Article Archive for May 2007

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child
By What the hell is this?
Posted in on 25 May 2007
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… but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Alternative title: Science pwns not-science

There’s an article in Science: Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science 316 (5827) 996-997 (2007). Here are some things which it says.

“… both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains.”

These intuitions come from our evolutionary psychology: we get a “naïve physics” for understanding inanimate objects (so we know that objects are solid and they don’t move unless something moves them) and a “naïve psychology” for understanding animate ones, like other humans, so that we are able to infer their beliefs, desires and emotions.

The problem is that our psychology evolved to work, not necessarily to be right. The intuitive theory of motion is similar to the theory of impetus where the motive force in an object dissipates spontaneously - we now know that Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare and the observed “dissipation of motive force” is due to friction and air resistance.

That’s easy, because we all have experience of moving objects and once you get the idea of friction and air resistance it’s easy to see what it is doing. But when science starts talking about things which are out of the realm of everyday experience, for example relativistic effects which are generally tiny since we don’t often get anywhere near speeds close to that of light or quantum effects which happen on scales of space and time which are too small for us to directly perceive. But magnetism, which we all know about, is a relativistic effect (it happens when electric charge moves about) and computers wouldn’t work if it were not for the quantized energy levels which electrons adopt in silicon crystals. It’s not hard to find confusing or paradoxical things about the physics which goes beyond our intuition - especially when trying to understand the nature of reality according to quantum physics, but the strange thing is that the physics is often right no matter how strange it seems.

“… when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information… [children] prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one.”

But scientists (good ones, anyway, not the rentaquotes called up by newspapers whenever there’s a scare story kicking off) are often reluctant to make concrete statements about things which tend to be more complicated than they seem, full of caveats, open to interpretation, and not right in the middle of their own fields. The Popperian idea is that no scientific theory can be confirmed no matter how many supporting pieces of experimental evidence there are but one single counterexample can disprove a theory, so a scientist can never know for sure if he is right. But working scientists need theories which they can work with, so in practice a large body of experimental evidence which corroborates a theory contributes to its validity. In fact we know that any model of the physical world which is simple enough to manipulate with pencil and paper (or on a computer) is going to have limitations but as long as we bear these in mind we can still get useful results. Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation have been shown to be false (to be superceded by Special and General Relativity respectively) but that doesn’t mean that you can’t calculate sensible answers to real world problems with Newtonian physics as long as you stay well below light speed and don’t go to close to any black holes. Crucially, Newton’s laws of motion can be derived from Special Relativity in the limit of speeds much slower than that of light.

Acknowledging the limits of your knowledge and presenting data and theories dispassionately and with all due caveats mentioned are virtues in science but seemingly not the way to intuitively convince a non-scientific public. Not compared to the hypocrites who complain about scientific progress when it clashes with their own made-up ideas anyway.

So science can even explain the hostility some have towards science - will they read this paper and reconsider their positions, and grow up? No.


By Grey
Posted in on 24 May 2007
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I’m putting up this week’s Miscellanea a little early after all the recent news over WiFi. So I present: The Truth about Wireless Devices.

Homeopathy on the NHS: one year on
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 24 May 2007
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One year from our first letter to NHS Trusts, we sent another. Listen to the interview by John Humphrys on the Radio 4 Today Programme, with Raymond Tallis and Peter Fisher. :And hear Fisher suggest that he works for UCL (not true). You can also download a summary of the current evidence in the form of an example commissioning document which accompanied our letter.

You Will Not Get This Joke
By andrew
Posted in on 23 May 2007
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According to the Metro, “the records of 100,000 innocent youngsters are now being kept on a ‘sinister’ DNA database”. Perhaps a molecular biochemist with a passing interest in Latin etymology could tell them why this cannot possibly be true.

Lord Hunt thinks ‘psychic surgery’ is a “profession”
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 22 May 2007
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Lord Hunt, a junior minister in the Department of Health, sends a surreal reply to an enquiry about the fraud known as “psychic surgery”.

