Archive for June, 2009

So last night I went to the latest of Robin Ince’s science-themed, rationalist, comedy and music shows, A Night of 400 Billion Stars (And Maybe Some String Theory). Here are some scattered thoughts about it, loosely strung together in a way that can’t really be called a “review”.

Robin Ince is still utterly superb. The many hours of sleep he hadn’t got over the last couple of days since Glastonbury didn’t seem to slow him down at all, although I’m pretty sure he did introduce the show at the very start as “A Night of 40 Billion Stars”, which might have meant we were being short-changed on an unprecedentedly vast scale. (Seriously, that’s 360,000,000,000 massive balls of roiling nuclear energy which were on the bill but weren’t provided. If that doesn’t merit a partial refund, I don’t know what does.)

The music was pretty consistently good, I thought. None of it spectacular, but a nice mix of stuff. I spent much of this morning muttering “Schnapps… Schnapps…” and feeling haunted by Martin White’s scary eyes. Darren Hayman was fun too, and Gavin Osborn, though I’ll probably have forgotten their names and what they were singing about fairly soon.

The comedy was what mainly made it worthwhile, though, with most of the great stuff coming from the young female performers (and not just because I’m a young male comediphile). I don’t remember seeing Josie Long’s name on the bill, so she was a lovely surprise. Lucy Porter was as adorable as ever, and completely won at life both for a Tycho Brahe / Michael Jackson joke, and for a poem which was almost certainly the most lyrically awesome thing to happen to the periodic table since Tom Lehrer. Someone I didn’t know, and whose name I’ve just had to look up to find out that it’s Helen Keen, was a lot of fun to listen to talking about her list of favourite rocket scientists throughout history. Something about her style of speaking was a little reminiscent of Boris Johnson, which in my book (but possibly not everybody else’s) = awesome.

And, speaking of odd celebrity comparisons which are probably as undeserved as they are unflattering: Christina Martin (her wot invented the God Trumps card game that Robin Ince played with someone from the audience who’d brought her own deck along) is also fab, and I don’t want to say anything derogatory about her because she’s really nice and very funny and a splendiferous force for good in the world, but this is supposed to be about recording the thoughts I had about stuff, so I’m going to say it anyway. Something about her reminded me somewhat of a Catherine Tate character. Not any particular one, just generally. There’s not really anything to it, just something in her style of delivery happened to prod my brain into making that connection. My flatmate looked at me like I was a freak when I suggested it, though, so it’s almost certainly just a quirk of my oddness than anything she needs to worry about. Sorry, Christina. You’re much funnier than her. I’m subscribing to the New Humanist right now. Please don’t block me on Twitter.

The only quibble of any import that I had was about the odd chunk of recycled material. Robin Ince barrels along with all his material at such a rate, and straddles the divide between being funny and scientifically informative so expertly, that it hardly matters, but there were a few lines I’d heard before at the godless show at Christmas (or possibly his stand-up gig more recently), and the closing extract from Feynman’s book was the same one as had closed the previous show. You have to know that a fair slice of your audience are going to be return visitors like me, who’ve seen the last show already, right?

And Simon Singh’s always great to hear speaking, but I’d been assuming that we’d get to hear something about the BCA case, as that’s what’s extremely topical in his life right now. I know there’s only so much that he’s at liberty to talk about, but some sort of update or summary of thoughts might have been good, of the type that he’s been giving in some of the interviews he’s done lately. (I didn’t manage to attend his recent appearance at Skeptics in the Pub, and kinda want to know exactly what I missed.) He’s still fun to see, but anyone who was there at the Christmas show doesn’t really need to revisit the Katie Melua story again, especially when there’s spine wizards to be mocked (a task mostly left up to Robin, and which he took to with his usual gusto).

He did get his gherkin out, though. I couldn’t see it when it went orange, because the podium was in the way, but I’m told it was an impressive sight.

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Let’s own up to a dark and terrible truth.

We atheists all know that we have just as much faith in unproven superstitions as the religious people we so gleefully despise. I mean, secretly, we’re all well aware that our beloved “science” is just another way of seeing the world, dependent on at least as much blind belief as, say, fundamentalist Christianity, and that evolution is a religion just like any other, with Darwin as our god. Right? That’s why we worship him and never question anything he ever said or did, right?

