Tag Archives: science

Why Catholic moralism makes me sick

I seem to be incapable of blogging at the moment – the problem with failing to do it for a couple of weeks is getting back into the habit is often really difficult when there are so many distractions out there.

This is a shame because there is plenty to blog about. The main thing that has been getting my goat over the past weekend has been the escalating row over the upcoming vote on the Embryo Bill, actively being stoked up by people such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien who has been come up with all sorts of colourful phrases to denounce it. He could at least get his literary allusions right – Frankenstein created life from dead matter; his beef here is about proposals to create animal-human hybrid embryos. That isn’t Frankensteinian – it is Moreau-esque. Is it too much to expect these turbulent priests to at least read? Clearly.

There is a big debate about whether Labour should allow a free vote on this. I am only too aware that both the Lib Dems and Tories are already allowing a free vote. It does rather bring into question what free votes are all about and why it is that religious bodies (and it is unerringly religious bodies) insist on free votes on such a narrow range of issues. As Laurence Boyce argues over on Lib Dem Voice these votes are hardly “free” in that the churches are only all too keen whip to their heart’s content. Is it not absurd that we regard scientific debates about the experimentation on small clusters of cells – or for that matter what two grown adults get up to behind closed doors – as “moral” issues while issues such as poverty, justice and military action are regarded as political?

It is in this context that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor‘s article in the Guardian yesterday must be regarded. Murphy makes the outrageous suggestion that the difference between religion and “atheistic secularism” is love. Catholics love, atheists “kills the human spirit under the pretence of liberating it” (note how he frames the debate by denying atheists their very humanity). To be sure, he accepts that on occasion Catholics forget this lesson but insists that history repeatedly “shows the church rediscovering its own secret”.

O’Connor has not condemned or even mildly rebuked O’Brien for his speech on the embryo bill, in which he uses such love-filled phrases as “hideous” and “grotesque”. This, lest us forget, is with reference to scientific research intended to save lives and improve people’s quality of life. But presumably that’s okay because their “spirits” will live on.

It all but five years to the day since the House of Commons voted for an illegal war to invade Iraq. The Catholic church, to be sure, condemned it at the time, but did not seek to influence its own congregation in the Commons and require them to choose between the Pope and Tony Blair. Paul Murphy, Ruth Kelly and Des Browne – currently under intense pressure over the embryo bill – were let off the hook. Tony Blair himself has now been welcomed into the Catholic fold with open arms. Meanwhile, people with Parkinson’s are expected to suffer while in Africa and South America people are threatened with eternal damnation for using life-empowering and potentially life-saving contraception. And what does O’Connor use to justify all this and claims we atheists can’t grasp? Love.

Is time travel the new porn?

The Daily Mail’s Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a pop at the trend in physics towards ever more outlandish theories in the New Scientist this week:

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Coming from a Daily Mail man, this sounds like fightin’ talk (to be fair to him, I haven’t read anything by Hanlon that I would characterise as scare-mongering anti-science, but as the Science Editor you’d have thought he’d have some say in the sillier stories that do follow this trend in his paper). He has a point though. New Scientist’s cover story this week is about a scientific theory that the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN could be made into the world’s first time machine. When you get into the detail though, it turns out that this whole theory depends on “dark energy” of which we know very little, being used to “stretch” open the mouth of the resulting wormhole in space-time to allow us to communicate – let alone walk – through it. That’s a whole heap of speculation.

It sells copies of the New Scientist, but somehow I doubt we are on the brink of a major new discovery of this kind any time soon. And if we were it will probably not be anything like the future we imagined. Just as we have been denied the jetpacks we were promised, this new time travel technology will probably end up so boringly mundane that we don’t even notice when they start churning it out. Instead of people in jumpsuits from 10,000 years in the future coming back to murder their ancestors, my guess is the first time we see this technology being used is when some bozo introduces the mobile phone that allows you to text yourself messages in the past to make sure you remember to pick up the milk on the way home.