Tories support magic: official
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 21 May 2007
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An early day motion in support of homeopathic hospitals shows that irrational belief in magic is not unique to one party. Virtually all MPs have no idea about science. But I was quite surprised to find out in a reply from my MP that it is official Conservative policy.

Reverse Creationism
By andrew
Posted in on 20 May 2007
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Multivitamin supplements cause prostate cancer (or do they?)
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 17 May 2007
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A new paper, with a very large sample, almost 300 000 men, shows an association between taking large doses of multivitamin supplements and death from prostate cancer. But this, like most observations on diet, was not a randomised study. The paper itself discusses the interpretation carefully. The reports in the newspapers did not.

The strange case of Carcinplus
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 15 May 2007
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A web site comes very close to claiming that cancer can be cured by a homeopathic preparation mad from the blood of someone who had, allegedly, been cured of cancer by laying-on-of-hands. The site is run by a Sue Benford who has also written papers that suggest “explanations” of spontaneous human combustion and the incorruptibility of human corpses. All this scores maximum points for bizarreness. It would be hilarious but for the fact that it takes advantage of sick patients.

A catholic priest is someone whom everyone calls “father”…
By What the hell is this?
Posted in on 14 May 2007
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… apart from his own children, who are obliged to call him “uncle”.

Saturday was “Family Day” in Italy, with Piazza San Giovanni in Rome filled with protesters (and many their children) against new laws which will give greater rights to unmarried couples. A counter protest, supporting secularism of the state in Piazza Navona, wasn’t as well attended as the one in Turkey.

The protest against laws giving rights to unmarried cohabitants was supported by The Vatican, which is a big house in Rome where hundreds of single men live together.

The proof is all around you
By What the hell is this?
Posted in on 12 May 2007
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I once had a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses turn up on my doorstep while I was at home recovering from some sort of stomach virus, and I had a go at debating with them in Italian. Their line is “long” creationism - that God created the world in seven “periods of time” not literally seven days. But anyway that he created everything exactly right for our benefit (including presumably for example the malaria mosquito and sickle-cell anaemia) and their argument involved considering a stone: if you watch a stone for long enough it just turns to sand, going to a state of more disorder (that’s thermodynamics) so the creation of order, i.e. life, must have come from some agent, i.e. God. Didn’t they know any geology? Don’t they know that if they watch the sand for long enough it’ll get buried and turned into rock again?

What is it with some people, that they can suspend their critical reasoning faculties so easily without appearing to notice?

Evolution Gone Wrong
By andrew
Posted in on 4 May 2007
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Here’s a thought.
Homeopathy doesn’t work. That’s a given. (If you think it does work then you’re wrong, but you can simply pretend for the sake of this thought process that you accept that it’s bunk. Or you can substitute something you don’t believe in, such as evidence or integrity.) However, due to the placebo effect [...]

Proving Homeopathy Works
By andrew
Posted in on 2 May 2007
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The way I see it, there are two ways to do this. The first is more scientific, but I’m less certian it would work.
My theory is that you could run experiments with some kind of toxin. Start off wth a concentrated solution, give it to someone, then measure how ill they get against a placebo [...]

Shut Tunbridge Wells homeopathic hospital
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 2 May 2007
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It was announced last year the homeopathic hospital at Royal Tunbridge Wells would be closed to save money. Now the West Kent NHS Trust has announced a public consultation. Have your say.

Good sense in the Daily Mail
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 2 May 2007
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A particularly powerful plea to forget homeopathy from Michael Baum, based on his experience as a cancer surgeon.

Pherlure and Anatrim
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 1 May 2007
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Two scams in which the alleged ingredients don’t exist, and the alleged evidence can’t be traced.

Acupuncture useless for smoking
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 1 May 2007
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The latest Cochrane review finds no good evidence that acupuncture or acupressure are effective for stopping smoking

Red clover, herbal spin and vested interests
By DC's IMPROBABLE SCIENCE
Posted in on 1 May 2007
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The person who spoke for the industry front organization, The Health Supplements Information Service, Dr Ann Walker, always uses her University of Reading address, but that is a part time job, and her course on herbals looks a lot less academic.