Monday, 29 April 2013

“For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.

Since I have had a recent go at English graduates, prizes (well, a metaphorical pat on the head) will be awarded for the person or persons who can identify all the quotes that I place, strategically or otherwise, within this post.

“Why then should witless man so much misweene
That nothing is but that which he hath seene?” 

 The word "misweene" has rather gone out of use.  I haven't heard it in, let me see, ever.  That's a shame because in the context of what has been exercising my mind recently this is a very useful word, and the couplet is a very useful couplet.  The online dictionary defines misweene as "to ween amiss; to misjudge; to distrust; to be mistaken"  I should be cautious because no doubt some Elizabethan poetry expert will pop up in the comments and let me know that I have chosen the wrong one but for the sake of my little sermon, the last shall be first.  "To be mistaken".

To translate into modern prose: Why do the ill informed get it wrong that nothing is true unless they have seen it?  All right, you might object that I haven't got that right either, but the point here is that Edmund Spenser is basically saying that those without much learning are subject to the Dunning Kruger Effect.  If you haven't heard it before, and obviously Spenser would not have used the term, basically it is the idea that people think they are better than they actually are.  Or, as Wikipedia has it:

"Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill."

I had to laugh the other day when I saw it applied to someone who was supporting the idea that humans have caused, or at least contributed to, global warming, by someone whose basic argument technique was to make fun of someone's name and then make a rather insulting comment.  Very playground, I must say.  Very primary school.

I chuckled for a very good reason.  The global warming denialist had made the point that they never opened the links given by the pro-warming side because, well, you know, they didn't conform to what was already their solidly held belief, viz. that it is all one worldwide government conspiracy (as if you can herd the Chinese or the Russian governments in the same way that you can so easily herd cats and come up with pretty solid global agreement).  The pro-warmist was using sensible links to verified evidence and, well, that made her someone who believed she was better than she actually was.  Oh, well.  At least I now have an example to explain the meaning of the word irony.

“Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice.” 

It is common for those people that are conveniently called deniers to throw the mud of "there is no evidence" for whatever you are proposing.  This usually stems from a profound ignorance.  The ignorance has two stems.  The first of these is that they are genuinely not in possession of the information because they don't know where to find it, or cannot understand it when they do find it.  I sometimes feel a bit battered when I come across some scientific research that I am not competent to understand straight away.  I felt like that a bit when confronted with my mother's necrotising fasciitis when she was admitted as a dire emergency to an intensive care unit five years ago.  It was all rather bewildering and there was lots of information on Google but understanding it was hard work.  It took effort and I am better able to cope than most because, luckily, I chose a scientific career path all those years ago and didn't let it slip when I graduated.  I can easily see that those with GCSE science, or equivalent, might have no real chance of understanding some of the evidence, the nuances of scientific thinking, the probabilities and statistics...
Buy this book (no, I don't get paid to say this)

But there is also the second stem, and this is one that is inevitably fed by the media of all persuasions.  Science is, as Ben Goldacre argued in Bad Science, badly served by large parts of the media, especially the newspapers and magazines that purvey science in small gobbets, usually health related.  It was these same news outlets that stirred the antivax pot over the nonexistent link between MMR and autism.  They might not hold Andrew Wakefield in such high esteem any longer, but they still peddle some atrocious health news.  Worse, there is a monthly magazine called What Doctors Don't Tell You which fails to omit the most important thing that doctors won't tell you but perhaps should: the magazine is a science free zone.

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” 

 For everyone who thinks there is no evidence, not one scrap, that vaccines work, the above quote is good news.  You can still have the injection, still suffer feeling a small prick in the arm, and being prevented from catching some nasty infection whether you believe in it or not.  And you can do the same for your children, who certainly won't know if it works or not.  That's rather fortunate because I relied on Newtonian physics and the kinetic theory to get me home from work tonight.  And I am relying on some quantum effects to type this.  And there are countless other examples of scientific ideas that underpin uor understanding of the everyday world and that help us to live an easier life, regardless of what naysayers might think.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

Back to the Dunning Kruger Effect.  This isn't too far removed.  When first of all you convince yourself that something is true or false, you tend to look for evidence that confirms it.  You might twist things to fit the theory or reject other bits of evidence because they don't confirm what you believe.  That might work in the world of deciding which album is the greatest of all time but it sure as anything doesn't work in the world of science.  First of all, science goes to great lengths to try to eliminate the self-confirmation bias.  It has anonymous peer reviewing which, as I am sure all deniers know, is designed to ensure that interesting science gets published and rubbish science doesn't.  It is not there to confirm the status quo.  Scientists have a low boredom threshold in my experience and they like looking for questions to answer.  They don't want to repeat the same old experiment for fifty years.