Like picture messaging, no-one will see the point of it at first, but then suddenly everyone will be at it. Within weeks, the lottery will become utterly pointless as the jackpot is won on a weekly basis by 60 million people and thus pays out 5p each. On the other hand, the stock exchange will become even more chaotic as people tip themselves off on a massive scale, only to discover that if everyone’s at it such information becomes utterly redundant. Eventually a member of Parliament hits upon a wheeze to claim their additional costs allowance an infinite number of times and the universe will implode in a puff of contradiction and self-important venality.

How annoying will that be? Even if it doesn’t happen, I can just imagine my future self texting me lies just to screw me over. Bastard.

Can science find a cure for conservativism?

Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

Iolanthe, W. S. Gilbert

There was an interesting article in New Scientist last week about research suggesting a genetic basis for political opinion (You can’t read the full article? You mean you don’t subscribe? Tsk!).

I have to be honest and admit that beyond the most banal level of accepting that certain genes no doubt contribute to an individuals’ personality to some extent, I’m not convinced. There are several problems with this article. The most fundamental one is that it doesn’t seem to be clear about what a “liberal” and a “conservative” is. For example, they approached the American Enterprise Institute for comment from the “conservative” end of the spectrum. They came up trumps:

David Frum says that he is “flattered by the evidence that conservatives are more honest and dutiful than liberals”. But given the huge number of variables that affect the outcome of an election, it would be a foolhardy researcher who would draw generalisations from Jost’s work, he says.

The AEI supports “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate” – that sounds pretty classically liberal to me and about a million miles away from a fruitloop like Mike Huckabee. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sort of “drawbridge up” conservativism cited in the rest of the article. Overall, it’s a bit of a mess.

But it, and another article about autism, got me thinking. It cites one piece of research purporting to have found a link between a gene which regulates serotonin levels in the brain and propensity to vote. What appears to be happening here is that people who can better regulate their brain chemistry tend to be more sociable. In principle therefore, it would be hypothetically possible to come up with a pill that would make people more pro-social, which in turn would probably do a lot to improve election turnout.

What, in essence, is the moral difference between such a pill and encouraging pro-social values at school? Since there is clearly a link between diet and behaviour, how is it fundamentally different from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners? If we can justify mass medication for things like tooth decay, can’t we justify this? We already treat depression in such a way (or at least we attempt to).

Could we cure other anti-social attitudes as well? Xenophobia? Misogyny? Violence? We’re not talking about major surgery here or anything even vaguely resembling a lobotomy, just the slight changes in the chemical balance in the brain which leads to certain basic instincts behaving differently. Wouldn’t that be better than locking people up or wasting time attempting to reason with people who science informs us cannot be reasoned with?

(These are genuine questions by the way, not rhetorical ones.)

At the same time, we have reviewed and are in the process of reviewing a whole range of things which were at one point viewed as mental disorders and are now coming to conclude are merely personality traits. Homosexuality was regarded as a disease 50 years ago. Increasingly autistics are fighting a battle which at least superficially has many similarities to the gay rights movement.

The reason I’m pondering all this is not because I want to create a “cure for conservativism” but because I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that science and our notions about free will are increasingly coming into conflict. On one level that tension does not, and never will be particularly meaningful. Science is unlikely to ever become so adept at understanding our genes, brains, bodies and environment to such an extent that it can predict exactly what anyone is likely to do at any given moment. But on another level, it is likely to throw up all sorts of inconvenient truths such as levels of intelligence and modes of behaviour which have fundamentally chemical bases and can thus be altered in a similar way. We’ve created distinctions between “disorders” and personality traits which are looking increasingly unsustainable. Surely there needs to be some kind of distinction between a negative thing that we should seek to cure or otherwise discourage, and a neutral thing that we should tolerate in a pluralistic society? But that line seems to be becoming increasingly blurred and just as we are having to seriously consider reclassifying some things from the former to the latter, so we may have to consider others going the other way. Or is it to be anything goes?

I wonder to what extent we are ready for this debate. There is a real reason why we need to be. If we aren’t, the interests of pharmaceutical companies are likely to dominate it, at least in the short term.

Or is this all merely paranoid delusional fantasy?

The pope’s a dope!

Two recent stories about the state of the Catholic Church deserve repeating here.

