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Archive for February, 2010

In which I take the foolish and reprehensible step of holding a slightly different opinion from that of David Mitchell.

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author, though he’s brilliant too (and there are apparently many others as well, many of whom I’m sure are also jolly good)) is brilliant. He’s been getting some play in the skeptical community lately because of some rather fun jabs that comedy duo Mitchell and Webb take at pseudoscience in their sketch shows, like the Homeopathic E.R. sequence. And he wrote an article this week, about this physics professor in the US who declared recently that Hollywood films should stick closer to science fact.

The first thing I’m prompted to wonder is why this is suddenly newsworthy now, when I’m sure there have been any number of scientists grumbling on very similar lines for years. And David’s main point has also been made a number of times before: the primary purpose of TV and film is to be entertaining, and it’s entirely correct that this should sometimes take priority over reflecting such petty details as the laws of physics with perfect accuracy.

Reality is unrealistic, after all. You don’t want everything in fiction to perfectly resemble the real world you already know and are bored with – that’s why you’re watching telly in the first place. I think I more or less agree with David’s assessment that:

Being realistic is a storytelling tool, like lighting, music and sexy actresses.

This doesn’t downplay its importance too much. If you’re telling a story, then storytelling tools are vital. If you don’t bother worrying about the lighting while filming, it’s likely to end up looking terrible; likewise, if realism is completely disregarded, your script will probably be a total mess. Realism is important, but to be used wisely as a tool of story-telling, wherever appropriate, not adhered to dogmatically.

Where I started to cringe a little was this paragraph:

How typical of a scientist to try to reduce film-making to a formula. He’s noticed that enjoyable science fiction sometimes needs to include the impossible, but streams of implausible events don’t make a compelling narrative. He’s right but he should have left it at that. The happy medium is found by using judgment not maths.

It’s the first sentence, really. I hang out with far too many science geeks, and read far too many scientists’ blogs and Twitter feeds, not to be acutely aware that reducing anything to a formula is not typically representative of what scientists always do. It’s usual poor tabloid reporting that produces that kind of nonsense. To some actual scientists, such formulae are anathema.

But despite that nagging quibble, he’s making basically a good point. The guy making these recommendations – Professor Sidney Perkowitz of the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – has reportedly suggested a limit of “one big scientific blunder in a given film”. Which is where it starts to get a bit silly.

David speculates that this is comparable to the “one coincidence to which good screenplays are supposed to be restricted”, but that doesn’t seem like a great analogy. Major coincidences happen sometimes in the real world, but rarely in big clumps, so multiple coincidences in your film will make it start to look unrealistic.

But scientifically impossible things don’t happen at all, so whether there’s one breach of the laws of nature in your movie or a dozen makes no difference as to its implausibility. Any such simple hard-and-fast rule is bound to be misleading and unhelpful.

One film I recently really enjoyed was called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’m about fifteen years older than its target audience, but it was warm and funny and energetic and had nifty pacing and great comic timing and for the most part it stopped short of being annoying in its zaniness. Two thumbs up. But it was full of completely impossible things going on that only make sense in a cartoon world – unsurprisingly, being an animated kids’ film – and if you were scientifically nit-picking your way through, you’d have no time left for anything else.

And I would dispute that there exists any precise definable line between stories where you can do stupid cartoon stuff, like drop anvils on your characters and have tweeting birds appear circling around their dazed heads, and sci-fi, where everything must make perfect sense. Just as much as I dispute that allowing “one big scientific blunder” per movie does anything useful to address scientific plausibility in cinema. What’s likely to be acceptable depends far more on the context and the internal logic of an individual film.

It’s also worth noting that sci-fi writer John Scalzi was way more put out by the bad science in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie than was astronomer Phil Plait. These are both guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two, but it’s clearly possible to forgive a lot that you know is technically unrealistic, in the right context.

And while it’s lamentable that it’s taken me this long to reach one of the most interesting points about all this, there’s one thing I’ve heard from scientists on this subject time and again: When big-budget sci-fi movies do get actual science advisors on board to try and make sure things stay somewhere within tentacle’s reach of reality, they almost never have to totally sacrifice huge swathes of cool stuff that they wanted to do. Very often, having someone who really knows their stuff just makes the science even more awesome.

The conversation will go something like:


“Okay, someone send the resident geek in here. And get me some more coffee. Ah, smarty-brain, there you are, how’s it going? Listen, what’s your nerdy take on this bit in scene twelve where James Bond goes solar-wind-surfing? That’s a thing, right, solar wind? So I figure we get him wind-surfing but, like, on the Sun. Pretty cool, right? Not really sure how we get him up there, though. Does the Space Shuttle go to the Sun? Could we get one of those sky elevator things I think I heard about that one time? China has those, right?”

