Fortune teller

Fortune telling app

Click to open it*, click to enter then type your question. I guarantee an answer.

It’s an experiment in consciousness that you can do.

Admittedly I may have shot myself in the foot by putting anyone who wanted to try it in a state of fear. (I used the Trojan records link below in the type of embarrassingly faux-smart headline that this blog used to rely on, when it was careless enough of the potential side-effects of having opinions.)

So it’s also an experiment in trust, I suppose.

* (I can’t work out how to embed the bugger without it having a clickthrough. In any case, I made it in 2005. I can’t change it to make it look prettier, I can’t even work out how to get into it. It’s in some ancient version of flash but it does still play)


Ok, it is generally accepted that “luck” is a very difficult concept to quantify scientifically. Everyone has their own idea what it is and some people even think it has a “cause” and can be manipulated. Gamblers have a notoriously twisted idea of what “luck” is and how it can seemingly overcome mathematical certainties. Historically, humans from every corner of the globe have even objectified it into religions and religious icons. For some reason, certain Christians have a pagan approach to luck and think praying to the invisible will influence “luck” in their favour. All very strange.

Anyway, in view of this, I have spent the last few weeks carrying out an experiment that I am, as I have always suspected, cursed with bad luck… My PC is not possessed by the devil, it doesn’t hate me, I am just very unlucky – which is why every time I need an internet connection it goes down. This is not good news, but at least it explains why every week I do the national lottery and, despite the odds, I never get a single number. Ever. Now, part of me suspects the odds against that are greater than the odds against winning the lottery, but now I know the real reason©™.

My experiment has been simple. There are, basically, two routes I can take from work to get home. Because of the hideous nature of road traffic, my journey home normally takes in excess of an hour and I travel at the majestic average speed of 29mph. Aren’t modern cars wonderful. The upside of this mind numbing tedium is that I have time to think about things, and I realised that no matter which route I take, it takes me about the same lenght of time to get home and more importantly whatever lane I choose, the other goes faster.

Any drivers out there will undoubtedly share that experience. You are stuck in snail like traffic and all around you the cars are going faster. You change lane, only to discover the other lane has started moving. It is more than a little annoying.

So, during my thinking, I decided to see what was the best thing to do. Should I pick a lane and stay in it? Should I change as much as possible and fight my way forward. I know strong advocates of both options. Add to this, which route should I take?

From this, my experiment was formed… The plan was, over the course of several weeks to drive home a different way each time. Weeks 1 – 3 I would take “Route A” and then weeks 4 – 6 would be “Route B”. Although all at about the same time of day, each week would be either staying in the left hand lane, staying in the right hand lane or changing lanes as instinct dictates. As a “control” for the first two weeks, I would make a note of a car that joined about the same time as I did but in the other lane and see if they were ahead or behind me.

Anyway, today it all ended and the results were in. The basic conclusion is that I am cursed with bad luck. Seriously.

The average journey times for both routes was about 1hr 30mins (with very little deviation), giving me an average speed of 31mph. Wonderful eh? It seems that neither route was better, and changing lanes was no faster or slower than staying put. Also, it didn’t really matter what lane I was in, the time was pretty much the same.

Weirder still came when I was doing the “single lane” part. Every single time, every day for four of the six weeks, what ever lane I was in turned out to be the slowest. Without fail, a vehicle that joined the traffic the same time as me, would make faster progress if they were in a different lane to me. In some instances the other lane was going so fast I lost the vehicle (and visibility on this stretch is quite far), while in others, they were only a few minutes ahead of me – but they were ALWAYS ahead.

Like I said, the only redeeming feature of this is at least now I know why I never get a single number on the lottery. Maybe Luck hates Atheists. Or just me…

Out of body science

According to the BBC, Science reports that UCL researchers have given volunteers out of body experiences in the lab, by messing about with their visual cues.

The volunteers wore VR goggles that projected a view of their own backs. When the resarchers stroked their backs with a pen

The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back, making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a hologram.

I said, “according to the BBC”, because, rather disappointingly, neither UCL nor Science seem to actually have any report on their sites.

Which makes me suspect that I have been tricked into believing I’m following visual cues (well, alright then, hyperlinks) that I’ve linked to the UCL and Science websites whereas really I am sitting in the next room wearing VR glasses.

Mad scientists

Blimey Britain leads Europe in something! Don’t start waving the flags yet though, it’s the number of animal experiments. Peter Tatchell’s Comment is Free points out that animal experiments are at an ll-time high.
The Home Office website provides some details here.

Mice, rats and other rodents were used in the majority of procedures; eighty-three percent of the total. Most of the remaining procedures used fish (9%), and birds (4%).

Dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates, afforded special protection by the Act, were collectively used in less than one percent of all procedures.

The number of procedures using non-human primates was 4,200 down by 450 (10%) from 2005, mainly due to a decrease in old-world primates. The number of animals used was 3,108.

Genetically modified animals were used in 1.04 million regulated procedures representing thirty-four percent of all procedures for 2006, compared with thirty-three percent in 2005 and eight percent in 1995. The vast majority (95%) of these procedures used rodents, most of the remainder were fish and amphibians.

Around thirty-eight percent of all procedures used some form of anaesthesia to alleviate the severity of the interventions. For many of the remaining procedures the use of anaesthesia would have potentially increased the adverse effects of the procedure.

Apparently these procedures are now increasing and will increase further with ever greater demand for GM beings.

One of the people who framed the animal experimentation legislation has very severe doubts about its operation.

Prof Balls said he was dismayed that progress in science had not produced more alternatives to using animals in research. “As a scientist I’m entitled to believe in modern technology to deal with these problems, but I’m disappointed that more effort hasn’t been put into bringing the numbers down,” he said

There are some issues that leap out as you read the bald statistics, such as,

  • if this is just ‘science’, how it is it that the cute pet factor seems to influence the choice of animals? Shouldn’t it be the similarity to human biology that determines their sacrificial value?
  • Is a mouse genetically modified to have disease x really very much like a human being who has developed that disease?
  • What can fish and amphibian experiments tell us about human biology? They might indicate levels of river toxicity.
  • 72% were conducted without anaesthetic, then….

I’m far from absolutist on this. If the sacrifice of some poor mammal can spare great human suffering, then I’d have to go for saving my own species.

All the same, it’s well nigh impossible to skim through a few issues of any pop science magazine without finding large numbers of experiments that are so morally dubious and seemingly pointless that you wonder what ethics committees are for.

The naive observer, i.e. me, would assume that you couldn’t torture animals unless human life hung in the balance and there was literally no alternative way to get the information. These should surely be the mininum requirements.

There has just been a ruling on a judicial review sought by the British Unnion for the Abolition of Vivisection . A High Court judge ruled that the government acted unlawfully in allowing some experiments on primates. Astonishingly, cutting the top of a primate’s head to induce a stroke was seen by the government as causing ‘moderate’, rather than ‘severe’, suffering. The mind boggles at a definition of “severe”.

In any case, I didn’t realise there was a problem with strokes in people who have had the tops of their heads cut off. Wow. that must affect approximately, erm, 0% of the population.

Phone Masts Not Harmful

In today’s Guardian newspaper (and online and here) there is an article explaining how the fears and worries of the “electrosensitive” woo-mongers is unfounded.

Sadly, the Guardian’s “news” editors have chosen to go with the headline:

Research fails to detect short-term harm from mobile phone masts

Now, it may just be my pedantry, but surely that strongly implies there is a short term harm and the researchers simply failed to detect it? The second link above is better and carries the tag line:

Yet another study shows no link between mobile phone radiation and ill health

Which pretty much captures the repetitiveness of this as a research result. The overwhelming weight of science shows there is no evidence of any short term harmful effect from communications masts and the only proven long term risk is from the most popular source of electromagnetic energy itself – the Sun.

In a nutshell, this seems like a well designed study which, like all the others, has resulted in no evidence that people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation actually are – this is even something I have mentioned in the past. Repeated tests have shown that if you get an “electrosenstive” and tell them there is a transmitter near by, they evince the effects they claim are caused by “EM.” If they dont know the transmitter is near by, they don’t have the effects. In my unsympathetic, un-medical opinion this is pretty good proof it is all in their mind – for various reasons they are completely making it up. Part of me concedes the symptoms may be real, but it is only a small part of me. Either way, targeting phone masts as the culprit is doing no one any favours. As the Guardian comment on the topic finishes:

What sufferers experience is real and in many cases very unpleasant. But in the light of this evidence we can be pretty certain that phone masts do not cause short term health problems for the vast majority of people. Electrosensitive support groups should recognise this and begin to look harder for other causes of the condition.

Well said. Stop fighting a bogeyman and find the real cause – if there are real symptoms.

As always, there are those who are so wedded to a concept that no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented, they will refuse to accept it. Sounds a bit religious to me, but never mind. The wonderfully named “Mast Sanity” website is a cited opponent of the recent study, and shows many of the traits you would normally associate with creationists trying to debunk evolution.