The first regarding Pope Benedict’s decision to pull out of a visit to a Rome university. The reason? Students are up in arms over his defence of the notorious trial of Galileo. Yep, that’s right. Ratzinger’s a flat earther and believes it is justifiable to use censorship and the threat of imprisonment to justify his argument.

Meanwhile, it emerges, that he has ordered exorcist squads in every diocese. An exorcism centre has been opened in Poland (hat tip: Fortean Times). All this to tackle an apparent growth in popularity of satanism.

Know any satanists? Thought not. More to the point, I can think of nothing more likely to encourage disturbed young minds into believing such things are real, and thus worthy of worship, than the news that one of the world’s biggest religions is rededicating itself to wiping it out.

Living in a broadly secular world where talk of demons and evil spirits is generally regarded as silly must be a particularly unpleasant form of Hell on Earth for Ratzinger, so it’s no surprise that he has decided his best course of action is to talk up the (non-existent) opposition. We can only hope it will prove a futile route in the long term and that in the years to come this will be viewed as a last hurrah for this particularly nasty brand of religion.

Homeophobia? I am not a scientist but…

Article slightly amended from first version – woke up this morning to realised I’d forgotten to make a point.

Rustum Roy writes a belated rebuttal of Ben Goldacre’s diatribe about homeopathy in the Guardian last month. We are to understand that anyone who is sceptical about homoeopathy is to be regarded as a “homeophobe”. This is starting to sound even less like science and even more like identity politics.

A few lines in this article wrestled for my attention. First:

As it happens, there is agreement among all those who have studied liquid water that it is, in fact, the critics, who are totally wrong. Proof? Diamond is the planet’s hardest material; graphite one of the softest. They are absolutely identical in composition, and they can be interconverted in a millisecond with zero change of composition.

I hasten to preface this with the disclaimer that I am not a scientist, but hang on a minute. The Queen is not constantly in fear that, at any given millisecond, her priceless Koh-i-noor diamond might turn into a pencil. I’m sure there are processes that can convert carbon to diamonds and vice versa, but they aren’t exactly easy to come by.

The reason why carbon can exist in multiple forms is fairly well understood – if I remember my GCSE chemistry it is all to do with “spare” electrons – and it is hard to see what relevance it has here. We know, for instance, that water can interchange from liquid to solid to gas, but that doesn’t prove it has a “memory”.

In any case, I’m also not convinced that Goldacre was basing his argument on scepticism about the idea that might have a memory. He only mentioned the word once in his article. The science behind memory metals is now well understood, and there are other applications of the same principle.

But it is one thing to say that water might have a “memory” and quite another to claim that snake venom diluted in water to an extraordinary degree can be used as a cure for feverish symptoms. The argument is not with the science; it is taking that science and contorting it to an absurd degree. I might just as well claim that the alpha waves emitted by my brain can be used to program water.

Roy also writes:

But the main thrust of Goldacre’s argument is the role of the “placebo effect”. Yes, this works. And, yes, it is without doubt present in every homeopathic intervention; but it is far more powerfully present in orthodox medical pills because they are advertised so widely in billion-dollar campaigns.

Goldacre is accurate in pointing out the high rates of positive v negative outcomes in many of the homeopathy studies. But there are enormous discrepancies in any set of randomised controlled trials on the same orthodox pills.

Does Goldacre seriously suggest that a homeopathy paper with a positive outcome would be treated fairly in any mainstream journal?

This is a very circular argument. “My paper won’t get treated fairly, therefore I won’t submit it” is a pretty piss-poor excuse. And once again, Goldacre is not – as far as I’m aware – claiming that “orthodox” pills are the answer to everything. He’s has written plenty of critical articles about “Big Pharma”. When he writes about the placebo effect, he’s talking about its effect in traditional medicine as much as the alternative:

You both think you know about the placebo effect already, but you are both wrong. The mysteries of the interaction between body and mind are far more complex than can ever be permitted in the crude, mechanistic and reductionist world of the alternative therapist, where pills do all the work.

The placebo response is about far more than the pills – it is about the cultural meaning of a treatment, our expectation, and more. So we know that four sugar pills a day will clear up ulcers quicker than two sugar pills, we know that a saltwater injection is a more effective treatment for pain than a sugar pill, we know that green sugar pills are more effective for anxiety than red, and we know that brand packaging on painkillers increases pain relief.