“Yeah, look, I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about this whole scene, none of it really makes any sense, and if you go ahead with it as it’s currently written then your audience are going to tear you a scientifically impossibly large new one for turning their favourite franchise into a joke.”

“Damn. Tina, cancel my breakfast with the Prime Minster of China, tell him he can keep his crazy moon escalators. Okay then, astro-boy, you’d better come up with some new idea that’ll give me an excuse to have Bond to take his shirt off and justify a special effects budget bigger than the GDP of several small countries.”

“Well actually, if you’d ever paid any attention in school, or indeed to any other human being in your entire life, you might be aware of this other thing you could do, which would still look awesome on screen and let you showcase the CGI expertise of your hordes of computer-literate underlings, with the added bonus that it’s not total bullshit.”

“You mean, giving a shit about scientific accuracy might not reduce the entertainment factor by crippling my ability to blindly throw in whatever cool stuff I can think of, and may even put me in a better position to make exciting and visually inspiring references to genuine scientific phenomena?”

“Yep. You want to do things that way then?”

“Make it so.”


Wow, that rather got away from me. Wasn’t expecting that to turn into quite such a flight of fancy. Probably a bit wordy and less funny than I think it is. Still, not in the mood to edit now.

A good example of the kind of thing you may have just skipped over is the occasional recognition in some sci-fi films that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and so cool-looking explosions wouldn’t actually make any noise when observed from a distance. David likes hearing stuff explode, and is willing to forego some realism on that score, which is fine – there’s always got to be some suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, and we all have our different limits – but as Phil Plait points out, a spaceship blowing up in perfect silence can, if done right, be eerie as hell. Knowing how the real world works can really add to a talented director’s repertoire.

Yikes. That was wordy. Have I covered everything? I feel I should sum up. Or at least redraft before I post this. Nah. Thoughts, anyone?

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Who am I?

Yeah, I haven’t posted in a little while. Which is fine. Partly I haven’t been feeling all that wordy, partly my creative energies have been somewhat diverted away from the skeptical realm, and towards some fiction projects I’ve had on the back burner for a while but am trying to re-ignite.

At the moment, I’m not planning to let the fiction writing spill over into this blog in any significant way. However, there’s one thing I’m going to clear up here, in lieu of a proper blog post, until I have something really worth saying.

I’ve noticed I’ve been suffering something of a crisis of identity. I’m using Cubik’s Rube as both the name of the blog, and the personal handle with which I post to the blog. This could lead to something of a branding problem, especially when I start using other usernames in other parts of the interwebs that I also want to associate with this blog, for whatever reason.

So, what I hope to try and keep consistent now is that the blog is Cubik’s Rube, and I am writerJames. Let’s see how this pans out. You’ll probably notice no difference at all, and wouldn’t be that interested even if you did, but I wanted to make some sort of note of it. For the official record. Or posterity. Or something.

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So, here’s an attempt to order some vague thoughts into a profound observation. (You’re probably used to that kind of approach from me by now.)

Mystery and the unknown are important in science. They’re what drive the whole thing. It’s all about asking “Why?” to stuff. “Why does the Sun move across the sky like that?” “Why does that apple – or anything else – fall down at the rate it does?” “Why did that happen when I prodded this?” Like a two-year-old, but with a budget and a lot of spare time.

It’s based on observation. We observe something, and say: “This is the data we have. Why do we seem to see what we seem to see?” The quest of science is to come up with an answer to that question, to imagine a model of reality which explains why we make the particular observations we do.

(There’s also the angle of “What if?” – as in, “What if I smashed these beyond-microscopically tiny particles together at almost the speed of light?” – but that’s just a way of finding something new to ask “Why?” about.)

The observation I wanted to make, though, is about the rather different approach to the question of “Why?” that’s often taken by religion.

Religious people often make a big thing of the importance of “mystery” as well, when it comes to God’s way of doing things. There’s so much that’s beyond our understanding, that’s deeply ineffable, that’s on some higher level of logic than mere mortals cannot hope to comprehend.

But it seems to be a different kind of mystery, with a different sort of “Why?” question that follows from it. A lot of them have a similar form to “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, but that’s not a question looking for a straight-forward causal answer, in the same way that a question about gravity is. There’s an implied clause in the question, which gets to what it’s really asking.

