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.

Mayonnaise have seen the glory

In an Olympic event for the dumbest so-called experts, food experts would probably get a gold.

According to this story, in the Guardian and elsewhere, they can’t tell their stir-fried arses from their lightly fricasseed elbows.

How bad for you is coleslaw?
In the light of a Food Commission report showing that a large pot of KFC coleslaw contains 22.4g of fat – more than its fillet burger (15.6g) or large fries (19.4g) – it is perhaps reasonable to wonder that if a mix of shredded cabbage, carrot and mayonnaise isn’t a healthy option, what on earth is?
A survey of leading nutrition and obesity experts bears this out, with none of the 66 specialists capable of telling from a menu description which item was the least healthy option.

Firstly, what is “healthy” in the context of food. Surely, short of actually putting poison in your mouth, all food is only “healthy” in terms of what it contributes to your overall diet. Cabbage and carrot have obviously got less protein and more vitamins and anti-oxidants than a burger, no matter how much fat they are sitting in. What’s “healthier” – protein or vitamins? You can’t live on either, by itself.

Secondly, why is it assumed that fat is automatically unhealthy? There are several kinds of fat – saturated, unsaturated, monosaturates (or something like that. I’ve forgotten the other kinds but, then, it’s not me who’s supposed to be the nutrition expert, ffs.) Whether any given one is essential or dangerous seems to be a matter of fashion.

The type of fat in the coleslaw isn’t likely to be the same as the types of fat in the burger or on the fries. The body of a person who wasn’t getting enough to eat would probably be well served by any of them. Fat can surely only be considered unhealthy for those of us who are already overweight and got that way by taking in too much fat, over a long time. But the experts are just taking it that any fat is “bad” and, by definition, unhealthy for everyone.

But my main quarrel with this is its bloody stupidity. Let’s temporarily assume for the sake of argument that all fat is by definition bad.

Do I have to take it that 66 “leading nutrition and obesity” experts really don’t know that coleslaw is made with mayonnaise. And don’t know that mayonnaise is made from oil and vinegar and egg yolks. Please note, that’s oil. (Don’t make me post a mayo recipe here.)

A bit more from the Guardian, making me wonder how people can really be this stupid about something so important to survival as food.

Confusion often stems from nutritional truth running contrary to accepted food wisdom. After all, surely vegetarian options are healthier? Not if you choose the Subway Veggie Patty Sub, which has more calories than either the steak and cheese sub, or the turkey, ham, bacon and cheese sub. Salads healthier than burgers? Not if you pick the McDonald’s crispy chicken and bacon salad, which has 15g of fat per portion, almost twice as much fat as a simple hamburger (8g)

I’m a vegetarian but I don’t assume vegetarian food was “healthier” and certainly not in this novel sense of “healthier” as meaning only “having less fat and/or fewer calories.” I have been on the planet long enough to know that food is “vegetarian” in the sense of “not being made from meat.” (Any other use of the word is usually a marketing tool.)

Which is a “healthier” lunch – a pile of candy or a steak? Here’s a clue. The candy is vegetarian.

Which has less fat – a cupful of olive oil or a plate of fried chicken and chips? (That’s french fries to you, Americans.) No matter how much we have been brainwashed into assuming that fried chicken and chips are “bad” for us, because they contain fat, I think you’ll find that olive oil wins this competition.

What about “Salads healthier than burgers? Not if you pick the McDonald’s crispy chicken and bacon salad.” This is confusing the definition of a salad – raw vegetables – with a labelled dish that has the name salad in its title but contains “chicken” and “bacon”, not normally considered raw vegetables the last time I checked.

The Guardian writer’s argument here is in support of the Food Commission’s aim to have nutritional information available for all foods at the point of sale, just as it is on supermarket foods.

This would be a rather more convincing argument if the “nutrition experts” knew enough about food to be aware that mayonnaise is made from oil, hence would recognise that any product swimming in mayo will have a high fat content.