A baby will respond to its parents’ expectations and behaviour, and the placebo effect is still perfectly valid for children and pets. Placebo pills with no active ingredient can even elicit measurable biochemical responses in humans, and in animals (when they have come to associate the pill with an active ingredient). This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting areas of medical science ever.

If the limit of Professor Roy’s ambition is to claim that homeopaths are no worse than big pharmaceutical companies interested more in making lots of money than they are in actually making people well, then whoop-de-doo. I thought you were claiming to be the good guys?

It reminds me of Great Cthulhu’s eternal presidential election slogan “why vote for the lesser evil?“.

Wot I lernt in New Scientist #2633

Issue 2633I get New Scientist every week but every so often I get out of the habit of reading. Unread issues start to pile up and I get guilty that all that knowledge is going to waste.

So, partly as a way of getting me in the habit of reading it again, partly as an aide memoire and partly as a way of encouraging people to read about science, I’m starting this weekly summary of what I’ve read.

This week:

  • Two studies suggest that life originally evolved thanks to quantum mechanics. Hmmm… sounds a bit mystical to me.
  • 2.37 trillion litres of water could have been saved in the US alone if people didn’t divorce. Try solving that one.
  • The health risks associated with egg donation for theraputic cloning research are unethical and unnecessary according to Jennifer Swift.
  • Solar power is on the verge of becoming economical. If only we adopted a tariff system like Germany’s to encourage supply…
  • Thanks to new research, the discredited example of evolution in action in which it was shown that pepper moths evolved darker colouration as a result of the industrial revolution could be reclaimed for science.
  • An interview with Pakistani scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy about democracy, Pakistan’s decision to go nuclear and how Musharraf has got higher education funding wrong. Physics departments where the head is unable to solve A-level phyisics problems? Sheesh!
  • Chris Mooney reviews Andrew Szasz’s Shopping Our Way to Safety which critiques the idea that consumerism can solve problems such as climate change.
  • A.C. Grayling kicks off his new column by attacking the notion that science “rests on faith“.
  • In Feedback an amusing story about how Rush Lumbaugh was hoaxed into promoting climate change denial research which turned out to be less than meets the eye…

… and lots more! Get your own copy!

Homeopaths resort to legal action to cure all headaches

A few weeks ago, the political blogosphere united to condemn the actions of Alisher Usmanov and his lawyers for attempting to shut down Craig Murray’s blog. We were right to do so; what made Usmanov’s actions particularly reprehensible was the way he used the law to intimidate Murray’s hosting company while cowardly avoiding a fight with Murray’s publisher who had already printed the allegations two years previously.

Now, Ben Goldacre draws our attention to another attempt to shut down a blogger. This time the fight is between a scientist and the Society of Homeopathy.

Andy Lewisallegations seem quite straightforward. The Society has clear guidelines and Andy has what appears to be relatively clear evidence that one of its members is in breach of these guidelines. This isn’t about homeopaths making exaggerated claims about curing head colds to middle class Brits either, but involves potentially dangerous attempts to market homeopathy as a cure for malaria in Kenya.

Andy Lewis demanded answers: the response was a writ issued to his hosting company who subsequently took down the offending article. Sound familiar?

Sound familiar? It should do. There’s a growing list of bloggers who are protesting about this. So come on then Tom, Iain, Guido, Tim and others, how about it?

It’s sex, Jim, but not as we know it

I, for one, welcome our new asexual overlords

Humans and most other types of organism reproduce sexually. The union of sperm and eggs results in two copies (or a pair) of genetic instructions within a cell, one copy inherited from each parent.

This produces two nearly identical copies of each gene in each cell, and therefore two nearly identical proteins.

The “re-shuffling” of genetic material over many generations allows sexual animals to adapt to changes in their natural environment.

In contrast, many asexual organisms have died out because their rigid genetic make-up means they are unable to adapt in this way.

The latest discovery explains why the bdelloids have likely escaped this fate with their mechanism for generating genetic diversity in the absence of sexual reproduction.