We like to bill ourselves as the skeptical, rational, faithless ones, just because our convictions are always tentatively held based on the current state of the competing theories and subject to change in light of new observations. But come on, we’re among friends here. We don’t need to keep this ludicrous pretence up all the time.

But I was wondering: Since our position is really one of at least as much blind faith as your average god-botherer, what would a position genuinely devoid of any faith actually look like?

Most religious believers will proudly claim faith as a virtue, after all, and wear their disregard for measurable truth and empirical reality as a badge of honour. But any traditional scientific mindset is just as faith-based – or so we’re often told by these same religious types (and who would know better?). Does this mean that everyone alive has to have some sort of faith in something? Must every opinion ever held by a human brain be on this same level of unprovability? Does belief in anything, or the holding of any conviction, on any subject, necessitate an equally religious approach?

Or is it actually possible to be truly faith-free, and look on life without ever making that leap, leaving aside for now the issue of whether this would actually be a good thing?

This is a question for any faithful who make this argument, rather than actual skeptics, obviously. Despite my little rhetorical device up there, which you may have noticed my attempting to use for comic effect a few paragraphs ago, faith is entirely antithetical to what we call our scientific, skeptical worldview. But the true believers do stop by here from time to time, so maybe someone will care to explain this. If scientific understanding is based on faith just as much as your religion, what would an outlook that really doesn’t have any faith at all look like? Are there people out there who approach the world in this way? Would it be possible for them to ever know anything, or form any kind of views on the truth?

Many people would say that this is called “science” – but is science something different, and intrinsically faith-based in the way it’s set up? Or could science potentially be this faithless worldview I’m talking about, if all those silly scientists would stop espousing positions that so obviously require you to just “believe” in them, like evolution, for which nobody has ever published reams and reams of evidence?

Or, if we tried to take a faith-free approach to everything, would we find ourselves stuck in some sort of limbo, where nothing can ever be known, understood, or even talked about coherently? Are we really left with no choice but to apply a faithy outlook constantly, one way or another, if we ever want anything to mean anything? This seems weird to me, but if you can explain how it’s reconciled with whatever your concept of faith is, I’d love to hear it. (It also brings up the usual questions of how you can judge your own kind of faith to be superior to any other, but that’s a long-awaited rant that I’ll get back to working on another time.)

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Today, instead of being particularly original, I responded to a couple of comments on my post about Kent Hovind from a while back. Well, I was bored. So, here are my responses in full, because I’m unlikely to come up with anything else of substance to post here today. (You might want to read this comment and this one for the context.)

Okay, I’m having a dull afternoon, so I’ll bite. Let’s do this thing.

Some dude:

1. Paragraph breaks and syntax are your friends. Run-on sentences obscure your point. If I can’t understand what you’re saying, I can’t even decide whether I disagree with you, let alone how to defend whatever you might be disagreeing about.

2. “…your evolution theory says that everything created itself…” – No it doesn’t. It says that the variety of living organisms we see in the world can best be explained as the result of compounded variations in replicating entities on which selective pressures have been acting over billions of years, and it says it with a great deal more detail and nuance. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t understand the difference.

3. “I think before your claim is any good to me, you should be standing in front of one of those stalactites and stalagmites like he is so it sounds like you know what your talking about…” – I can put on an impressive white lab coat as well, if what will impress you is flashy gimmicks, and you’d prefer a meaningless sense of authority to actual data. What possible difference does it make to the truth or falsehood of what I’m saying, whether the ground next to me is pointy while I’m saying it? If my facts are right, they’re right; if they’re wrong, they’re wrong. I’m not a geologist who’s spent years studying stalactite formation. Neither is Hovind, and I’m guessing neither are you. If you want to make an actual coherent assertion regarding any kinds of rock formations, and the implications of your observations and conclusions on evolutionary theory, go ahead. So far you’re just calling people fools a lot.

4. “How long would it take for lightning to strike some amino acids and begin to form them into this complex shape we call a watch?” – Seriously? You’re still going with William Paley? How can you have no idea what a bad analogy that is to the incremental processes of natural selection?

