Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

No thanks, I’m pregnant

Sunday, July 17th, 2016 | Science, Thoughts


While in Mothercare a few weeks ago, I picked up a leaflet on alcohol. It has the Leeds City Council and NHS logo on the front and is entitled “No thanks, I’m pregnant”. The message is that the best amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant, is none.

The problem with this statement, is that it may not be true.

For years it has been widely believed that you should cut out alcohol while you are pregnant. All the pregnancy books I read recommended staying away from alcohol. Though they also said that if you had been drinking before you found out, it didn’t matter. How does that stack up? The answer is because there is a lack of evidence that alcohol is harmful after three months.

Do not mistake me: heavy drinking while pregnant is dangerous of the baby and could result in foetal alcohol syndrome. It is serious and if you drink heavily you will do serious damage to your baby. However the evidence for moderate alcohol consumption is less clear.

Advice published by The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says…

Drinking small amounts of alcohol after three months of pregnancy (not more than one or two units, not more than once or twice a week) does not appear to be harmful.

Similarly, in 2010 University College London published research that concluded…

Light drinking during pregnancy does not harm a young child’s behavioural or intellectual development.

Alcohol is not beneficial to the foetus. However, small amounts are not harmful either. Given that it does provide health benefits to adults, it could be useful for the mother. In light of all of this, it may be time to re-think our public health advice on drinking while pregnant.

Is there a paradox of choice?

Saturday, June 11th, 2016 | Science


You may have heard of the idea that there can be too much choice. It’s a paradox because we think that more choice is always better. However, in his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz claims that once you have a certain level of choice, more actually makes us unhappy because it raises our expectations. If there are three choices of trainers, we pick one. If there are a hundred choices we agnoise because with such much choice we expect to find a perfect one, and don’t.

He makes a similar case in a TED talk.

A lot of this comes from a famous study about selling jam, conducted by Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. They noticed that if you offered people six different choices of jam, they bought more than if you offered them 36.

All of this is easy to identify with. However, to muddy the water, a blog post by Freakonomics suggests that it is less clear after all. When looking at real-world datasets it is actually quite difficult to find examples of this working.

They make a similar claim in a YouTube video, pointing out that you cannot generalise one specific study, such as the jam study, and assume it applies everywhere.

How much is too much jam? Perhaps there is an upper limit. However, more research is needed before we can start making generalised rules.

Do child car seats save lives?

Friday, June 10th, 2016 | Science


Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, gave a talk at TED in 2005. In it, he put forward the idea that child car seats do not outperform just using a seatbelt to a significant degree for children over two.

In some ways, this is shocking but believable. Take handsfree kits for example. There is no evidence that they are any safer than holding your phone. The dangerous bit is having a phone conversation, regardless of the phone being on handsfree or not. However, because it seems intuitive, because it allows the government to look like they are doing something, and because it allows manufacturers to sell us more stuff, everyone goes along with it.

Could the same thing be happening here?

Well, maybe. It is difficult to argue with the data he presents. However, in the Q&A at the end of the talk, Levitt touches on the issue of whether car seats do provide a reduction in injury and it turns out that they may well do. Other datasets suggest that there is a significant benefit.

Also, the following year the University of Michigan published a study suggesting that there was a significant reduction in risk of death: 28%. The study seems to group front and rear facing seats into the same category, so it would be interesting to see if these groups showed a difference.

Therefore, unless further evidence is published, it makes sense to continue to use child car seats.

Lifestyle factors in life expectancy

Sunday, May 1st, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing, Science


In 2008 the European EPIC study began to publish their results. The study followed over half a million people and follow-ups continue. However, one factor was clear from the moment that the results started coming in: your lifestyle choices have a big impact on your life expectancy. A paper published in PLoS Med placed the figure at 14 years.

In 2014, BMC Medicine published a paper that broke down the factors into life expectancy years.

Factor Men Women
Heavy smoking (10 or more per day) 9.4 years 7.3 years
Smoking (less than 10 per day) 5.3 years 5.0 years
Being underweight (BMI less than 22.5) 3.5 years 2.1 years
Obesity (BMI over 30) 3.1 years 3.2 years
Heavy drinking (more than 4 drinks per day) 3.1 years  
Eating processed/red meat (more than 120g per day)   2.4 years

What should we take from this? Nobody would contest that smoking is bad for you, so that is an easy one.

According to the data, the next biggest factor is maintaining a healthy body weight. This probably makes sense. In order to maintain a healthy body weight you have to eat sensibly and exercise, so it is not surprisingly that this correlates with a longer life expectancy.

Heavy drinking reduces your life expectancy. Interesting, this does not mean that you should cut out alcohol. Non-drinkers actually have the lowest life expectancy. It’s not much worse than being a heavy drinker, but nor is it an improvement. The longest life expectancy are those that drink moderately.

Finally, diet plays a factor too. The EPIC study, and other studies around the world, are clear that processed meat takes years off your life. Red meat probably does too. Whether you can eat white meat and fish is less clear. Most studies seem to suggest they have little to no impact. However, the Loma Linda University study suggests that there could be measurable health benefits in being vegetarian. The NHS has published a summary. It concludes that vegetarians have a longer life expectancy, and there is some support for this in the EPIC study as well.

My Life in Science

Sunday, September 27th, 2015 | Distractions, Science


Recently Richard Dawkins spoke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He is flogging his new book, My Life in Science, which is a second book of memoirs. It was ably chaired by my friend Chris Hassall, who made a natural choice as a biology lecturer at the University of Leeds.

