Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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”.

Everything is chemicals

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 | Science


Short people

Friday, February 22nd, 2013 | Science

As you will probably know, human beings are getting taller.

I never really put much thought into it – humans are getting taller over time, big deal, it’s evolutionary useful, so it’s just happening. But the other day, it struck me that if it was happening by evolution, it must be doing so using evolution’s trusted method, natural selection.

This states that desirable characteristics, ie, those that help an organism survive, continue to grow because they are more successful at reproducing. This seems to point to one conclusion – being above average height makes you more likely to reproduce than someone below average height.

Could this be true? Do short people really no reason to live?

Thankfully, the answer, is no. As Scientific American explains, the increase in human height is almost certainly nothing to do with evolution, and everything to do with the improvements to our diet that have been made over the past few hundred years.

Malnourished children don’t grow as much as children who have a healthy diet. Given a healthy diet is a relatively new concept (indeed, in many parts of Africa, it still hasn’t reached there yet), that explains why humans have started getting taller over this time period.

Driving while talking on a mobile

Saturday, October 6th, 2012 | Religion & Politics, Science


About ten years ago, everyone started to panic about the increased use of mobile phones while driving, because they seemed to be causing lots of accidents. The response was to ban the practice, which became illegal in 2003, unless you were using a handsfree set.

This was widely supported by the mobile phone industry who happily charged us lots of money to provide a variety of handsfree solutions, from simple holders to elaborate integrated in-car systems.

The problem is however, they don’t work. Driving while talking on a handsfree kit is just as dangerous as driving while holding the handset. Multiple studies have all supported the same conclusion.

It’s easy to see how this situation happened. You assume it is the act of holding the phone, so without testing it, you suggest it as an idea and phone manufacturers jump on it as an easy way to make more money from us. To further their own profits, they continue to push the idea that it is safer to drive using handsfree, even though it isn’t.

In fact, it turns out that it is the act of holding a conversation, which takes some of your attention away from the road, that reduces the safety. So it is irrelevant whether you’re holding the handset or not.

Worth thinking about, next time you take a call on your handsfree set.