5. “It should sound pretty stupid in your mind! If it doesn’t, there is nothing anyone can do for you because God intends to kill you.” – Wow, that came out of nowhere. Remind me where in the Bible it states specifically that God will kill anyone who fails to be impressed by the watchmaker analogy as an argument from design?

6. “…but you made the best argument that evolution is retarded when you said: “No one has ever claimed the money.”” – If you put stuff in quotes like that, the implication is that you’re repeating an exact phrase that was used. When that’s not the case, like here, you look like either a liar or an idiot. Given the point you’re trying to make, the idiot option is much more likely. No one has ever claimed the money (see, now you can quote me on that) because Hovind’s criteria are entirely unreasonable and show a complete lack of understanding of the scientific process. This, as you seem to have somehow missed, was the entire point of my article. Saying that this shows up a flaw in evolution would be like me claiming that all religion is obviously bullshit because I’ve been trying to get a personal interview with God for this site for weeks now and still nobody’s making it happen. It’s just not a realistic thing to demand as “proof”.

7. “…I already know God so your efforts to convert me will fail.” – I’m really not trying to convert you. You’re almost certainly right that there’s no hope for you. I’m just talking about some science.

Blah blah blah, bored of this guy now.


1. “…people call this man a wack job, nut, crazy, Ect… And why is he all of these things? Just because he has a different view than some?” – Ugh. No, it’s not just because he has a “different view”, it’s because he appears to be profoundly detached from reality. Kent Hovind is not Galileo. Sometimes when people hold steadfastly to a position that differs from the mainstream, they’re groundbreaking geniuses whose insight will be lauded in years to come. Sometimes they’re just loons who get locked up because they think they’re Napoleon. I call Hovind a nut because he’s a nut. He’s deeply wrong about many things, and he’s had them explained to him often enough that simple ignorance no longer works as an excuse.

2. “…the people who are toughing the stones have a THEORY of what they think happened…” – You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Also… “toughing” the stones? Whuh? Even as a misspelling of “throughing”, that’s comically bad.

3. “NEITHER CAN BE PROVED!!!” – You have no idea what “proved” means either. Prove to me right now that George Washington ever existed. Or that the country of Finland isn’t just a hoax. I’m guessing you’ve never seen either with your own eyes – by your reasoning, doesn’t that totally preclude any knowledge of it? If you’ve never been into space and watched the Earth orbiting the Sun, do you have any reason to believe that that’s what happens? Gould’s famous line is that a “fact” in science means anything “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent”. Some things are supported by so much evidence that whining about how nobody saw it happen and you can’t really prove anything is meaningless.

4. “Now the first 4 may not have to do anything with evolution of “humans”, but don’t humans need…” – Yeah, this whole bit completely misses the point as well. The “Theory of Evolution” concerns the variations that emerge among replicating entities under selective pressures. It has nothing to do with the formation of stars and so forth. Now, it’s true that evolution couldn’t happen without the context in which these entities could replicate – in our case, a planet of a certain type orbiting around a star – but all that is an entirely different field of study. It’s like expecting a psychologist to be an expert on the chemical properties of water, on the grounds that you can’t very well analyse somebody’s mental state if they’ve died of thirst.

5. “And the first 4 are purely faith based. Not a single person was around to see any of that happen. So if you can’t prove it…” – Dude, what the hell do you think scientists do all day? Do you picture them sitting round, kicking their heels, making up random elaborate stories about whatever takes their fancy, and concluding “Well, we’ll never really know anything, it’s as good as any guess we’re ever likely to make, might as well stick it in the textbooks”? You’re really saying that because nobody was watching the formation of our galaxy, nobody can ever say anything more meaningful than a random guess about what was going on? Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Next time you have a meal, see if you can guess what went into it when it was being made. Maybe there’ll be some cream-coloured, fluffy, potato-tasting stuff, and you’ll conclude that, sometime in the past, a starchy tuberous crop was harvested, transported, cleaned, cooked, mashed, and prepared for consumption. You didn’t see any of that going on, but you may be quite happy to assume that it happened. Are you taking it all entirely on faith? Or, shockingly, might you have stumbled upon a process by which we can actually find out things about the past by looking at stuff in the present?

