Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Higgs Day 2017

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017 | Science

Happy Higgs Day! It is hard to believe that it has been real for five years now. How has your life immeasurably changed by the discovery of the Higgs boson?

Bad Science

Monday, July 27th, 2015 | Books

It’s ironic that after five years of running Leeds Skeptics, it is only now that I have stepped down that I have had time to sit down and read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. It is, after all, somewhat of a Skeptics bible.

I think I am a poor judge of how good this book is. Having spent so much time in skeptics, I knew everything in it. Literally almost everything. Not just the topics but a lot of the anecdotes and examples too.

It is a journey into what is wrong with medicine, science, the media and society’s inability to filter out the crap. Quite a big area to cover. Goldacre uses specific examples so show you what is wrong with the prevailing opinion generally.

He dedicates an entire chapter to rubbishing Brain Gym. He discusses how the media’s MRSA expert was working from a free-standing wooden structure with household-quality fittings. That would be a garden shed then. He goes into detail about how ageing creams. It’s a mixture of chemicals that actually work in trace amounts, vegetable matter that provides a short-term benefit only, and a bunch of other substances thrown in there on the off chance.

He also provides a reminder that we don’t really know how general anaesthetic works. Coupled with Dan Denett pointing out that anaesthetics also contain a memory eraser in case things go wrong, I felt rather uncomfortable with all that. Almost certainly better not to think about…

We also levies some criticism at the research behind antidepressants. This is similar to what Irving Kirsch said in The Emperor’s New Drugs. To be clear, I’m not saying Goldacre says SSRIs don’t work, but Kirsch doesn’t say that either, just that it is difficult to know given the data has not been made clearly available and thus may provide nothing more than an enhanced placebo.

Goldacre also discusses p values. Very important for science. A p value of 0.05 for example would mean that for every 100 times you do the test, you would get an anomalous result 5 times. He finishes up by discussing the MMR vaccine. He is quite kind to Andrew Wakefield and points the finger squarely at the media.

In summary, if you’re not familiar with how evidenced-based evidence works and why it is so important, this is definitely worth a read. If you’re already familiar with all this stuff, you probably won’t learn anything new.

Bad Science

Introduction to Positive Philosophy

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 | Books

This short book contains the first few chapters of Auguste Comte’s work, translated by Frederick Ferre. It gives a very brief and compact introduction to the ideas but nevertheless remains rather hard going.

Comte believes that all sciences can be broken down into individual classifications. Each can then be split into the theoretical and the practical, the latter of which can be disgraced. You can then use them as building blocks. What I mean by this is that you start with physics. If you want to study astronomy, you can, but only after you have learned physics. Similarly, if you want to study chemistry, you must first study physics and astronomy.

He also talks about “social physics”, now known as sociology. He puts this at the top of the pile, thus making it the most difficult science to study because you need to have a grounding in almost everything else in order to effectively study it.

Introduction to Positive Philosophy

Breaking the Spell

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 | Books

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a 2006 book by Daniel Dennett.

In the book he argues that we need to break the spell of using scientific enquiry to consider religion. He has no problem with religion in itself, but wants it to be given the same treatment as any other discourse – that of evidence rational scientific enquiry.

He writes in his somewhat slow and lumbering style that can take a while to get going but certainly puts forward some thought-provoking ideas. It has not been my favourite recent read but did nor did I get overly bored either.

I was really enjoyed some of the little, almost throw-away sentences, that made some quite profound points. The rotting caracas of an elephant for example. It smells horrible. But it does not objectively smell horrible. It smells horrible to us as humans, but to a vulture the smell is a pleasant one.


The Believing Brain

Sunday, August 17th, 2014 | Books

Michael Shermer is founder of The Skeptics Society and psychology researcher. The Believing Brain brings together much of his research over the past few decades.

Shermer’s take home message is to do with how we form beliefs. Namely, that we form our beliefs first, and then work out what evidence supports them. This is not the way we like to think we make decisions. We like to think that we gather the evidence, weigh it up, then make a decision. However, there is good evidence that we do not.

“The brain will almost always find ways to support what we want to believe, so we should be especially skeptical of things we want to believe.”

That is not actually an exact quote, but I think it is roughly it.

Evolution has given us pattern-detecting brain because false positives are far less harmful than false negatives. This leads us to see patterns that are not there.

