The future of science is… losing its reliability?

Unfortunately, almost none of my scientist friends will be bothered to read these articles. As a scientist though, it is important to acknowledge and confront problems in the field, not stick your head in the sand and your fingers in your ears.

So if you’re a scientist, do read this, think about it, and try whatever little you can to change it. The core of science – its trustworthiness – is at stake.

The main article in the Economist

Comment on the above article, also in the Economist

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What’s wrong with the ‘left-wing’ newspapers recently?

Putting a DENT in Independent: in one week, Independent publishes outlandish attack on “new atheists” for their being “Islamophobic” and follows this up by giving a free, unedited, unbalanced platform to Andrew Wakefield, utterly discredited and dangerous MMR scare lunatic. Comments not allowed (anymore in either of the articles either.

The Guardian going down the same road, publishing one attack on new atheism after the other and publishing an uncritical “science” piece about a clearly bogus “remote hepatitis C detector”.

What is it about left-wing newspapers lately? Is it the humanities graduates running them? Who never learned to think critically? Who think that in every debate there are two, equally worthy, sides? There’s no need to suck up to religion, superstition and other woo. Leave it, please.

Straw Dogs, a really REALLY poor book

Change of plan

Now, I was going to sort-of take apart the first few pages of this book line-by-line. However, after reading a few more pages – amusing in the same way that watching a car crash unfold on one of those police chase series is – I’ve decided to change that. (Because I’d already written that and I don’t like the fruits of my labour go to waste, I’ve put that part below the fold, just in case someone is curious.) The author, John Gray, just keeps repeating a handful of arguments, based on his wrong assumptions (either deliberately or because of ignorance).

Instead I’ll just point out the three (maybe four) things that are wrong with this book, before admitting that I do share one concern with the author.

1. He misrepresents humanism

Looking for salvation? Really?

Gray somehow has the idea that humanism is a post-Christian Quest For Salvation, preoccupied with liberating humans from the shackles that keep other animals down and aimed at realising some sort of Utopian Paradise On Earth.

Now I’ve read quite a bit about humanism, and by humanist authors – and I’ve never read anything that points towards such a quest, or paradise.

In my experience, to the vast majority of humanists, humanism means living a good, moral life without the need for supernatural beings or religious, dogmatic rules. If I pick up the latest copy of the British Humanist Association magazine, one random staff member says that to her, the most important thing of being a humanist is ‘living a good, rational life without the need for god or superstition’ and she says she supports campaigns ‘to ensure everyone is free from discrimination, on grounds of belief or any other aspect’.

Other items in the magazine cover topics such as protesting the pope’s visit to the UK, comments on homeopathy, reforming the House of Lords, sex & relationship education in the school curriculums, and comments on the government’s plans for religious education. All very much down-to-earth with not a trace of this Quest For Salvation that Gray tries to portray.

It barely needs pointing out that equating the christian salvation – gained after death by entry into an eternal kingdom of heaven and by virtue of adhering to a set of religious rules – can in no way be compared to any humanist endeavour – which would always be aimed at the here and now, with rules flexible by definition, and not aimed at pleasing a non-existent deity but fellow humans (and often animals, which brings me to the next point).

Humans versus animals? Really?

On top of that he portrays humanism as somehow putting humans ‘above’ other animals and creating some ‘conflict’ between them. Again, funny that, but the most staunch defenders of animal rights tend to be humanists and assorted rationalists – correct me if you’ve got evidence to the contrary.

The various world religions all provide handy phrases that put humans above other animals; anyway all of them say it’s OK to eat animals (how about the animals’ right to live?).

In contrast, it is precisely because humanists free themselves from these dogmas ,and they know about Darwin (see below) that they can see animals as related and therefore worth giving rights to.

2. He misrepresents ‘Darwinism’

‘Darwinism’? Really?

To start off grumpy, there still is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’ – just like there is no ‘Galileism’ to describe planetary motion or ‘Einsteinism’ as a synonym for relativity. However it seems it’s increasingly common for people either pro or contra evolution to use this term, so I have to forgive the author formally

‘Darwinism’ is actually meant to provide our lives with meaning? Really?

Unfortunately his use of the term seems deliberate (whereas in everyday use it is just a ‘mimic’, because people pick it up from teh interwebs or their peers), because to Gray, Darwinism is not the scientific theory that explains how lifeforms came to be. Instead it is just another way of looking at the world, giving meaning to our place in it; he makes direct comparisons to Shintoism and animism (to which I shall return in a bit).

I can’t even begin to explain how WRONG that view is. In fact, Darwin’s theory couldn’t be further removed from the mystical hand-waving of these religious worldviews and ‘explanations’ of our place in it all – and ‘after Darwin’ they made no sense anymore – so to lump it in with them shows that the author just doesn’t have a clue.