Also, if both sides are faith-based, how come your faith is right and the scientists’ faith is wrong? On what grounds do you decide that? Remember, you’re not allowed to use any evidence or empirical data, otherwise it’s not faith any more.

6. “Kent Hovind is a good man and was wrongfully put in prison.” – AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Hahahahaha. Hahaha. Oh, I needed that. He lied about his income and cheated on his taxes, you deluded chump. Thank you, creationist_always: I was getting all uptight and frustrated there, but then you gave me a genuinely good laugh, and a great opportunity to use the word ‘chump’, which is something I don’t get to do often enough. Much appreciated.

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The following is an email I’ve just sent to the Daily Telegraph. They posted this article on their website today, which Ben Goldacre alerted me to on Twitter earlier, and it inspired me to another rant about what rubbish homeopathy is. Quite possibly it’s all rather petty and pointless, but I’ve decided I’m going to try and err on the side of over-eager zealotry for a while, when it comes to skeptical activism, at least until I get better at it.

Dear Sirs, Madams, and so forth,

I’m writing about the article posted in the Health section of the Telegraph website today, the 22nd June 2009, titled: “Annabel Croft: Why I have come to rely on homeopathic medicine”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/5576901/Annabel-Croft-Why-I-have-come-to-rely-on-homeopathic-medicine.html)

I think Frances Glover has done the Telegraph’s readership a substantial disservice in her portrayal of homeopathy in this piece. I won’t get into how newsworthy it may or may not be, that someone who used to play tennis has expressed a view about a thing – I like hearing celebrities gab on about whatever inconsequential thoughts happen to be passing through their heads as much as anyone. But this article became little more than an advertisement for a selection of products which, although marketed as health treatments, have a track record of showing absolutely no pharmacological benefit whatever.

Ms Croft’s basis for recommending homeopathy seems to be entirely one of personal anecdote, but this is a notoriously unreliable way of distinguishing genuinely useful medicines from bogus ones. It may have seemed to her at the time that the progression of events – pain from the cyst, taking the homeopathic remedy, and relief from the pain – was proof of a causative link, and provided a demonstration of the power of the remedy, but we simply can’t establish such facts with any certainty from such a limited data sample.

Ovarian cysts are surprisingly common, and pain does not typically last very long anyway (http://www.emedicinehealth.com/ovarian_cysts/article_em.htm has more information). It is entirely possible that Ms Croft’s condition may have been of a sort which would have got better over time anyway.

Because we can’t go back in time, and see what actually would have happened if she had made a different choice, we can never know for sure. But what we can do is run large clinical trials, in which hundreds or thousands of patients are given homeopathic treatments, and their results are compared against hundreds or thousands of other patients with similar backgrounds, who are given a placebo remedy – pure water, for instance, or a sugar pill. These trials can rule out any alternative explanation for the rate of recovery, and are far more effective at establishing whether a treatment actually works, or whether it just happened to be taken by a patient who was getting better anyway.

Rigorous clinical trials of homeopathy have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that it has any effect beyond that of a placebo. This isn’t to say it has no effect at all – people may often benefit from the reassurance, comfort, and attention provided in a homeopathic consultation, as the practitioner may be able to provide a longer and more personal session than a GP, which can itself do some good. But decades of scientific study shows that people taking homeopathic solvents might as well be taking nothing but water.

In fact, they generally *are* taking nothing but water. The article states that the active ingredient is “diluted down to microscopic quantities”, but this is usually not the case. The solvents are more commonly diluted to such an extent that there does not exist even a single particle of the active ingredient in the final solution. Rather, it is claimed that the water retains a “memory” of the particular ingredient which it once contained. It’s never been explained how this could be possible, given our modern understanding of the laws of physics. Given such an implausible basis, the evidence would have to be overwhelming before we should give this idea credence. It is not; the evidence consistently implies that homeopathy has no effect beyond a placebo.

Many of the uses Ms Croft describes are exactly the sort of thing where a psychological effect might be enough – if you really believe you’re taking something that will calm your nerves, you may find yourself actually calming down – or where people will often recover in good time anyway, and may be tempted to attribute this to the homeopathic treatment. Children get minor colds and sniffles all the time, and tend to get over them pretty quickly – it’s very easy to decide after the fact that a particular intervention is what made it happen. This kind of subjective, amateur assessment can often provide misleading conclusions; when it comes to giving advice on people’s health, we need to take particular care in testing a theory before accepting and promoting it.

