Archive for March, 2010

– The Amateur Scientist’s Fat Jesus art contest is just the awesomest thing since the last totally awesome thing. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this idea before, it’s so brilliant. Rebecca Watson’s winning, obviously.

– Remember those leaked emails that revealed how all this global warming malarkey was just one big massive hoax conspiracy by dastardly scientists in the pocket of Big Weather? Yeah, not so much. The UK’s Parliamentary Science & Technology Committee have released their report, detailing the findings of their investigation into the “scandal”, and have found “no reason… to challenge the scientific consensus” of anthropogenic climate change. The scary-sounding talk of using a “trick” and “hiding the decline” was people being casual with the language, using colloquial terms that might sound incendiary when removed from all context, and there was no evidence of systematic fraud of any kind. So, shush now. (H/T to PZ.)

– … You know, when I decided to do a quick link round-up and save my latest scathing anti-theistic rant until tomorrow, I was sure I had more than two links to talk about.

– Actually, Jack of Kent is providing some interesting commentary again. The House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee, which is apparently a thing we have in this country, voted yesterday on a reduction of what are called “conditional fee arrangements” (or CFAs), which (if I’m getting this right) are the bonuses to their fees that lawyers can claim in certain types of “no win, no fee” cases. Mr of Kent is very much in favour of the proposed reduction in CFA uplift, but it was blocked yesterday by a number of MPs, including Tom Watson. Mr Watson has today explained his decision to oppose this particular change, while supporting a reform of the libel laws in general. It seems well thought out and articulate, and I do tend to find it encouraging when people expend this much thought and effort on important decisions.

Jack of Kent is not impressed, however. Specifically, he finds Mr Watson’s claim that the proposed change “could significantly reduce the chances of people receiving justice” to be entirely without supporting evidence. Even though I have only a tenuous grasp of what’s going on, I’m actually quite enjoying all this. Watching these discussions happen on Twitter in real time is sort of like a soap opera, only interesting.

And amidst all this, and with Simon Singh’s big decision tomorrow morning, there’s no better time to sign the libel reform petition, wherever in the world you might be. This is one of those things to actually give a shit about, people.

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Between laziness and a trip into London to see another of Robin Ince’s variety shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre last night, I seem to have inadvertently taken a few days off from saying anything here. Let’s get back into it.

“Disposable sleeves” introduced for female Muslim medical staff, for whom baring their forearms is unacceptably immodest. Another of those stories that makes me wary of being part of the immediate, knee-jerk anti-Muslim backlash, but my sympathies are not strongly with the religious camp either. The part that actually matters is that medical staff wash their hands and observe other basic protocols to minimise infection rates. Nobody else is obliged to care about your own personal and irrelevant set of values, so if they compromise safety regulations then your values can fuck off. However, if this is something in which thousands of staff across the country can be relatively easily accommodated, and are capable of doing the jobs to the standards demanded of anyone else in their position, it’s likely harmless enough.

This is what’s wrong with Conservatives in America. Pretty much all of it, extensively researched and referenced. And like the author seems to, I really want to see right-wing politics actually start being about right-wing politics again, not the insane bullshit that’s come to represent it lately. A lot of the responses in the comments thread show a head-deskingly painful tendency to miss the point. There’s not much attempt to repudiate any of the points made; much more common is the argument (and I use that term in the Monty Python sense) that “oh, the Democrats do bad stuff too”. If you want to make a list as comprehensive as this one of examples of left-wing hypocrisy, hyperbole, and hatred, then go ahead – I’d be fascinated to read it. Doesn’t change anything about how irrational and douchetastic the representatives of the GOP have acted in recent years.

– A hearing this Thursday will determine the fate of Simon Singh’s appeal against the preliminary ruling on meaning, in his ongoing legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association. Actually quite nerve-wracking at this point, but there’s a real chance it may go fantastically well. Many of the usual bloggers and activists will be present at the judgment and reporting on the proceedings. I imagine I’ll be reporting on their reporting not too long after.

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Another thought stemming from yesterday’s apple discussion.

There are three different claims which I think are being variously conflated in the argument surrounding this issue:

1. Writing “LOVE” or “HATE” on the side of a jar containing a slice of apple, and speaking to the jar in a loving or hateful manner, will affect the process of the degradation of the organic matter therein.
2. Positive or negative thoughts or emotions can affect the world around you in a positive or negative way.
3. Anything is possible if you shut your eyes and wish really hard.

