Tags: science



Today is the day on which the fact-free conspiracy theory that Prince Phillip had Diana assassinated (for a plethora of reasons that only exist in Mohamed Al Fayed's head) finally went up in smoke once and for all. Not that it will stop the conspiracyheads of course, but then conspiracy theories don't thrive on rigorous public examination anyway. They thrive on half-truths and insinuations that often make a seductive amount of sense until you take a single step backward and remember all the other facts that make them impossible. So, although it will make no difference and I stopped caring about Princess Diana's death approximately ten years ago, I do think it right to pause briefly and genuflect at the altar of rightheadedness.

In that vein, Charlie Brooker writes hilariously about the so called 'Brain Gym' for school-children [via badscience.net].


Signal to noise

This is rather cool. The earliest known recording of a human voice has been found, from 1860, pre-dating Edison's "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by 17 years. The full details of the recording and the work done to play it back are here and here, and the actual (rather warbly) sound files are here. The recording unfortunately reduced one Radio 4 presenter to a fit of giggles.

There's another BBC story that my wife was ranting about the other day. Apparently -- and I know this will come as a shock to you -- unrealistic images of male bodies in lad's mags can cause teenage boys to aim for an impossible ideal (to the point of taking steroids: a 'condition' named "athletica nervosa". Really.) Apparently after years and years of everyone saying this about unrealistic images of women in the media, it's considered surprising that men are affected the same way. I suppose it's worth reporting but a) surely we all knew this and b) surely the pressure on men to achieve unattainable physical perfection is orders of magnitude less than the equivalent pressure on women? My impression is that images of male perfection in the media and in Hollywood are far more about attitude, looks and style, e.g George Clooney, than they are about toned abs. And surely lad's mags in particular remain far more influential in their depiction of women's bodies than men's? Then again I don't read lad's mags.



Some sparkly things that have captured my ever-drifting attention:

Everbody's favourite transporter chief1, Colm Meaney, says he's filmed the pilot episode of David E Kelley's U.S. version of Life on Mars. He's in the Gene Hunt role. I'm extremely interested to see what it's like. The original BBC show, especially the first series, was excellent but there's room for a different take on the concept. Relocating it to LA could just be enough of a difference.

Ben Goldacre's seminal explanation in The Guardian of why homeopathy doesn't make sense (it's really good--read it) has won high praise from James Randi. Which is nice.

Galactica showrunner (and Trek alumnus) Ronald D Moore has a shiny new blog replacing his moribund one on the Sci-Fi Channel site. At present there are musings about Galactica and the Writer's Guild of America strike.

Speaking of the shiny, in the wake of the terrifying number of Trek fan series underway on the internet, there's now a Firefly fan series named Into the Black in production. As with most things in modern fandom, the production values are surprisingly decent. The cast... not so much. At least, not if the YouTube trailer is anything to go by. Also the song is quite scary.

Lastly, for the woman who has everything except a talking Stephen Fry clock: a talking Stephen Fry clock. Cool, but not quite as cool as Lego Batman: The Videogame.

1 Unless you favour Mr Kyle but, really, how geeky would that be?


Free Rice

I'm finding the Free Rice word game strangely compulsive. It's a multi-choice word definition game that adjusts to your vocabulary level so it's always just on the cusp of knowledge and instinct. I can reach a vocab level of 45 47 briefly, but tend to lose it with wrong answers. The game seems to be a very effective fundraising tool.

While I'm here, this is a lengthy but satisfyingly logical dissection of why homeopathy shouldn't be excluded from normal standards of evidence. [Via badscience.net]

And if that's too heavy for you then--look! Cute cat! Sadly, most of the time she looks more like this.


Just astonishing

Predictable perhaps, but some the comments on this BBC news story about the entirely admirable move to vaccinate girls from 12 to 18 against cervical cancer really do betray both astonishing ignorance about medicine and neolithic head-in-the-sand attitudes to sexuality. The same levels of ignorance were equally in evidence in emails to BBC News 24. I should know better than to look, shouldn't I?

And I quote:
"It cannott be right to inject cancer into patients"
(no really)
"The money would be better spent on Sex Education not vaccination."

"Like myself, I will teach my daughter to wait for marriage before sex and this will eliminate problems like stds and pregnancy which also destroys unmarried womens lives and costs taxpayers millions taking care of illegimates. But, on the other hand, if it will save loose women from cancer then it will be ok for them."
(pragmatism *and* generosity in one package)
"Why do women always get the vast majority of media attention, financial help and medical facilities when it comes to cancer treatment and prevention? The slightest news regarding breast or cervical cancer seems to hit the headlines."

"It would be very interesting to know how much money was spent developing the vacine. Has an equivalent amount been spent attempting to do the same for prostate cancer - I very much doubt it. When will there be equality for men in health care?"

"one has to question the expenditure of "hundreds of millions" to save 1000 girls each year."