3. He misrepresents science

It’s not just ‘Darwinism’ he gets wrong, it’s science in general.

Science is EVIL, don't you KNOW!?

Humanism versus science? Really?

This one just has me baffled. I honestly don’t know where he gets the crazy idea from that these two are somehow at odds with each other. Science has always been the main ally, or tool, for humanism in the fight against religion.

(And since Gray tries to portray both humanism and science as faiths, he should even reach the conclusion they are two of a kind :p.)

Science is a faith? What the…?

In another amazing feat of mental acrobatics, gray represents science as a faith, including him using the eternal ‘scientific fundamentalists’ (that is getting sooooo tiring, it having been used by creationists, climate change sceptics, alternative medicine proponents and who else).

Like he does with humanism (see the bit below the fold), he basically redefines science to fit his terms, then proceeds to attack that particular image of science. This is logically called a ‘straw man’ fallacy and I can’t help but think this is weird irony given the title of the book).

He starts off by claiming ‘scientific fundamentalists [note the loaded wording] claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth’. I challenge him to find a ‘non-fundamentalist’ scientist to disagree with that. Apparently I’m fundamentalist – because that is indeed what science is.

Then he replaces this with his own arbitrary, straw man definition of science: ‘Among us*, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship’. (*his use of ‘us’ is baffling throughout the book, see also the example below the fold).

Er, hope, well, sure, if you say so, but hope has little to do with the everyday of scientific experiments (aside the hope that they work :p). But censorship, that just cracked me up laughing. The argument from Gray to support that ludicrous claim is hilarious (and later on he gets even more loopy, near with me):

Science alone has the power to silence heretics. (…) It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians [note again the use of loaded words] to Lovelock)

I won’t go into too much detail, but this, as well as the recent climategate scandal, only shows that science is done by human beings. Time has shown Freud to be mostly wrong, scientifically; Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis has in modified form reached considerable acceptance among science, albeit without any of the vagaries like a planetary consciousness that some hippies want to ascribe to Earth). Science itself IS indeed the search for truth; it cares not for the humans and their opinions.

Gray makes this mistake even more grotesquely a bit further on, but first I’ll continue the quote of this bit, where Gray explains what he means by censorship:

In fact, science … by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.

Excuse me while I HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAWHAAWHAHAHAA HAH oh stop I’m dying HAHAHAHA WHAHAHAHa oh fuck man that’s hilarious.

To quote Dara O’Briain:

Science doesn’t know everything. And it knows that it doesn’t know everything – otherwise it had stopped.

We, the scientists, know what we do know, too. Everything that is ‘too far from current orthodoxies’ […trying not to get annoyed by all these loaded words] is wrong, because we know it’s wrong. It may be very free-thinking and unorthodox to propose that the sun is made of orange ice cream… but you’d be wrong.

Fortunately for me, Gray goes on to flat-out contradict himself only a couple of pages later, when he writes

According to … Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence.

Never mind that he is factually wrong again at several points  – where were these theories at odds with available evidence? Plus he doesn’t get the concept of falsifiability – but he doesn’t see that a few pages earlier, he complained that thinkers that stray too far from current orthodoxies are censored by science. Now he complains… that they weren’t.

John Gray is a very confused man.

Science is determined by rhetorical skills? Really?

Even funnier, and another occasion of mixing ‘science’ (objective increasing truth) with ‘scientists’ (subjective human beings), is in between these passages, when he tries to argue that science is really based in irrationality. I’m getting bored with debunking all his crap, so I’ll give that pass whilst saying that THAT IS WRONG, and go straight to this:

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’ [oh god I can’t let this one pass either – that would be because in these days that concept had yet to be developed – oh why do I even bother, it’s like shoving shit with my bare hands]. (…) he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society.

Wow.

Just WOW.

It may just have slightly helped in the very short time span around the emergence of this theory that he was a savvy writer, but apart from that… his theory survived because it was correct, full stop.

Galileo could have been the best persuader in Earth’s history, but if he’d argued that the Sun went around Jupiter in a square orbit, he’d not have won for longer than, I don’t know – well actually I think he wouldn’t have won at any time.

Gray seems to buy into the nowadays oft-heard idea that science somehow calls for ‘equal representation’ and that the best ideas then win not because they are true, but because the majority of people agree with one theory or the other. This, of course, is getting the horse behind the cart.

4. He supports some vague form of animism

Throughout the book he keeps giving nods to animism, that vague hippie belief that We Are All One, or something, but I’m getting a bit bored with all the debunking, so I’ll just throw up my hands here and say ‘whatever’.

Summary please, Marcel?

Well, funnily I do agree with the author on the points where he considers humans dangerous and destructive animals, and to some extent I agree that it will be difficult to save our planet from all sorts of self-inflicted disaster.