Barry Marshall should be a good example here.  He is the Australian doctor who "fought" the establishment when he suggested that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria and could be cured with antibiotics.  His appearance on The Infinite Monkey Cage is here.  He has a salutory lesson for all those who would try to overturn the wisdom of centuries of careful science: go ahead but be prepared tohave every other scientist in the world try to prove you wrong.  Oh, and even if they did laugh at Galileo, it doesn't mean you are right.

So good science tends to chase out bad science and it does so because there is evidence.  Not because someone shouts the loudest but because someone does the hard work and collects the experimental results and analyses them and looks for reasons why they might not be true.  It is to some extent soul destroying because just when you think it is all sorted and everything is correct, someone comes along and finds a flaw.  Remember those faster than light neutrinos.

“If you thought that science was certain - well, that is just an error on your part.” 

Oh, boy, do the deniers love pointing out that just when you say the science is settled, along comes something and the science changes slightly. They are missing the point.  When challenged once to come up with a scientific theory which was settled, it wasn't hard.  The scientifically verifiable idea that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning.  Based, as it is, on a model of the motion of the planets (something that will make the toes curl of the global warming deniers, it is about as settled philosophically as anything is.  Philosophers (even some scientists have heard of Karl Popper) have long known that you cannot prove anything unto infinity in science.  The Sun might do an about turn and ruin my faith in the evidence and the model, but it would be a major upset for Newton if it did.  It won't.  Rest assured.
Karl Popper

But new discoveries are made all the time and although most won't make the front page of the newspaper, or indeed any page, they are filling in the grand jigsaw puzzle that is science and painting more detail into the picture that is our understanding.  Sometimes a new piece of evidence opens a new window on the world (I am starting to get my metaphors in a twist here).  It allows us to see, to understand, just a little more.  Sometimes it won't be understood for a while.  Quantum theory in all its myriad flavours still confuses even though it is the most precisely verified of all scientific theories.  One day we may have gone beyond it, maybe not.

What upsets the deniers is that they think this new knowledge means that the original theory is wrong and should be discarded.  What they don't know is that the underlying science is so robust, so supported on the foundations of secure evidence, that it would be more like knowing over an immense row of dominoes if we were to chuck it out.  Science works on evidence and trying to understand what that tells us. 

“It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom.” 

It would be nice if everyone were rational and open to the pursuasion of the evidence.  I sincerely hope that if I am every wrongfully arrested that some of the close minded irrational deniers are not on my jury.  I might as well change my plea.  Yet these are the same people who sit and watch CSI or NCIS and wonder at the way science and reason are used to solve a murder mystery.  All in 45 minutes too.  
A TV scientist
What I said earlier in this post I think holds all too true.  Most people are in love a little bit with science, but they are overawed by it too, and they don't want to look sometimes because it will challenge their beliefs.  A meme I have seen on some sites has uncovered what seems to be unfortunately true about some parents of autistic children.  They seem to have a Platonic ideal about children.  They should be perfect.  And autism seems to rob those parents of that perfection, and in looking for someone or something to blame, instead of asserting the role of pure unpredictable chance, they alight on a faceless, nameless yet all too human cause: the very people who were trying to help their children in the first place.

My mother spent nearly two weeks in intensive care, then a couple of days out on a normal ward before suffering a relapse.  At 9.50 one Thursday morning I got an urgent call telling me to go to the hospital.  It took nearly three hours before I got there and by then it was too late.  I cannot erase the vision of my dad and brother, sitting in the sunshine on a bench, just sunken with grief, a copy of a bereavement leaflet clutched in my dad's hand.  When the shock subsided, he wanted answers and we drafted a letter to the hospital.  We went through a meeting at which it became all too clear that, actually, my mum had lived well beyond what they had expected.  She had undergone, at age 78 and in poor cardiac shape, a serious, life saving operation and come through it.  Her heart, however, was not strong enough and eventually it gave in.  My brother and I didn't really see the point in questioning the doctors but we supported my dad for whom it was cathartic.  It brought him, as they say, closure.  What mattered was they told him that she really hadn't been expected to come back from the operation alive.

My point is simple.  We all have questions.  We just don't all like the answers we get.  And sometimes we choose to ignore those answers and replace them with ones we do like, even if they are wrong.  Combatting those wrong answers is important.  After all, lives are at stake.  My granddaughter might not catch smallpox but she might get polio (although unlikely) because some ignorant (in at least one sense of the word) bunch of people has a prejudice against the vaccination program.

"Everything has got to be just like you want it to"

Not in my world it isn't.  I might want it to be but it just isn't.  

To counter the antivax comments I might get, please click on this link  or this one.

To counter global warming deniers, try here

All I ask is that you look sensibly at the scientific evidence.  You might (no, will) learn something, and it probably won't be what you thought it would be.