The whole article takes a tone which isn’t just reporting facts, but gives homeopathy a strong and unequivocal endorsement, in a way which really concerns me. Anecdotal evidence is offered as conclusive proof, and the purchase of various types of treatment from specific vendors is actively recommended in the final paragraphs. It seems irresponsible to encourage people to invest their time and money in “remedies” which have been demonstrated not to work, and to sing the praises of a strategy which involves deciding to actively avoid consulting a GP (someone with actual medical qualifications). People reading articles like this may well assume that there is sound data behind these treatments, and good reason to believe they actually work; it’s not obvious at all from the way they’re discussed here that the evidence suggesting that they’re any good at all is non-existent.

You have my compliments on running an often fine newspaper, but this was a disappointingly slack piece of journalism. I hope I don’t have to see too many more stories in the news about uninformed people off the telly grandly espousing inane positions which could easily be refuted by a few basic facts if you asked anyone who actually knew what they were talking about.



P.S. Gosh, I sounded rather bitchy and smug towards the end there, on reflection. Sorry about that – it’s almost certainly nothing personal at you, dear reader, wherever on the hierarchy of newspapering you happen to be – but this does bother me, and I had to say something in support of skepticism, critical thinking, and science-based medicine.

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This isn’t an argument I’ve seen put forward anywhere before, so it’s possible I’m having one of my more original moments here. I’ve written before about the idea that only a god, or an eternal afterlife, or something of that ilk, can give life any meaning or purpose, and why I think it’s bollocks. But here’s a way of looking at it which I only recently thought to consider.

To recap briefly and coarsely the position I’m taking a stand against: “What’s the point in anything if we’re all just going to die and rot in the ground?” My actual answer to that is in the above-linked article. Here, I’m going to look at it another way.

Suppose, for now, that there is an afterlife. Imagine that all humanity are possessed of souls, spiritual elements of our being which survive bodily death and pass on to a higher plane, where there awaits us all a true, blissful Eden of utter contentment and gloriously divine holy commune with Vishnu himself. Or whatever. However lovely you could hope for your choice of afterlife to be, it’s that with knobs on. Heaven. Sweet.

Only, imagine it’s not quite eternal.

Okay, as a mathematician I can’t use a meaningless phrase like “not quite eternal” without wincing – something can’t be just a bit less than infinity – but suppose that the soul itself has a finite life-span, and will eventually die. It’s just that it’s a really, really long life-span. Say, a trillion years. Or, better, a trillion trillion trillion. That’s, like, loads. (See, I really am a mathematician.)

So, after you die, your soul lives on for more time than you can possibly conceive. You could live a million natural lifetimes, and a hundred million more, see the entire universe through every moment of its existence so far, watch countless millions of stars explode and die, burn up and fizzle out, over billions of years… and still, after all this time of ecstasy and delightenment, of utter heavenly fulfilment and rapture, you’ve made barely the lightest hint of a shadow of a sliver of a dent in your allotted time. Not a microscopic fraction of a percent of a trillionth of a percent of your afterlife is done. To within any reasonable level of accuracy, you still have absolutely everything to look forward to – and still will do a further trillion years of bliss from now. And so on, and so on, lofty rhetoric, yadda yadda.

But at the end of all that, you will die. Again. For real this time. Your near-immortal spirit gets snuffed out, your soul ceases to be. No after-afterlife. No post-postscript. Annihilation. Nullity. Although you have all this fun for many orders of magnitude more time than it’s possible for the human mind to fathom, there will come a day when it all stops. Eventually, total oblivion is your unavoidable fate.

So. Is it all still completely pointless?

One way of looking at it is that all the complaints about the miserable hopelessness of an atheistic worldview still apply. We’ll all be super-dead someday, with nothing of us remaining. It seems unthinkable that the existence of a conscious soul could just stop. There’s no ultimate, eternal accountability, so why worry about anything you do now, in this temporary state of being?

