Posts Tagged ‘Science’

No sadly this isn’t a WWE match set in at “Edgefield Federal Correction Institute”, where Dawkins uses his intellectual might to pile drive Kent Hovind – young earth creationist, conspiracy theorist and criminal – into the mat.

The Greatest Show on Earth is in fact a fascinating new title from Prof. Richard Dawkins. It aims to explicate evolution in a manner that every man on the street can understand. Demonstrating complex scientific concepts with examples, diagrams, rich colour photos  and of course is his occasional no-nonsense humour, Dawkins bring evolution to a level we can all understand. A secondary role can also be found within its pages, in that it equips the reader with the tools to refute the arguments of the ID/Creationist brigade.

In opening Dawkins does a great job of explaining what is meant by the term theory in regards to the “Theory of Evolution”. The word theory in this context is often misunderstood – partially down to the fact the word theory has two different meanings.

So having taken us through a basic explanation of the term and warming us up with a brief look at; Darwin, On the Origins of Species and natural selection, Dawkins then starts to explore how natural selection and artificial selection (for example dog breeds) works and gives us some fascinating examples of each.

Over the course of thirteen chapters we are treated to many examples of evolution in practice as well as lab experiments that refute the claims of the Creationist brigade. Dawkins touches on other areas of science that back up the “Theory of Evolution” ranging from carbon dating to tree ring counting (Dendrochronology).

The book finishes with a small appendix titled “The History Deniers”. Dawkins uses this term during the title to describe those who ignore, refute or discard evidence that challenges their faith-based beliefs.

The figures detailing those who don’t accept evolution as a factual theory make for slightly worrying reading – and these are just from the EU and Turkey.

With the above in mind, Dawkins work as well as being a fascinating piece of science literature, provides those of us who read the God Delusion with  a useful tome to challenge those who refute the scientific method.

With Creationist museums in the US and Creationist Zoos in England, this book couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Greatest Show on Earth is available now in hard back from all good bookstores.

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
Tags: , ,

One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.

Astrology – A Test

Posted: October 20, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
Tags: , ,

A little while ago I wrote this piece about astrology, or more specifically about horoscopes. I explained that I believe any apparent correct predictions arrived at through the practice of astrology are due to a combination of vagueness the Barnum effect,  and wishful thinking on behalf of the reader, among other things.

Michelle Gregg, a consulting astrologer, disagreed with my analysis of her trade in the comments, explaining that I was being simplistic in writing off all of astrology on the basis of newspaper horoscopes, which she agreed are mostly for their entertainment value. 

So, based on Michelle’s defences of the specificity and accuracy possible in more in-depth astrological readings, I challenged her to take part in a little experiment, the details of which we have been hashing out for the last month or so.

I am pleased to announce that the test is now going ahead and, in the name of transparency, I will outline the full protocol being used here.

From a group of four people1, the time and date2 of birth of one person has been randomly selected3 and sent to Michelle. She will then give a reading for that date, attempting to make it specific and accurate enough that it would only apply to a person born at that time on that date, and send it back to me. 

I will circulate the email around the other three people in the original group and each of us will indicate whether we think the reading describes us. We will all do this without seeing each other’s responses. 

The test will be called a success for Michelle and for astrology if only the person whose date Michelle read for identifies him or herself in the reading.

In the case of any other result, the test will be deemed failed.

If nobody identifies themselves in the reading, or if the incorrect person does, the reading must have been wrong. If more than one person identifies themselves in the reading, this can be seen as support for my point about the “something for everyone” nature of Barnum statements.

The details have been sent today, so the test is now underway. We will keep you informed.

Footnotes:

1: The group includes myself and theenglishradical as well as two unidentified others.

2: All times and dates were given in their GMT equivalent to avoid any potential confusion regarding time zones or daylight savings adjustments.

3: To do this, I set up four web pages, each of which contained one time and date. I emailed the four numbered links to a third party, nominated by Michelle, so that she could choose a number, click the corresponding link and send those details on to Michelle herself. This would blind the test by ensuring that neither we nor Michelle could know for whose date the reading was being done.

The US based Center for Inquiry has the following mission statement on it’s about page:

To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present, the world needs an institution devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. The Center for Inquiry is that institution.

At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny—certainly not fringe science and religion, which have an enormous influence on beliefs and conduct.

Based out of Amherst NY, the Center for Inquiry is responsible for publishing a number of magazines and the Point of Inquiry Podcast.

I fully recommend checking out the Podcast and the Center for Inquiry website here

It was believed to be one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire, its name was Altinum and it sat upon the mouth of the river Silis. The port town was blessed with Amphitheaters, temples and all the modern conveniences of the Roman world. Hypocausts and Aqueducts would have provided its wealthy citizens with warmth and water whilst Roman galleys brought goods from around the Empire to its doorstep.

However in the middle of the 5th Century (approx. 452AD)  the city was deserted as Atilla the Hun and his army marched south towards Rome sacking all in their path. Unlike most Roman cities, the site was not buried under layers of Medieval and modern construction. In fact the inhabitants are believed to have settled in Venice taking some of the building materials with them.

Some 1555 years later during the dry summer of 2007, aerial photography of the area revealed the city hidden below the parched crops. Archaeologists from Padua and Venice University are currently drawing up plans for excavations of the site which may give way to some impressive finds.

Below you can see some fascinating computer models of the site from the BBC:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8177308.stm

This is certainly going to be an interesting story to follow as it develops.

The Spinal Trap

Posted: July 29, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Science
Tags: ,

free debateIn April 2008, Simon Singh, author of the excellent Big Bang and Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, wrote an article in the Guardian demonstrating the lack of evidence for the claims made by chiropractors. He pointed out that true chiropractic did not limit itself to helping back pain, but was in fact originally created as something of a panacea that could supposedly cure all manner of diseases and disorders through spinal manipulations. He demonstrated that, despite chiropractic’s success in hiding some of its pseudo-scientific past, many practitioners still do claim, without evidence, to be able to treat conditions such as asthma and colic.

The British Chiropractic Society disliked all this talk of lacking evidence and dubious claims and promptly sued Singh for libel. Note that they did not try to disprove his claims or present the evidence for their position as any proponent of a scientific position would, but instead used the conveniently prohibitive expense of the flawed English libel laws to silence the perceived threat.

Rather unluckily for the BCA, Singh happened to be in a position that allowed him to fight the suit rather than be chilled by it, and by doing so has vastly raised the public awareness of the complaints the BCA was trying to suppress. A classic case of the Steisand effect.

Much has been written about this case around the internet, so for the full story, I would direct you here, here or here.

Sense About Science have started a campaign to have the libel laws changes so that they can’t be used to silence important scientific concerns and stifle debate. You can sign your name to show your support.

Anyway, in a show of solidarity to Simon, many blogs and magazines are today, 29th July, reprinting a version of his original Guardian piece (slightly edited to remove the specific bit that the law suit is about). So I reprint it below:

 Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Pseudo Scientists Podcast

Posted: July 23, 2009 by newhavenlse in Groups and organisations, Science
Tags: , ,

For those of you looking for something to listen to whilst on your commute, you may be interested in this podcast:

http://www.youngausskeptics.com/category/podcast/

Called the Pseudo Scientists it’s run by the Young Australian Skeptics and covers topical subject with plenty of mirth.