However, why he specifically picks on humanism and science is beyond me; it’s science that have been warning against overpopulation, global warming, energy crises and suchlike disasters for decades; and it’s non-scientist humans, overwhelmingly non-humanists too, that have been deaf to these calls.

On top of all that it’s difficult to take a book and its message serious when it gets so many of its facts and premises so amazingly wrong.

The author, John Gray, knows fuck-all about either humanism, science or ‘Darwinism’ and that shows on every page (multiple times) yet he pretends he does. He has clearly done his ‘research’ in a very blinkered manner, only reading these sources that confirmed his preconceived notion of what he wanted to conclude (I’m sure his intended audience will be just as preoccupied and will swallow this crap hook, line, and sinker). These are all pretty cardinal sins in what pretends to be a non-fictional book, but because of these errors would better be classified under fiction (I just realise that indeed, it was in the religion section, so Brighton Library has got that right).

Avoid this piece of subsubstandard writing, it’s really not worth it, apart from having a laugh.

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Back with a vengeance: opinions! / Part 1: the UK elections

OK there’s just so much happening in the world to opine about, I can’t not blog about it.

First off… oh fuck, most things are happening in The Netherlands instead of the world, so I’ll have to blog in Dutch. Tough.

The UK election – the Tories

As I’ve also Tweeted, the fact that 80-something businessmen and Sir Michael Caine – in other words, lots of old, rich, white men – support the Conservatives, should be ample signs for anybody with a normal job that this party might not be the best for them.

If their plans are so good for everyone, why isn’t the National Organisation for Immigrant Single Mothers on a Part-time Job (I’m just making that one up, OK?) supporting the Tories? Exactly – because the Tories’ plans aren’t good for everybody. I’d daresay they aren’t good for most people, but as usual, the average voter is stupid enough to be deluded by politicians – those same politicians that the average voter then complains about being deluded by. Ad infinitum. Sigh.

Pardon me the tangent, but this seems like the right time and place to gratuitously sneak in my Quote of the Week (Month?):

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe – Albert Einstein

I personally do not understand the whole kerfuffle about apparently a 1% tax increase. That seems reasonable enough; it will generate more tax income whilst hardly hampering the recovery of the economy. The tax income can be used to diminish the huge national debt, or to spend on useful stuff like the NHS or teaching or the police – or science.

The UK election – Science

Which brings me to my other point: according to a large number of scientists, the Tories have (not surprisingly) no effing clue about science. No plans, no ideas, nothing.

I suspect that, with their promise to cut a further £12bn from government spending, and backed by businessmen (when have businessmen showed an interest in science, after all?), that at least some of these cuts will be made in science, technology, and public education. All things you don’t need when you’re conservative and rich.

So I’d say, do vote in the upcoming elections, but please – not for the Conservatives.

The Big Bang, ergo god?

I’ve read that argument once too often now; time for my personal take on it.

What is this about anyway?

It’s about an argument used to ‘prove’ that there is a god.

Usually that conveniently happens to be the very same god of the religion that the proving person holds. The short version of it runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins does so because of a cause

2. The universe has begun

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause (this then presumably is god)

Wrong, wrong, wrong…

It’s wrong on several levels, which makes it, on the one hand, easy to dismantle, but on the other hand, where to start? It’s probably easiest simply to go through each of the statements one by one.

The first

The first statement is simply wrong.

It starts off by being just that, a statement. If given as-is, without any evidence, it falls to the general principle that everything that is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. If it is going to be more than a statement, it needs evidence.

To get those who want to prove this statement to be true started, and to save all of us time, I suggest they start by proving that the decay of a radioactive atom (which results in the ‘beginning’ of for instance positrons and electrons that didn’t exist as such before) has a cause. When that’s settled they may want to turn to virtual particles, as those in the Casimir effect and the ones that make black holes seem to emit particles, and explain what causes these particles to appear.

The second

The second statement is indeed true… hurray!

Yes, the Big Bang indeed signalled the beginning of time as we know it, so by definition that is The Beginning. Even if there was something before (a Big Crunch, for instance), it is irrelevant – if for no other reason than that previous something would have to have a beginning, too.

However, anybody that brings up the cosmological argument has to accept the fact that the universe is around 13.7 billion years old. You cannot on the one hand choose to accept the science that shows us that there has been a Big Bang (cosmic background radiation, the Hubble constant, and suchlike) but at the same time reject the same science that tells us this happened 13.7 bln years ago. Accept both or accept none (and look stupid).

The third

The third follows logically from the first two – but since the first is wrong there is not much to crow about.

There is of course no evidence whatsoever that, if indeed something did cause the beginning of the universe, this would necessarily be the god of the religion held by the person who asserts this “proof”.