Assault on Science

As I write this, it is the end of an interesting week where the western worlds decline to pre-enlightenment understanding of science has continued. Obviously, when I said “interesting” I meant sad…

The really annoying leader of this decline has to be Mary Midgley, as Heather previously addressed, who seems to think that “Science” is some dark art that has no relevance on any other aspect of society. Oddly she seems to be calling for the implementation of social policies, laws and the like without any scientific input. Obviously the idea that laws should be formulated without any experiemental reason to think they would ever work – I mean we are innundated with such laws now… Who cares if it can be demonstrated that Law X doesn’t work, as long as we “feel” it is a good law… Well done Mary.

Next in the firing line is the case of Dawn Page and here “nutritional therapist,” Barbara Nash. In a nutshell Page followed Nash’s frankly crazy advice and suffered major brain damage. Bad Science has an excellent take on this – the media as a whole has ignored the general trend of crazy advice by self appointed “Nutritionists” and focused on Nash as a one-off crank… The sad reality is the western world is inundated with fruitloops like this who go on about Chakras, Detox and the like. The even sadder part is that we fall for this nonsense without having the basic scientific reasoning ability to question their basically insane claims. I am all for sticking it to “professionals” who abuse their position (and I think £801,000 was a trivial sum in this case) but, for Toutatis’ sake, why on Odin’s Earth didn’t Ms Page go to the bloody doctors when she felt sick. When uncontrollable vomiting set in, most normal people (you would hope) would go to the hospital, probably via a 999 call to an ambulance. Not Ms Page, who returned to her nutritional therapist for more advice. As I see it, this is where Nash commited the greatest crime. Rather than telling Ms Page to seek real help, she stuck to her woo. Stupid or greedy? Who knows? Who cares – it still screams criminal negligence as far as I can see.

Closing on the heels of the above, and a strong candidate for the worst abuse of scientific illiteracy is the media’s “feeding frenzy” on the decision by Ronald Herberman (Director of the University of Pittsborough Cancer Institute) to issue a warning to his staff to limit their use of mobile phones due to the risk of cancer. Now, I am going to assume that Herberman is a scientist and aware of the nature of scientific reasearch – and indeed, he did say the “evidence is controversial” that phones cause cancer. The same can not be said for the media vultures that descended on this…

First off, often decisions have to be made on “inconclusive” evidence, so that in itself is not a bad thing. By its very nature a scientific proof is still liable to be disproven at any moment. In this manner, it is perfectly reasonable (there is that word again) for Director Herberman to send a memo to his staff saying that, in his opinion, they should limit their use of phones. Does this count as “evidence” there is an increased risk of cancers forming in users of mobile phones. No. Does this mean the “scientific community” (in as much as one can exist) thinks there is a greater risk today than they did two weeks ago – again, no.

If you were to absorb any news from the UK this week, however, you would think this was fundamental proof that mobile phones are dangerous. New calls are all over about how phone masts cause “electrosensitivity” and similar woo. It seems that people have assumed, that because Dr Herberman has sent out this message it must be true and obviously because Dr Herberman works at a Cancer Institute he must be correct, notwithstanding the fact that Cancer Research UK reported (in February) that phone users were no more likely to get cancer than someone who had never touched a phone. Obviously, as journalists are functionally incapable of reading research they go with what ever seems to have the power to sell as many issues as possible…

The Guardian newspaper on Saturday identifies what it sees as the logic at work here (and sadly this is where Dr Herberman seems to fall down). First off, it explains the problem in trying to find out what is a “cause of cancer” with:

Here’s the thing. Almost everything that causes cancer does so by causing mutations in our cellular DNA that accumulate over years and often decades before culminating in a tumour. So to prove something increases a person’s cancer risk, scientists must often not only wait for years to see a significant peak in the disease, but also be able to rule out any other possible cause. That could be changes in diet, environmental factors, lifestyle, the list goes on.

Yes. It it hard trying to work out what causes cancer, this is one of the reasons we have so many “institutes” around the world looking into it. I don’t seem to recall any of them having solved the problem yet though. The Guardian finishes with: (emphasis mine)

The independent Stewart review into mobile phones in 2000 advised children to limit their use as a precaution. Dr Herberman is following the same logic. “We shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” he said.

Wow. A fail for science there. I think that funding research institutes causes cancer. Rather than wait to see if any study can agree with this, why don’t we withdraw the funding now so we can err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.

Shame on you Dr Herberman, you have opened the floodgates to woo….