Unsurprisingly, Mast Sanity is a screaming example of bad science and a place where spurious arguments are used to dispel the results of the most recent study — I assume similar tactics were used on older studies, I didn’t look into the site that much, what I did read seemed like a check list of logical fallacies and debate-scoring tactics rather than anything reasoned. Some examples include:

We question why psychologrists are doing this research at all since physical changes to the skin and heart rates have been found in other research. Presumably the psychologists ‘believe’ this is all in the mind and this is what they set out to ‘prove’.

Yeah, and when you read the research notes it shows the psychologists set out to measure the physical responses. This smacks of a combination of appeal to ridicule and the laypersons perception that educational disciplines exist in complete isolation of each other. If the researchers had set out to prove the Electrosensitivity was in the mind, this would be obvious from the experimental design, not from what discipline the people who run the experiment come from.

Their conclusion was made possible by eliminating 12 of the most sensitive electrosentive volunteers who had become too ill to continue the study. Even a child can see that by eliminating 12 of the original 56 electrosensitive volunteers – over 20% of the group – that the study integrity has been completely breached.

Wow. First off the 12 people withdrew themselves, they were not eliminated to make the experiment possible. If the other 44 “electrosensitives” were actually electro sensitive, then what would the loss of those 12 change? As for the great “even a child” comment — well really. I have not met many children who can do the statistical analysis required to account for the changed sample sizes, but most would probably make a random assumption as to the status of the experiment. Does that mean they would be correct? Critically, the “study integrity” has certainly not been completely breached, it just gives a larger error bar to the findings.

There is more bad statistics with this bit of meandering nonsense:

One participant in the study questions Professor Fox’s assertion that only four people got all six test correct. He said “I got five [out of six] as during the first three five minute tests on session one, I stated ‘not sure’ after the first five minutes, which was marked as NO, but on session two, three and four I got it 100% right and actually identified the type of signal, so are the Essex [study] numbers meaningful?

I will confess to not really understanding what this is trying to say. One person thinks that more (or less) than four people got all six tests “correct” because he got five out of six in one of them. Blimey. The whole experiment must be flawed then… I would really appreciate it if someone could explain what the above means to me — I must be having a bad understanding day today. Talking about a previous study, quoted by the BBC, Mast Sanity continues:

… We don’t think Dr. Rubin [author of previous study] is qualified to comment on the Essex study as he didn’t even use a shielded room for his own experiments at King’s College and the so called ‘sham’ (zero) exposure was not a zero signal as people have been led to believe.

What makes me laugh about this, is the “pro-sensitives” leap on the shielding issue, and largely it is a cornerstone of their defence against the real science. In a nutshell, it explains why the “sensitives” report effects when no mast is transmitting, but they are led to believe it is. The problem with this is that when the “sensitives” believe the mast is off, they report no symptoms. Is the shielding belief-powered?

With no signs of irony whatsoever, Mast Sanity finishes its tirade with this wonderful bit of woo-spin:

Mast Sanity Spokesperson Yasmin Skelt says “All in all the Media release of this study has been an exercise in spin and propaganda and a poor one for science.

It is the long term health effects where people are forced to live near real Mobile Phone Masts that count and this study in no way covers those.

Great isn’t it? They refer to themselves in the third person and claim the science is spin and their spin is science. New Labour must love the world they have created.

The study was solid science. It certainly was not a perfect experiment, but few ever are. The conclusions drawn are sound and the reasoning is valid. The Woo-Monger reactions have been an exercise in spin and bad-logic, rarely coming close enough to science to be thought of as bad science. The study was very upfront — as have been the media reports — that this didn’t look at long term effects. Sadly, spinning the goal posts to a new location does not invalidate the research — not that the woo crowd have ever worried about that.

Asking if there are long term health effects is a good question, and an area where the research is sketchier which results in less certainty over the answers. That said, the common cries of the “electrosensitives” is that they suffer short term effects (which is why people buy “shielded curtains” and the like) and on this, it is quite probable that they are wrong. Redefining the criteria each time one is falsified is typical of another group who hold to nonsensical beliefs in the face of all evidence. Will Electrosensitivity become the Woo of the Gaps?

[tags]Media, News, EM,Woo, Science, Bad Science, Statistics, Bad Statistics, Electromagnetism, Guardian, Electrosensitivity, Nonsense, Society, Belief, Research, Experiment, Evidence, Logical Fallacy, Spin[/tags]

Atheist Pride

During a few spare minutes I had today, the Great Toutatis guided me to technorati where I found a link to a blog called “Bible Study for Atheists.” This blog (from Vast Left) is pretty good reading. It is witty enough to entertain and certainly worth a visit. On reading it, I found the shards of a bit of a debate between Vast Left and a blogger called El Borak.

