela are apparently legit: a study of childhood risk in the the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and a study of IQ, Socioeconomic Status and Early Death: The US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in Psychosomatic Medicine.

I’m pretty tempted to let Dr Jokela off the hook here and suggest that the whole beautiful women reproduce more “study” is an obscure internet jokela. One can but hope.

In any case, Ben Goldacre, please stop sunning yourself, and sort this nonsense out.

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.)

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 £20 to the first person who can best my truth-detection skills with some new-fangled electrodes-in-skull contraption.