Preach the Controversy…

The nonsense, and false controversy, created by Expelled just seems to never want to go away. In this respect the Discovery Institute really hit on to a winner with what could best be described as a poor first attempt by an art student film. Atheist and science blogs have been discussing the nonsense for what seems like eternity. I cant imagine how anyone could even begin to pay for this amount of publicity but there you go. Sadly, I actually feel that all this furore around the crap film is actually required.

Gorilla's EyesOnce upon a time I was optimistic about the human race. In this mindset I would have thought to myself “everyone seeing this film will realise it is total bullshit and ignore it.” I have, sadly, learned to think differently. When nonsense is placed into the public domain it can be either challenged or ignored. By challenging it the nonsense rises to the status of “controversy” and there is (in the public mind at least) the concept of a debate taking place. By ignoring it, the unthinking public begin to think it has merit and it slowly becomes an accepted “truth.” It really is a lose:lose situation for rational science. I can not think of a way to avoid the nonsense taking over the Earth, but at least, where I can, I will try to challenge it.

With this in mind, I came across a gorgeous picture of an American church on flickr. This is a very attractive picture so please, take a moment to visit and have a look – if you have a flickr account, please let the photographer know what you think of the picture (and he has a pretty good photostream).

It all went downhill, however, when I read the description of the picture.

Freedom of thought and expression are two of the most basic tenants of any free society.
Without those two things, you do not have a free society.

Well, I pretty much agree. They may well not be the most basic tenets of society but freedom of expression is very important. On a pedantic note, I cant see how (realistically) you can take away someone’s freedom of thought until mind-reading becomes commonplace.

We went to a must see movie this weekend. In Ben Stein’s (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”) new documentary movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Ben shows how little academic freedom exists in our universities if you want to discuss unpopular topics like the origins of life. (links removed here but intact on the original)

Ouch. And he had got off to such a good start. Notice how this brings in the Creationist stand-by of creating the false associations with “academic freedom” and “unpopular topics”? Creationism / ID relies on trickery to convince the unthinking that it is a legitimate “alternative” and some secret cabal are trying to repress it. The “freedom” word is thrown around whenever someone tries to point out is not science to the extent that the average non-scientist actually thinks it is an oppressed viewpoint. Amazing really.

Much of the academic world thinks that the conversation should be closed because Darwinian Evolution has answered all of those questions… But, is that true????

Another creationist gem. This is a great question because it is massively false. No scientist, especially evolutionary biologists, think the conversation should be closed. That is the claim made by the creationists. However, this 180 degree spin goes a long way to masking that.

If you do not think that is true as a professor, get ready to loose you job. Yes, that politically incorrect thought has been banned in the university… I thought the university was a place of open discussion and thought???? Think again…

And here is the first falsehood. No professor who thinks the question about origins of species is not closed would lose their job. A professor who is so confused about their subject area as to think Creationism is an “alternative” to evolution should lose their job in the same manner that a physics professor who thinks the luminiferous ether exists, and propagates light, should lose their job. Imagine a woodwork teacher who thought you could cut would with butter, should he remain teaching? No. But not because “politically incorrect thought has been banned.”

Further on, as part of a short debate, the photographer comments:

You are exactly what the movie was talking about… you just to creationism the moment that intelligent design is brought up…
and you assume that all tenants of darwinian evolution are true..
and you think they are well defined….
Darwinian evolition is a mess… It is not science in the least…

More weirdness. Creationism is ID. No one assumes all the tenets of “Darwinian Evolution” are true, no one even assumes all the “tenets” of Evolution are true. That is not what science is about. The odd bit is the claim that Evolution is not science… I really struggle to get my head round the idea that people can honestly think Creationism Intelligent Design is “good science” compared to evolution. Where is the falsifiability? Where are the predictions?

After a while others join in the debate with things like this (from an otherwise reasonable person):

All that said, Wayne I completely agree that the way the discussion is silenced in academia is shameful. When scientist trot out the “earth is flat” idea they forget that at one time “scientiist” accepted that idea too. In other words, the commonly accepted “facts” might be wrong.

Argh. Do people honestly think that the academic world should engage in constant debate over all possible alternatives to a scientific theory? When did scientists EVER think the world was flat?