Occam’s razor

Another obvious objection – pointing out a logical fallacy (special pleading, to be exact) – is the “but what caused this god (or whatever ‘prime causer’) then?”

This either fails to an infinite regression of god-creating meta-gods, unlikely in my humble opinion,  or to special pleading – why would a god not need a creator itself (apart from it simply being part of the assertion-without-evidence that “god/it just doesn’t, it’s god/it!” – see above for what happens to such assertions), but the universe would? Why can’t the universe not be the element that doesn’t need a cause?

My personal peeve…

…with the cosmological argument is the same as with similar arguments that use some sort of formal logic to prove that god exists: surely something that is presupposed to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent shouldn’t rely on formal logic to be proven?!

Usually, given the paucity of direct evidence for god’s existence, believers assert that “god does not want to make himself seen” “god is unknowable” or something along those lines. This is of course a huge fail.

There is no a priori logical reasoning from which follows that any godlike being would not want to be known; I’d actually venture the opposite. There is also no infallible message from god him/her/itself that he/she/it wishes to remain anonymous; only rambling scripture, clearly thought up by humans.

That makes this assertion nothing more than an ad hoc get-out-of-jail-free-card. It is yet another case of special pleading: god is the only being that can influence the material world without being detected (which is quite peculiar  if you think about it, because influencing the material world by definition is detectable), simply because, well, just because that is what god does… yeah ,sure.

So… THAT is why this argument, like every other argument for the existence of a god/gods, does not impress me.

Cool science 2: designing a protein

This was one of the reasons I chose bio over organic chemistry: the distant promise of designing custom proteins from scratch. OK, I went astray and ended up in cell biology and genetics, but hey… it’s the thought that counts :-)!

Design and engineering of an O(2) transport protein, Nature, Mar 2009

Again, the full abstract is below the fold and here is my summary:

It is AMAZINGLY COOL! OMG!!!111oneoneone

 

… well OK I’ll say a bit more. In a few steps, the authors basically create a protein (from near-scratch) that does what another protein, but found in nature, does: binding and releasing molecular oxygen (O2).

What is fascinating is that, actually, despite doing the same thing, this truly ‘Intelligently Designed’ protein is simpler than its natural equivalent. Plus it has one great advantage: it binds oxygen (O2) better than it binds carbon monoxide (CO). Of course, this is the other way around in “our” oxygen binding proteins, and the cause of many deaths each year.

A nice (I think) “stab” that the authors make (this is in the full article) is towards the reverence that exists towards the natural equivalent of this protein – it has a rather baroque (I suppose is the word) “haemoglobin fold” that is often taken as an example of how nicely complex the “perfect” solutions are that nature has come up with to solve specific complex problems – such as binding oxygen specifically.

Except that this designed protein does not have such a fold, to no detrimental effect. The authors dryly state that that structure in the natural protein may simply still exist not because it is “perfect” but merely because it is “good enough”. Something I think is true of most things in nature on several levels, from genes and proteins to limbs and colour patterns.

It is barely necessary to further refute claims about Intelligent Design (the new word for creationism) but the results of this paper do a very fine job at this, too. It shows that truly “intelligent” design does the same job nature did, but quicker, more to-the-point and with less complexity. Ergo, if “God” really did design these proteins, he did a far crappier job than a bunch of 21st-century scientists. Not a good sign for an omnipotent, omniscient being.

Anyway, let’s not waste too much words on that. The bottom line is that this is great news for fields like biotechnology, where custom-designed proteins may start to do things a whole lot better than current “designs” based on natural proteins (but with modifications, such as the enzymes in washing powder). And, we’re another step closer to creating a truly artificial life form! (Or maybe that is my grandiose megalomaniac delusional mind speaking… whatever.)

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Cool science 1: targeted erasure of memories

One of my interests is how the brain works and so I find this new article in Science übercool =D:

Eternal SunshineSelective erasure of a fear memory, Science, Mar 2009

The full abstract is hidden below the fold, but here is my version of the story:

The authors have first (well, in another piece of research) found which neurons were specifically activated when a memory of fear is recalled. This of course raises the possibility that “removing” (or killing) these neurons will make the memory go away. So, using a clever bit of targeted genetics, they introduced an inducible toxin into these neurons (I suppose this means creating a genetically modified animal). Then I suppose the animal (I guess a rat, the choice animal in neuronal research) was frightened to put the memory into these cells.

Of course, the ultra-cool bit is that then, when the toxin was induced and the neurons died – the whole memory of fear was completely gone and did not return. That is just so totally WOW! This is an amazing step (in my humble and possibly wrong opinion) towards knowing exactly what is going on where in the brain and then actually influencing it directly. It also brings what happens in the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” just a little bit closer (disclaimer: I do not say that that will, or should, ever be possible :-) ).

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