If you think I am suffering from Dunning Kruger, then I humbly apologise.  And I defer to more expert testimony than I might be able to give.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Apology to English graduates

I understand that I may have upset all English graduates (that's graduates with BA degrees in English, not necessarily written in English) when I suggested in a humourous and partly satirical manner than James Delingpole BA (Oxon) was an English graduate and linked this to his inability to think critically.

I wish to wholeheartedly apologise.  It was a clear oversight on my part and I should have been more careful to make the distinction that it is only some English graduates who cannot string two scientific ideas together and not all of them.  Furthermore, in a blog post over at the Daily Telegraph's website the other day, Mr Delingpole himself pointed out that a number of proponents of global climate change caused by the actions of human beings were themselves proud possessors of a BA in all sorts of humanities subjects, some of whom might have studied English.

Furthermore, Mr Delingpole points out that although he doesn't have a qualification in science, it doesn't matter because you don't need to understand science to see that everything is a conspiracy and a plot to undermine world civilisation.  Perhaps.

According to Mr Delingpole:

It's not a science degree you need to negotiate the complexities of this tottering edifice of propaganda, tortured data, lies, misinformation, political wrangling, rampant greed, corporatist manoeuvring and establishment cover-ups: it's the mental clarity you develop translating the Battle of Maldon, the powers of endurance you develop from reading the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, and the critical nous you acquire while trying to understand what the hell Spenser was on about when he wrote the Faerie Queene.

I'm sure you did.  Problem being, you don't have Edmund Spenser (died 1599) there to tell you whether you are right or not and a persuasive argument is not proof of being correct.  I, for my part, spent a good deal of the 1980s studying, from personal interest, Shakespeare.  Can't promise to be an expert but I could see how arguments based on the interpretation of a few words and phrases might get mired in special pleading and cherry picking.  Science has a different arbiter. 

Anyway, I offer as counter evidence this video from a comedian and.... English graduate Robin Ince

If he can do it, then so can James Delingpole.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why do science part 3

Mrs Catmando had a bad day at work today. She has a cold and one of her colleagues was trying to persuade her to take extra vitamin C in order to boost her immunity and prevent a recurrence. Mrs Catmando has learned enough from me to realise that such advice is unscientific rubbish even though it has a good pedigree.
Linus Pauiling, two Nobel Peizes, one citrus fruit

That pedigree comes from the originator of the idea that Vit C is wonderful in preventing infections, Linus Pauling (1901-1994), one of the few winners of two Nobel Prizes (chemistry and peace). By anyone's measure that should make him a clever man, which indeed he was. He was also wrong. My point, science does not proceed by authority but by evidence. It was the evidence that spoilt Pauling's thesis. That is what science does.

That the world is warming up is incontrovertible. No matter how much I might wish it were any other way, that is the case. No matter how much I might perceive it to be different, the evidence from instruments and satellites, from ice cores and tree rings and every other source, points in one direction only. The Earth is warming up. And the only real factor that has changed in the last few hundred years is the increased used of fossil fuels. If I wanted to turn back the tide, I could do better than ask James Delingpole.
James Delingpole, University of Oxford English graduate

Well, actually I could. Delingpole is a journalist who writes racy prose full of clever jokes and turns of phrase for the Daily Telegraph website amongst others. Like many journalists he seeks his wares to anyone who will have them and just as scientists are often measured by their citations, journalists are measured by the number of comments their web pages attract. Delingpole is, therefore, a great success in the eyes of the Telegraph.  In the eyes of truth and evidence, however, he is less successful.

Delingpole is a climate change denier from the premier league of denialism and, in common with so many other denialists, evidence is not his strongest suit,  I find that strange because he read a proper degree at a proper university whereas I read biology at an upstart London college. But Delingpole does not hide his ignorance of science, nor his willingness to remain ignorant, as witnessed when Sir Paul Nurse interviewed him for Horizon a couple of years ago. It is insufficient to take the position of sceptic without being willing to examine the evidence, and science is great at putting that evidence in a place where it can easily be found. Why, anyone can do it.

I think the term denialist is better for the position Delingpole and others like him take, rather than sceptic, because the latter term implies a position that's open to change as a result of evidence. Denialists keep to their position and paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners when the evidence goes against them. It is simple. A denialist has made their mind up beforehand, usually, it would appear, for ideological reasons. In Delingpole's case it seems to be his libertarian conservatism. I will admit to having some libertarian views myself - I like the idea that if it is not illegal then it must be legal, but there are limits to liberty (I like Sir Humphrey Appleby's list of things that could be legal for sale if the country were truly "free").
A jolly good book that many people ought to read

I started off a climate "sceptic". I wasn't sure because I wasn't in command of the evidence. But I read up on it and came to a decision . That's what sceptics do. I joined the warmist camp because it was the one the evidence told me to join. But I can understand why some people don't enjoy following the evidence. There is comfort in certainty and science does not really deal in sure things but always hedges them around with the levels of doubt that remain. Science is incredibly good at that because scientists know that their peers are going to look at their work and decide if it is correct or not. And the more incredible the claim, the greater the scrutiny.