From what I read (and please correct me if I get this wrong), Vast Left made a post “poking fun” at Genesis and El Borak responded with:

Of course, it’s not even a study per se. Rather it’s simply a chance to poke fun and play number games. (read original)

I might be misreading the tone, but this strikes me there has been a sense of humour bypass here. Of course it isn’t a study per se — although I am not sure if El Borak means study in the “Bible Study” sense where a load of Christians sit round and re-affirm each others ideas, or a study in the scientific sense. (Hint: I am poking fun).

Now, broadly speaking, El Borak is actually fairly reasonable and presents his arguments well. I am not sure I want to get involved in the overall debate, so I will not pass comment on that “per se.” One sentence which did leap out at me, though, was: (emphasis mine)

I know I should not expect more from self-proclaimed Atheists, and that’s the problem. I truly don’t.

This is interesting. I am not interested in the attempt at a snide dig, to be honest I don’t expect anything else from any theists (self proclaimed or otherwise), they just don’t know any better. What did interest me was the use of the term “self proclaimed.” I am some what confused as to what it was meant to imply.

Normally, when you see the term “self proclaimed” it tends to imply the following word is a dubious boast. Is this meant to mean that El Borak doubts Vast Left is really an atheist until there is some corroborating evidence? From it’s use it could also be read to mean El Borak is amazed anyone could have the front to actually admit they are an an Atheist, or he could simply doubt anyone is really an Atheist.

I am confused. (extra entertainment can be found from the comments on El Borak’s page, Huckelberry is worth a chuckle)

Bad Science, Bad Conclusion or …

Now I have a bit of a moral quandry here. Normally I would be loathe to pass comment on research findings without having read the research in full but for some reason (well, I can think of lots) I have been unable to read the full JAMA article. Obviously I am not going to let this stop me though…

In the 10 Mar 07 edition of NewScientist the news section reports on a study into diets which is titled (in the magazine) The Atkins diet works – a bit. The news item begins:

Compared head-to-head against three other diet plans, the Atkins diet has come out on top. In one of the largest studies to date, overweight women lost most weight on the popular low-carbohydrate diet.

Now this seems reasonable enough. The item continues about how, during a 12 month study the sample on the Atkins diet lost more weight than those on the Zone, LEARN (low fat diet based on US government guidelines) or Ornish (lower fat) diets. 12 months is a long time for a study like this and it looked at 311 women between the ages of 20 and 50. The data should be great.

I have no intention of getting into an argument about which diet is the best, or even if the current western obsession with diet makes any sense at all (simple answer, I dont think it does). The thing which caught my eye was the science involved.

Without having read the study itself, I can only assume this was a properly constructed study to generate an unbiased result as to which diet was the most effective at weight loss. It strikes me, this is what the study found out as well.

You would think they would be happy about it…

Given the fact that the diet industry generates lots of money, even the most crackpot (“eat three ants a day”) diets will pretty much make their inventors rich (especially if a fat celeb signs up to it, gets surgery then claims it was your diet…) and you can see people will defend the cash cow.

The commentary about the study seems to think it has failed (which leads me to suspect they were trying to prove one of the other three diets was the best – I wonder who funded the study..) and Gardner (the author) is quoted in NS as saying:

“Was the slight benefit on Atkins due to the low carbs, or the high protein, or the eight glasses of water a day that may have replaced sweetened beverages? We don’t know.”

Is he saying his experiment construction is flawed? Were there so many uncontrolled variables that he can not explain the results? Was he expecting the LEAN (or Ornish or Zone) diet to come out best? (The Zone diet pretty much came out the worst, which is a blow for people who advocate the “equal proportions” approach.)

I am not convinced this is “bad science” as such. From what I can read, the study looks sound, but I am amazed at the unwillingness to accept the conclusions. Adding to the bad conclusions, if you are still curious, there is an entire website devoted to quotes about this study: “Best Quotes from Atkins, Ornish, Zone, LEARN Diet Study” and in here you can see some amazingly bad conclusions from people doing their utmost to ignore the results of this study and maintain their cash cow…

“This is the message of this article — focus on lifestyle and environmental factors and don’t worry about the macronutrient composition of the diet, particularly if you can achieve the NHLBI guidelines of a 5 to 10 percent weight loss,” says Dr. George Blackburn, chair in nutrition medicine at Harvard Medical School. “I think that was my message for the past 20 years.”

Call me old fashoned but I have no idea where he drew that conclusion from given the available information.

Still, have a look, see what you think and if anyone can get access to the full article I would love to know how it reads. (JAMA, vol 297, p969)

[tags]Bad Science, Science, Diet, Atkins, Low Fat, Low Carb, Medicine, Experiment, Business, Woo, Crackpot, Society, Culture, Food[/tags]