The last point I want to make before I remind everyone to go and look at the picture themselves is based on this:

We know from the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) www.entropylaw.com/ stuff always breaks down and degrades…. macro evoution requires more information to be added to produce more complex things…. second law of thermodynamics directly contratics that…. btw.. this is a law… meaning it always happen… not a theory like evolution…

Ouch. That good old standby the 2nd law. Obviously the Earth lives in isolation from the rest of the universe and no information (energy) can be added. Damn that Sun…

The best bit is the Law / Theory nonsense. Do people really not understand how the words work? Obviously not, because when challenged on the matter, our creationist photographer responded:

With all due respect, you are wrong about scientific law and theory.
You can read here science.kennesaw.edu/~rmatson/3380theory.html and a million other places…

Argh. Such madness, especially as the link doesn’t really support his claim but I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to try an educate him.

Please, take a moment to visit the Flickr photo page. It is a nice picture and the more sensible, reasonable and educational comments he get, the greater the chance he (or others) will learn something. If the nonsense is ignored, then the nonsense prospers.

Protection against psychics

UK psychics are objecting to a change in consumer protection law that would prevent them making misleading claims. (So, that would be ALL their claims, basically.) Until this change, a prosecution could only be brought for deliberate fraud.

On the BBC webpage, the public face of the psychics protesting this are the Spiritualist Churches (which survive on the proceeds of the collection box) and “a spiritual healer, shaman and “space clearing consultant” who clearly believes that she provides a genuine service for her fees.

Oddly, I’m in two minds about this. It’s not that I don’t think that profiting from telling nonsense to unhappy people is pretty evil. That is almost too obviously true to bother mentioning.

I just feel a bit uneasy about criminalising yet another aspect of foolish behaviour. Where do you draw the line?

Surely, the more mainstream religions would fall foul of this law. You can hardly prosecute someone for channelling an imaginary dead relative, if you are going to allow other people to claim that their deity will take you into paradise after you are dead.

On the positive side, the law might provide me with good grounds for demanding endless prosecutions of the popular press – or, at least, getting out-of-court settlements from them to stop my newly-litigation-hungry self. Quite apart from the fact that the papers make misleading claims about society every day of the week, those daily horoscopes are definitely not matching up with my reality.

The Office of Fair Trading says enforcement of the new regulations will not target sessions like this or churches, instead being more likely to be used against foreign mass mailshot fraudsters extracting large sums of money. (BBC report)

Note the use of the word “foreign.” You might wonder if that means that our own lovable-cockney-villain mass mailshot fraudsters will be exempt, then. At the risk of being a broken record, I seriously resent the casual fostering of foreigner-hatred that is increasingly passing for public discourse in the UK.

So this is an anti-spam law? I am confused. I thought fraud was already a crime, although observers of the higher reaches of the property and banking industries might not see much evidence that this is true.

I will take it that this new law implies that internet fraud isn’t actually a crime yet. so I am hurriedly drafting some 419 scam emails, as we speak….. Although, maybe I should just engage the apathy-sketchpad blogger to do my email composition He has one of the funniest examples of scammer-scammed correspondence that I’ve ever seen, complete with web forms he created just to drag the scammmer further and further into his trap.

Water myths

Make sure to breathe 17,280 times a day. It’s for the good of your health. Don’t forget to take those breaths or your health will suffer.


OK, there’s no guidance yet on how much air you should breathe. Maybe that’s just because nobody has worked out how to sell air yet. Not so for water. How many times have you heard that you should drink x amount of water a day? You might have even heard that tea, coffee, soft drinks, beer and wine somehow don’t count as containing water. It’s not just the Penelope Keiths either. Even the respectable and respected nutrition advisers seem to give out this tosh. The Food Standards Agency, for instance, presents a sanitised version of the “other drinks may not count” argument.

The British Nutrition Foundation cites unspecified authorities to recommend an amount. More crucially, it says thirst doesn’t tell you when you need water.

Health professionals recommend at least 1.5 to 2 litres (6-8 cups) of liquids a day in temperate climates. The sensation of thirst is not triggered until there is already a water deficit, so it is important to drink before you get thirsty.