If God exists, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Science’s questions look to explore an unknown facet of the world we’re living in. Religion’s questions are a tacit admission of incompatibility with the facts. The fact that you need to ask why, given God’s existence, things are the way they are, tells you that the assumption of God’s existence is not easily squared up with what we observe. There’s an intrinsic challenge that the premise will have to find a way to stand up to.

Some of the “Why?” questions of science contain implicit challenges to their premises, too, such as: “If they’re all releasing phlogiston, why do some things gain weight and some things lose weight during combustion?” But this wasn’t treated as some ethereal wonder, or some intractable problem of philosophy beyond our ken. It was a statement that things shouldn’t act this way, if we have the right idea about phlogiston – and, eventually, the idea had to be abandoned.

When people talk about the problem of evil, the implication is that things shouldn’t be this way if God exists in the way he’s commonly understood. An all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent entity can’t be reconciled with the cruel randomness of the suffering inflicted by nature. Why is this seen simply as an unapproachable curiosity and mystery of the way God is, rather than a challenge that needs to be resolved if our worldview is to make any sense – even if resolving it means giving up on the God idea, like we did with phlogiston, when it becomes incompatible with the data?

It occurs to me that I may be mostly just re-hashing Greta Christina’s problem of unfishiness here. But it’s come up recently from a few religious sources I’ve read, and I wanted to try thinking it through.

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Today seemed to rather get away with me, so there’s just time for a quick round-up of important Simon Singh news.

If you’re not familiar with the backstory, it shouldn’t be hard to catch up. He’s being sued and it’s all bollocks, basically.

Several of the big names in skepticism were in the court with him today, reporting continuously on the proceedings. The overall gist is that it went very well for Simon, with all three judges on the panel appearing sympathetic to the arguments of his team. Full write-ups have appeared from:

Crispian Jago
The Heresiarch
Jack of Kent
Padraig Ready for Index on Censorship

And, as well as supporting Simon’s personal plight, it’s all being used to help highlight the importance of libel reform in general. Even if you’re not from the UK, you can sign the petition to support that campaign.

So, this is one of my more coldly functional and less sparklingly entertaining days, blog-wise. I’m off to liven up my evening by eating some yoghurt now.

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In a report published today, the Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

Nice when people get things right.

That Evidence Check report I mentioned yesterday is now available, and Ben Goldacre shares the full release. As he says, looks like pretty sensible stuff. It’s not medicine; homeopathic pills are just sugar; lying to patients about placebos is not okay. That kind of thing.

Ben also made a good point on Twitter earlier – while the problem with accepting homeopathy as medicine is often cited as a “lack of evidence”, in fact we have a great deal of very solid and reliable evidence. That it doesn’t work. It’s like saying “Well, maybe this elephant will be able to fly… It doesn’t look like any of them can at the moment, but we just don’t have enough evidence.”

Le Canard Noir is all over this, of course, looking through the whole thing in great detail. I’m glad that the authors of the report seem to understand this point:

We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions.

And, as anaglyph reminded me yesterday, you don’t even need a particular placebo effect to just start to feel better over time, and be tempted to confuse correlation with causation as you simply regress to the mean.

Also reporting on this is gimpy, who quotes a comment from a homeopath named Carol Boyce that made me grind my teeth just a little:

Mr Stewart made a valiant attempt to to [sic] bring balance to the proceedings but was hopelessly outnumbered.

A question needs to be asked in parliament about the conduct of this Evidence Check and it’s [sic] inherent bias.

It’s almost impossible to hear a phrase like “bring balance to the proceedings” and not imagine that this must be a good thing to do, restoring some necessary fairness. But nonsense doesn’t deserve to be fairly balanced with science, and if nonsense is all you have on your side then it’s entirely right that things should be biased against you. That’s another thing that’s meant to sound like it’s inherently negative and unfair and unacceptable, “bias”. And there are many cases where bias is unjustified and should be fought against. But there are some cases where it’s proper and necessary.

I’m biased strongly in favour of eating pasta instead of rat poison. I’m also biased strongly in favour of spending tax money on medicine instead of homeopathy.

This is all being covered in more depth by various intrepid investigative blogojournalists (there just isn’t a comfortable “blogger+journalist” portmanteau), and I’m pretty sure Martin Robbins is planning to have his own round-up of events soon too. (Edit 23/02/10: Yep.) I’m still only really a commentator a rung or two below, only joining in the chatter a little later once all the big players have done the real legwork, but that’s okay. This way I get to be lazy and still feel like I’m joining in.