But this seems silly. If you can’t find enough opportunities to make your afterlife worth living throughout 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years in Heaven, then frankly you’re beyond pity. Is there anyone who could really go through all that and still not be satisfied, not content with what they’ve been given, insist that it’s pointless and not fair unless there’s somewhere else to go onto next, and somewhere else after that, and somewhere else after that, or they get to stay here for ever and ever and ever, like some four-year-old throwing a tantrum and insisting that they want more ice cream and they’re never going to go to bed?

Well, probably. There’s no pleasing some people. But it does seem like a ridiculous position to take. You get more years than you could even count to in a trillion years, and which you could treat like eternity – it’d be indistinguishable from it for virtually the entire time. I’d say it’s a pretty sweet deal. I can’t see it realistically being deemed an utterly pointless and bleak existence.

The only alternative is that an existence can have a purpose, can be meaningful and worthwhile and fulfilling in itself, without needing to be completely endless. The fact that it all stops one day doesn’t make this impossible. Because it’s good, now, during the time you do get, and that’s enough.

And then it’s just a matter of arguing the numbers. If value can be found in a squillion years in Heaven (for any finite value of “squillion”), but not in a life-time on this planet, then I say you’re just not trying hard enough.

So, what does anyone think? Am I making sense? Is this at all convincing? Is it well trodden ground already? Enquiring minds want to know. (And low-rate bloggers wouldn’t mind the traffic.)

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And don’t you forget it

Charming Untamed Bloke Incomparably Keen on Sensual Recreation and Unrestrained, Breathtaking Embraces

New Skeptictionary post due up tomorrow.

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…my advice would be to politely decline. If the books they return are as overdue and in as bad condition as the evidence they provide, you’ll be in for a hell of a fine.

The British Chiropractic Association have released a statement (PDF file here) in which they attempt to refute Simon Singh’s claims that there is “not a jot of evidence” supporting the use of chiropractic therapy as an effective treatment for various ailments.

The blogosphere really is a wonderful place. Once again, I’ve left it till almost midnight to start writing this, but luckily there are many splendid folks out there who’ve already done the hard work for me of analysing what the BCA have said. I will properly look it over tomorrow, to make sure I’m not just swallowing whatever I’m told blindly and uninformedly, but these people know what they’re talking about in this area much more than me. So, a round-up of what the usual suspects have been saying about this:

Jack of Kent remarks on the fifteen-month delay between the publication of Singh’s original article, and the BCA’s eventual reveal of the data which they consider most strongly supports their case. He’s also unimpressed by the disingenuous nature of their comments about not wanting this dispute to “end up in the courtroom” – what exactly did they think was likely to happen when they filed a legal claim?

Particularly since, as jdc325 reminds us, the Guardian offered the BCA a right of reply at the time, and they turned it down, deciding instead to pursue the libel suit against Simon Singh.

David Colquhoun examines some of the 29 references given by the BCA in this paper, and explains why they thoroughly fail to constitute the “good evidence” they seem to think they’ve provided. Studies with no control groups, studies that weren’t blinded, papers that aren’t research papers, papers that don’t address chiropractic manipulation at all… it seems quite a sorry bunch. And he touches on the matter of other studies not mentioned here by the BCA, which were rather better performed, adhering better to good scientific practices, but show no effect more than placebo.

Zeno points out some sections of the General Chiropractic Council’s Code of Practice which the BCA seem less keen to reference, with regard to the nature of chiropractic’s role in “evidence-based care”.

Gimpy takes a detailed look at some more of the papers referenced: “three trials, two of which are very badly designed and one of which is unavailable… this is the equivalent of a child attempting to convince an adult that his colander on a stick is in fact a super intelligent robot, only without the innocence and charm.” Heh.

The Ministry of Truth is, similarly, much more thorough and useful than me, in explaining quite how methodologically poor and scientifically useless the cited studies are – that is, those which are even relevant to the BCA’s case to begin with.

I’m not going to lie to you, I haven’t read this post on Evidence Matters, because it goes on for pages and pages, and just looking at that right now hurts my brain. But they probably know what they’re talking about as well.

I hope Patrick Holford doesn’t get up to anything sneaky while Holford Watch have taken their eye off him to discuss this too.

Aaaaand The Lay Scientist.

If cultivating an understanding and forming some opinions of my own still seems like a good idea tomorrow, I’ll give it a go. Night night.

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