So, it’s pleasant to see a public debunking of the “drink 2 litres of water a day myth”. A Penn U study showed that there was no health benefit to drinking extra water.

You don’t get much more of an insistent human drive than thirst. So why do we have so many “experts” telling us that thirst isn’t a good guide to needing water? We may be bad at letting our hunger tell us when to eat. But thirst is pretty basic.

There are a very few circumstances (e.g. heat stroke if you’ve suddenly moved from winter Finland to summer Malaysia) in which your own thirst isn’t a good guide to how much you should drink.

(In any case, I wonder how anyone could drink as little as 2 litres of water-based fluid a day. I’ve had that before lunchtime, if coffee counts.)

Where can we get these placebos?

Ben Goldacre (BadScience columnist from the Guardian) presented a programme about nutrition fads, on BBC Radio 4 today. It’s the first of a two-part series, The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists. You can hear a podcast on the Radio 4 site. (Pick Monday’s choice.) It’s quite entertaining. In this part, Goldacre talks about the history of some classic quackery.

In contrast, today’s Guardian prints a piece by Madeleine Bunting in favour of unscientific medicine. Referring to several anti-alternative medicine books, as well as Dawkins’ 2007 TV series The Enemies of Reason. Bunting says:

It seems the aim of some of these authors is to finish off a burgeoning health industry that they believe is based on charlatans and quacks preying on the gullible and desperate.

This is one of the most common charges made against complementary medicine – that most of it is no better than placebo. But there is a way of turning that accusation around: perhaps complementary medicine is an effective way to harness placebo as one of the most powerful – and cheapest – of healing processes.

Mind and body can’t be conceptually separated. We know relatively little about how they interact. There’s plenty of room for research into how we can use the mind to fight illness. But I still can’t see how this can justifies encouraging the sick to believe in lies.

Why bother with scientific medicine at all, if you can just carry out a ritual or hand out a sugar pill?

Reason number 1 comes down to a similar point to that expressed in the question “Why won’t god heal amputees?” Can you cure cholera by reflexology? That is, alternative medicine “works” where symptoms are ill-defined and at least partly emotional in nature. Or as Bunting says, putting a positive spin on it:

Complementary medicine is most popular where conventional medicine fails, such as with musculoskeletal conditions and mental health – stress, depression, anxiety

Well, if some people’s mental conditions can be cured by ritual, surely these are revealed to be states of mind rather than organic disease. I bet the rituals don’t work so well with brain damage, dementia or full blown psychosis. So isn’t that like saying, lies aren’t powerful enough to cure real diseases.

Reason number 2. There are plenty of things that can make you feel happier/more relaxed/more cared for. These can be your own ritual practices or substances. (In the Asterisk books, the Brits’ magic potion is a cup of tea.)

You don’t necessarily have to pay for them. You do have to pay for alternative medicine.

In its raw form, a placebo may indeed be one of the cheapest healing process (as Bunting says). However, once you pay for the time of the “understanding” practitioner who prescribes you a 30 ml bottle of water, you enter into a commercial transaction that compares very badly with the cost of visiting a doctor, if you live anywhere with a public health service.

Reason 3: Alternative therapies are “alternative” because they haven’t been proved to work. End of story. Yes, medical research is pretty flawed in many ways. But, the very fact that new drugs are immensely profitable for drug companies and expensive for healthcare funders indicates why promising new treatments are unlikely to be ignored. If an alternative medicine or treatment worked, there would be an unseemly scramble to patent it or to use it to replace expensive drugs.

There must be hundreds of traditional medicines and bizarre treatments that would be effective against various illnesses. The only way to find this out is to test them. Why would the discoverer or inventor of an unusual cure not want to test it? Fear it doesn’t work. Fear of loss of profit.

Reason 4: Alternative medicine is generally the exact reverse of “empowering” despite the claims of its supporters. When you give up your power to evaluate solutions to your physical and mental illnesses, you must take the practitioner’s rituals as authoritative, with no basis for doing so except their claims.

Most of us would feel ripped off if we went to buy a toaster, paid for a toaster and were told – in a caring way – that we had got a toaster, when all we took home was an empty box. So, why is it OK to sell people treatments that don’t work? Indeed, not just morally acceptable but apparently desirable, according to Bunting?