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Firstly of all, the latest Humanist Symposium is up.

Nextly, gimpy has a great summary of the forthcoming Evidence Check report on homeopathy from the House of Commons. This is a report due out tomorrow which is likely to call for an end to NHS homeopathy funding, which cost the taxpayer £4 million last year. Which would be good, because they could be spending that on actual medicine for people.

I’m still bugged by stuff like this, when the chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association tries to support his unmedicine by citing things like:

100 randomised controlled trials, and many more on outcome measures, which reflect how patients say they feel.

If those trials on “outcome measures” weren’t also randomised and controlled, then they’re worthless. By admitting they weren’t part of proper trial protocol, you’re just saying “and many more which are complete unscientific nonsense”. I’m sure lots of patients said they felt much better, but that doesn’t mean your magic water did it. It’s called the fucking placebo effect. Goddammit, what’s hard to understand about this?

Also, the current state of the medical literature does not indicate that homeopathy has any effect beyond placebo. Still.

And lastically, here are two rather depressing pie charts. Also some surprisingly idiotic comments showing up in Current’s comment threads.

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A quick anecdote. Don’t worry, I won’t try to pluralise it and call it “data”.

I don’t really have many early memories. I suppose there are vague impressions of schools I must have been at sometime before I was 7 that still linger in my head, but nothing very concrete, or particularly memorable. But a memory of what might have been my earliest foray into philosophy popped up and prodded me in the brain again recently.

I’ve no idea how young I was, but certainly young. Possibly I was going to Sunday School at that point, and was starting to get my head around the notion of religion. My dad had some kind of book, which set out to answer a handful of simple questions about religion, possibly about the Church of England specifically. It was short, but hit all the basics. Sort of like a precursor to the Alpha Course literature, maybe.

One of the later chapters was titled “What made God?”, and this was the bit I was actually interested in. I remember thinking (at, let’s say, age 5) that this was the thing that most needed to be sorted out, before the whole God business could stop being a rather annoying enigma. I mean, what was this almighty being doing there? Where’d he come from? How had this state of affairs come to be? Surely that was the important bit.

It didn’t have a very good answer. It just sort of waffled a bit and concluded that we don’t really know. I was not happy.

You know, in the re-telling, this sounds rather strange. “What made God?” is a very curious way for a religiously proselytising book to phrase the question. It makes it sound like they’re treating God as if he were some kind of natural phenomenon, an effect whose cause can be determined, perhaps in accordance with some set of universal laws. Which I suppose is how I was imagining the answer would go.

It’s a common theist claim that the Universe’s very existence needs explanation, and that God is the only satisfactory answer. It’s a common atheist rebuttal that this just shifts the problem back a step, and only complicates things further, because now you have another, grander entity whose provenance needs accounting for. The usual theist re-rebuttal involves an attempted explanation of why God is a special case who doesn’t need to have been deliberately created. I don’t recall ever, since that first book, encountering a theistic argument which acknowledges that God’s inception itself is a valid and as yet unanswerable conundrum. They always prefer imagining some sort of loophole.

Which makes me wonder just how distortedly I’m misremembering the whole thing.

I still haven’t found an actual answer to the question. It’s not quite the same question I’d be asking these days, but in practical terms there’s not much difference. It grates less now, though. I remember being quite annoyed at the time. This was the kind of thing people should know, after all.

So, there’s that. I’m hoping to become wordier in future weeks, because I’m going to have a go at The Artist’s Way, a book and course on nurturing creativity. I was inspired to join in with this by Mur Lafferty (who, by the way, is awesome), and was only made slightly wary by her warnings about its spiritual approach. There is an explanation in the preface of the book about what the author does and doesn’t mean by “God”, and how we can choose to interpret the idea of a creative force any way we like, which I imagine I’ll be fine with… but by page 1 of the book proper she’s using phrases like “spiritual chiropractic” which unavoidably make me wince a little. Still, I plough on. Writing more words is never bad.

I keep meaning to end some of my posts with an audience question, to engage people a bit more in whatever I’m rambling about, but too often I forget. So, questions for discussion:

1.) Do you have any childhood memories of early, primitive philosophical thoughts? Did anything about the whole God business not sit right with you from a very early age? Were you dissecting grown-ups’ theological claims before you could tie your own shoes, and do you find that they haven’t come up with anything better in the years since then?

2.) Do you have any techniques that work for you to make creativity happen, in whatever direction you prefer to create things? Have you tried The Artist’s Way, or anything like it?

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