This is what peer review is, scrutiny before the work is published to establish if it is worthy of publication and then again afterwards to ensure it is correct. Delingpole doesn't like peer review. The Intelligent Design crowd also don't like peer review because it weeds out pointless publications but still permits work that is speculative or left field. Plenty of speculation gets through. The point is, it still has to be good science. It still has to tell you something you didn't already know.

Anyone can be an scientist. You just have to have an open mind.  Yes, an open mind. 

PS  I wrote this a day or two ago and find today that the MMR/autism non-debate has been given a kick in the pants by the re-emergence of ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield and given prominence by The Independent of all newspapers.  I won't bother to rubbish the man's case, rather link you to the blog Respectful Insolence where someone infinitely better qualified than I am demonstrates how poor the original research was.  And this brings up another point about peer review.  Sometimes it lets some utter rubbish through, as Wakefield's hypothesis and evidence was.  

But my substantive point about science is that it finds the rubbish research, weeds it out and throws it on the compost heap of science, the one that is fertile enough to bring forth new research but which will never itself flower.  There are dozens of examples of such moribund science - N rays for example - scientific mistakes that got found out because science deals with what works, not what we would like it to be.

There appears to be a temptation amongst some scientists to get involved in an area of science in which they are not qualified, not experts and which they find themselves stumbling.  The cold fusion escapade of 1989 is one such.  Fleischman and Pons ventured into an area of science that was well understood in theory, decided to announce that they had achieved in practice and came a cropper when their results turned out not to be reproducible.  Something seems to have gone on but not what they claimed it to be. 

It is this catching out of scientists that climate change denialists are hoping to achieve.  But they are often far from expert and hope you can win a scientific argument on a technicality.  No, you just can't.  You win when your evidence shows that your ideas are better than anyone else's.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Why do science part 2

It might be churlish to say so but there must be a large number of people who forewent their science amongst the 1200 or so people who queued up to have the MMR vaccine in Wales in the last day or two.  Surely not every one of them forgot, or decided that something was more important that day.  Actually, since the majority probably didn't get to make the decision for themselves, the chances are that there are a lot of guilty parents in the queues, or am I making too many assumptions.

For a good many people one of the problems of science seems to be that it is just too good at finding things out.  It is fine to discover a new species of spider because that just adds to the gaiety of life.  Finding something that challenges basic understanding of how things are, that's different. 

The matter of vaccinations is interesting because it illustrates how science has opened up a gigantic chasm between how the world was and how the world is now.  In the developed world, with health systems and ample food, clean water and energy on tap, we don't notice what a rotten world it actually is.  Yes, we moan about the unfairness of things, especially when someone young and seemingly in their prime is cut down by disease, but those things are so much rarer than they were even one hundred years ago. 

When my mother was five, she spent several months in hospital with scarlet fever.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone or known of anyone who has suffered scarlet fever in my memory yet my mother would speak eloquently of the isolation she had to put up with in the hospital to prevent infecting anyone else, how here mother and father had to wave at her through a closed window when they came to visit.  But conditons, in a working class part of Preston, Lancashire, were very different then to what they are now.  Take the picture below, of my mum and a friend sometime in the 1930s.  Do we see anything like that these days?
So many parents feel that the diseases of their childhood, which generally they passed over without too much trouble or perhaps never even got, weren't too bad.  Problem is, they are.  Of the 600 or so who have got measles in the Welsh outbreak, statistics predict at least two will suffer serious complications and perhaps even die.  That's not a pleasant outcome, and totally preventable.  Vaccinations have been demonstrated to be very effective and, just like crossing the road, the risk is manageable.  I might not feel that way if it is my child that has a complication from a vaccination but since I personally have had such a complication, I might be able to comment.

I had a sore arm after a tetanus injection.  Not much, nothing major and not life threatening, but it is a complication.  As the lengthy list of side effects on the average leaflet inside a packet of pills might alarm, so does the idea that vaccinations can cause problems.  But the vast majority are straightforwardly the same as if someone has merely stuck a pin in your arm.  It is sore.  Serious complications are very rare.  Sadly, the googlesphere is swamped by the antivaxxer sites so getting the real numbers is the work of serious archaeology. 

Back to my point.  Science can tell true results from the noise of rubbish that envelopes us.  That's why it is so useful and so good at its job.  And that's why people should understand it and not just the pile of facts it brings but the reasons why we can know those facts.