"I DONT agree with this sexist vacination if males are'nt included"
"This is another great reason to teach your children at home."
(say whut?)
"Total and utter propaganda to make more money for the pharmacutical companies. FACT is the immune system will stop all diseases"
(because, as we know, no-one ever dies from anything)
"I am against vaccination unless there is evidence showing the disease is contagious, air borne, spread by some sort of interaction. Personally, the idea of pumping children with all sorts of drugs/chemicals (vaccines), I find quite disturbing."
(I've never heard it called "some sort of interaction" before)

...and so it goes on.

Janet is particularly annoyed at the sexism evident in many of the attitudes: women who have sex are 'loose' women who have done something wrong; money spent saving women would be better spent elsewhere (e.g. saving men!).

There are a great many rightheaded comments too, pointing out that this is not an issue about promiscuity. Sexually active does not mean promiscuous (and promiscuous does not mean immoral). Anyone who has sex, even once, is likely to be exposed to the virus. As Janet notes, all these concerned mothers must, presumably, have had sex at least once in their lives. That's all it takes. Vaccinating young doesn't mean we expect children to have sex young - but it does mean that the're protected before they first have sex, which evidence suggests is most effective. I'm quite taken by one comment on the website: "The fact that I could get HPV did not make me not have sex, so I doubt the opposite will make people have sex."

The idea, too that male diseases don't get attention or funding seems to me to be ludicrous and inaccurate. Hardly surprising since those who are decrying this vaccine seem to be talking from sheer off-top-of-the-head prejudice. And the relative cost of this vaccination is hardly out of scale with other treatments / preventative measures.


Smart People Saying Stupid Things

It's really depressing to see one of the pioneers of modern science spouting a load of racist nonsense. It's rather like hearing Sir Patrick Moore blame women for falling standards at the BBC a few months back. Something in me wrongly assumes that people of science should be less prone to irrational prejudice, but of course we're all flawed in the end, and we all carry with us assumptions that took root very early in our lives. Still you would think that an understanding of DNA would bring with it some sense of that fact that we are all fundamentally the same as a species. And you would think that a devotion to science would bring with it a spirit of challenging ingrained assumptions. I find it hard to excuse not only the sheer scale of his prejudice but also the need to shout about it as if it were something to be proud of.

Watson of course co-discovered the structure of DNA, but here he seems to be mouthing off about the intelligence of Africans based purely on his own opinion. He vaguely cites test scores but it's often discussed that this kind of intelligence test is notorious for the difficulty in separating pure intelligence from in-built cultural and societal assumptions that influence how well people from different backgrounds and languages are able to perform. But the nail in the coffin is his entirely anecdotal and offensive suggestion that "people who have to deal with black employees" find that they are not as intelligent. Apparently he's been even more offensive on the subject of homosexuality in the past so maybe this isn't out of the blue. I'm not one for stifling debate but good on the Science Museum for taking a stand on this one.


Science: practical and theoretical.

Last night we laid on a rug outside and watched meteors. The rate was relatively low--at most one every five minutes with some longer lulls--but it was still great. Even the typically light-polluted city skies didn't spoil the experience; indeed we probably saw as many stars last night as we're ever likely to from this location, and the view was stunningly beautiful. The weather was absolutely clear for once. A really lovely prelude to my birthday.

Tonight we watched Richard Dawkins's The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4. Despite agreeing with him in every way that counts I sometimes think that Dawkins is his own worst enemy, since he can come across as a strident, joyless naysayer. His recent polemic on religion fell a little foul of this. Here, although still preaching to the converted, he struck a good balance between singing the praises of reason (and, importantly, defining and demonstrating the beauty and relevance of science in everyday life) and analysing the failings of superstition and pseudoscience. Janet and I stopped the playback several times to debate the issues, but pleasingly there were very few things we raised that Dawkins didn't himself address at some point in the episode. My only complaint is more of a wish: Derren Brown's past contributions to debunking psychics and astrology have been so compelling that it would have been nice to see more of him than just a brief interview segment. My TV guide presented this documentary as something of an equal pairing between the two, and it intrigues me to think how much mileage could be gained from seeing Brown demonstrate before our eyes the ease with which apparently impossible phenomena can be faked. Even as it stands though I'm very interested to see part two next week.


It's alive!

I need one of these desk lamps. I really do. Trouble is, unless your hobbies including defying the works of God and nature to prove your mad theories in a fiendish laboratory you're unlikely to have decor to match.

More increasingly eccentric models here.

[via Gizmodo]


The Great Global Warming Muddle

Courtesy of www.badscience.net: I knew C4's recent "polemic" The Great Global Warming Swindle had been roundly criticised for scientific inaccuracies, but I'm still flabbergasted by the extent to which the film-maker distorted the evidence - take a look at these graphs.

Of course, some scientists are now warning that some claims about the impact of Global Warming exceed what can be purely justified by the evidence. This is perfectly reasonable and indeed the basis on which the scientific community ought to operate, and the online story is fine. However it's a bit of a shame that BBC News 24's soundbite approach to the story left the impression that they were casting doubt on global warming itself, not merely the extent of it. (In fact one of the scientists explicitly says in the online version: "I've no doubt that global warming is occurring".) So a story in which scientists warn against confusing the public ends up being itself a cause of confusion. Typical.