This is true even of exaggerated patterns. For example birds will prefer to sit on eggs with even more pronounced patterns than they are supposed to have. Shermer suggests this is also true of dating. Wearing high heals extends the legs of women, so men’s brains are tricking into thinking they are more attractive. Similarly women like men with broad shoulders and who are tall, so platform heals and shoulder pads might help.

We are also predisposed to think there is an agency behind everything. These innate evolutionary traits of patternicity and agenticity explain why so many of us are susceptible to believing there is a creator, even though there is no evidence for this.

He goes on to discuss the idea of SETI as a religion. People believe in it, even though there is no evidence for it. To be fair to him, he does go on to explain in detail why SETI is different from a religion, however I still do not entirely agree with the comparison. SETI is at least consistent with a naturalist world view and is therefore a plausible theory that we are investigating, rather than believing in.

He spends a chapter making the case that conservatives are not that bad. But then he is one. However, he makes a good case of it being important. We need a system to regulate altruism and freeloaders and both conservative and liberal agendas can do this. He also points out a lot of evidence for egalitarianism and communism do not work, hence why we need such agendas.

The final few chapters of the book look at the development of the scientific method and how it can help to overcome the biases and failings of our believing brains. This includes a discussion of how the universe was created. It feels a bit out of place in what is essentially a psychology book, as it will probably become out-of-date independently of the rest of the book’s content. Most of it I knew, but it was an interesting re-cap none the less.

Overall, it is definitely worth a read, offering some powerful explanations for why people believe what they believe and its implications for how we live our lives and structure our society.


The Modern Face of Physiognomy

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 | Humanism

For the August meeting of Leeds Skeptics, Kat Ford presented her talk “The Modern Face of Physiognomy”. The talk looked at how we make judgements of people based on their face. Kat was an entertaining speaker and we really enjoyed hosting her.

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The talk is also available to watch on Worfolk Lectures.

When Magic and Science Collide

Monday, July 8th, 2013 | Foundation, Humanism

For the June meeting of Leeds Skeptics, we had magic boffin Oliver Meech present his show “When Magic and Science Collide”. It was a hugely entertaining show that received a ton of positive feedback.

One the tricks, named The Evolving Trick, changes every time he does it. You can see a clip of it below.

Nonverbal communication

Friday, April 5th, 2013 | Public Speaking

Have you ever been told that only 7% of communication is verbal? The other 93% is not about the words you say, but the body language, tone and gestures that accompany it.

Incredible isn’t it? Almost too incredible. Indeed, there is a reason that it feels too incredible to be true – because it isn’t true. It’s a statistic based on the work by Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, which you can read all about on Wikipedia, that tests how people feel towards the speaker. But it doesn’t accurately translate into what percentage of your message is verbal or nonverbal.

Mehrabian states this on his website:

“Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings.”

And has previously said in an email that was reproduced in the book Lend Me Your Ears:

“I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled ‘corporate-image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.”

Of course body language and vocal variety are an important part of communication. But the words you actually say do count for something too.

Everything is chemicals

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 | Science


Surfin’ Bird

Saturday, March 9th, 2013 | Thoughts


Often, our society fails to give scientists the credit they deserve.

Take homo erectus for example. A lot of scientists have had a lot of laughs out of the fact that they managed to convince the world that homo erectus was the name of an evolutionary step (which it is of course) and not just a really silly name they thought they would try their luck with.

But nowhere is it more clear than the people who study using the many telescopes located in Hawaii.

At some point in human history, a scientist when to a grant panel, and the grant panel asked them where the best place to put a telescope would be. Said scientist must have then looked at them slowly and sensing they trusted their judgement, decided to try their luck once again.

“Hawaii!” the scientist would have said, trying to sound more confident than they really were.

“Hawaii?” the chair of the grant panel would have enquired. “Why would Hawaii be the best place to put a telescope?”

“Well…” replies the scientist, trying to think on their feet as fast as they possibly could. “It’s the altitude you see!” “The altitude? Hawaii is an island, surely it is at sea level?” “Yes… but those mountains are very tall! Very tall indeed!”

“Seems like there would be a lot of places at high altitude. Are you sure you’re not just making this up so you can go live on a tropical island and go surfing every day?” “No, no” replies the scientist, “Hawaii has the tallest mountains and the clearest skies – it has to be Hawaii.”

“Well then”, says the grant panel chair, slamming down his approved stamp, “I guess that is that.” Thus began a golden age for science…