The format was a 20-30 minute conversation in which Dawkins told a few anecdotes and read a few things out. Some of them very funny, though Elina felt the obscurity of the subject made them less enjoyable. The second half was Q&A which eventually drifted off religion but was mostly a bit dull.

Overall, the event was enjoyable though it could have been a lot better. Some of it was a bit boring and Dawkins actually taking about something interesting rather than re-hashing anecdotes and answering unimaginative questions would have been a lot better.

Psych out

Sunday, July 19th, 2015 | Science

Last week we had dinner with Gijsbert who pointed me to the new version of his PsyToolkit. This is a piece of software for building psychological experiments, though more relevant to us civilians are the tests and scales available on the website

There are now over 60 on them, so myself and Elina spent Saturday night filling them all out. Of course how much you can take from them is questionable. However, they are all academically published scales.

I came up with some interesting results:

  • I am not a psychopath – which was the result I was hoping for
  • I am only slightly dissatified with my life – win
  • I’m only minimally depressed
  • I have high self-esteem – probably thanks to me being so great
  • I’m not narcissistic – pretty surprised at that!
  • I am highly sceptical of adverts
  • I have high general anxiety
  • I do not have internet addiction – apparently
  • I am a perfectionist – did not expect that!

Of course I am now basically going to do nothing with this information. However, it was fun to do the tests.

I also suggested he added the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) which he prompted did. Pleasingly, my score dropped from 11 to 9 this week, meaning I am no longer postnatally depressed!

In defence of social science

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Science, Thoughts

Like everyone with a degree in real science (that is I have a Bachelor of Science in a subject that does not contain the word “science” in the title), I have often mocked social sciences. The “soft” sciences. You know, the ones that are not real science.

I think that perhaps it is time for us to stop such mocking though.

I am not sure whether we actually believe our own jokes or not. I imagine that we do; that a lot of scientists actually think social science is a load of nonsense.

There are some understandable reasons for this. Physics gives us very definite answers. Even in the days of quantum physics, which you could argue have introduced greater uncertainty, our body of knowledge and accuracy of predictions has only increased. In comparison, psychology and sociology are not able to give us the definite answers or universal rules that the natural sciences bring to the table.

However, there are a number of good reasons for this. First of all, they are new. While you can trace anything back far enough if you loosen the definition, psychology as we know today really only began 130 years ago. In comparison to the thousands of years physics has had, it is a baby. It has not had time to develop the body of knowledge that the natural sciences have.

Consider that it took Newton building on hundreds of years of research to bring together a unified theory of physics into a working body of knowledge. In his own words:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Similarly another few centuries for Einstein to bring together relatively, with quantum being even newer – and these are summations were are only just building. In may be that there simply has not been time yet for psychology to to have their scientist who brings it all together.

Or perhaps there may be no universally applicable laws, which brings me on to my second reason – social science might just be a lot more complicated than natural science! That is perhaps heretical to suggest, but I think I can make a case for it.

Natural science is very difficult. There are huge equations, our brains are not designed to deal with imaging the sub-atomic level, it is incredibly difficult to measure, etc. Yet we have managed to work out the composition of stars millions of light years away. It is doable.

Social science on the other hand, is not rocket science. It is arguably a lot harder! It might be difficult to work out the composition of fuel you need in a rocket, especially without blowing yourself up, but once you have done it, it is done. The laws of chemistry hold and you can almost guarantee the same result every time.

Not so with social science. The brain is such a complex machine that everyone is slightly, or significantly, different. You cannot predict what a person will do. And that is on the micro level! Scale that up the macro level, trying to make forecasts for global politics or economics, and you have to try and model the behaviour of 7,000,000,000 individuals that make almost entirely unpredictable decisions. That is difficult.

But why do we need to take social sciences more seriously?

I would argue that they are perhaps more important. Few people would deny that being able to bring back rocks from Mars is awesome. I am sure it is also valuable for scientists. However, consider the benefits of focusing on psychological research.

We, humans, are rubbish at making decisions. We use common sense, which is a collection of biases that we think is real knowledge. We build a world model that only somewhat reflects reality. When something does not fit our worldview, we ignore it. We form beliefs and then justify them. We are subconsciously prejudice and we do not even know it.

Now imagine how much better hard science we could do if we learned to spot, mediate and perhaps even remove these issues. Imagine the happier, more peaceful, progressive societies we could live in once we properly understand why people make all the stupid decisions that cause problems in the world. My guess, is that it would be a massive improvement.

I don’t mean to wine on about it…

Monday, August 11th, 2014 | Science

…but wine tasting it a load of nonsense.

I will point out at this point that I do know how whine is spelt. However, as this is a post about wine, I have deliberately used an out-of-context spelling for this purpose. I realise it is a shame to have to point this out, but it will save some of you from having to write a tedious comment.


In 2012 I wrote about how people could not tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. Multiple studies have now shown this. But what about wine experts? Surely they are good at determining whether a wine is a good one or not?

Apparently not, according to Robert Hodgson, writing in the Journal of Wine Economics, according to The Guardian. Most judges cannot consistently tell if a wine is good or not, and the judges that manage it vary from year to year – no judge is able to be consistent. It seems that even the experts are not able to tell whether a wine is any good or not.

Higgs Day 2014

Friday, July 4th, 2014 | Life, Science


Happy Higgs Day!

Higgs Day

Thursday, July 4th, 2013 | Events, Science


It’s the 4th of July, which can only mean one thing… Happy Higgs Day! It’s one year since we officially re-classified the Higgs boson has “discovered”.