Now, first of all, I’ve only just noticed the “stemming” pun in the first line of this piece, and I’d like to apologise for it. It was genuinely unintended, and I hope anyone I hurt can understand the remorse I’m currently feeling for this thoughtless act.

But isn’t this a fairly typical approach from the newagey crowd of vaguely spiritual nonsensualists? They’re holding up one very specific experiment – with very little control and a sample size of one – as useful and important proof of, well, something or other, and they respond to any criticism of this experiment as if someone were trying to destroy everything that’s beautiful in the world.

“Does writing ‘LOVE’ on an apple container really stop it going rotten so fast?” “It’s sad how you insist on seeing everything in black and white.”

“That pet’s psychic’s probably just making it up.” “Why do you hate kittens??”

“I’m not convinced that homeopathy has any medicinal effect beyond placebo.” “You’re part of the big pharma conspiracy that wants all babies to be vaccinated with poison IN THEIR EYES!!”

People. If the thing you’re so passionate about is real, then there’s no need to be angry with the people trying to disprove it. They won’t be able to. The reason skeptics sometimes like to see if things like this can be disproven is that we’ve seen bullshit before. And when people can’t tell the difference, it does serious harm. If you’re right, science is on your side. If you’re right, serious experimentation will bear your claims out.

Is that what you want? Or do you want to just keep shouting about how you know about all this real magic but the establishment refuses to understand you?

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So, here’s some dangerous nonsense. (link via @SkeptInquiry)

Can holograms cure osteoarthritis and shingles? My money’s on no, and while there’s still actual medicine out there which does treat serious medical conditions, it’s not worth the risk.

I especially like this quote from the depressingly credulous majority of the article:

I see very good results. We see results that are better than any of the prescription anti-inflammatory pills that we use. And I’m not exaggerating that number.

So, this product is being hawked by both a guy who used to coach some kind of American sport, and another guy who thinks that “very good” is a number. Oh, and the company CEO runs a seminar on how to “rapidly create massive wealth”, and is sending some of these hologram thingies to aid the relief work in Haiti. The article doesn’t mention if he’s also sending any massive wealth.

However, if you’re willing to cough up $54.95 for a box of 18 little plastic stickers with some scratches on them, and you don’t want to ask any awkward questions like how it’s supposed to work or why you should believe that you’re getting anything for your money, I invite you to try another new alternative therapy craze that I assuredly predict will soon be sweeping the nation.

It’s called the “Give James lots of money” method of enhanced wellness, and it’s been practised in Tibet for over three thousand years, for all you know. I can absolutely guarantee you that nobody who’s practised this method has ever gone on to experience cancer, AIDS, heart attack, stroke, drowning, high blood pressure, diabetes, muscle pain, pinkeye, gingivitis, heartburn, drowsiness, cracked knuckles, or overdue library book fines. No “Western medicine” your doctor will give you can make a similar claim.

And it’s so easy! All you have to do is give me lots of money. That’s it! This is the big medical secret that neither “they” nor convicted felon Kevin Trudeau want you to know about! Just click here to send me your bank details, tell me how much money you want to give me (just make sure it’s lots!) and I’ll do the rest! And my method, unlike these weird hologram things, isn’t being sold through multi-level marketing. You don’t have to recruit anyone else into the plan. You just give me lots of money.

Okay, some of you probably have your doubts about the legitimacy of this offer. But why would you not have the same doubts about the magic holograms? There is exactly the same amount of solid, reliable, controlled, well performed science supporting both claims. That’s another cast-iron guarantee. I can bullshit some anecdotes if you need more convincing, though.

Seriously, all these patches have are a couple of unverifiable and likely exaggerated stories about people using them and feeling better later. There are various reasons why this might indeed be the case without requiring that these little bits of plastic have magical healing powers. I mean, why would you expect something so mundane and inert to do anything like what’s being claimed for them? It’s as fatuous and silly as… I don’t know… sticking a piece of apple in a jar with “love” written on the side and expecting it to decay more slowly.

Oh, right.

Yeah, that saga is still ongoing, mainly driven by the kick-ass nongivingupitude (shush, I’m too tired to think of real words like “resilience”) of Rebecca Watson, who is carrying out the first Great Apple Experiment all this week, and is accepting feedback as to how to make it more scientifically rigorous for a later follow-up. There might be a few snags in her methodology on this first run, but she’s not being nearly as flippant about it as I am.

She’s not just calling it all bullshit and moving on. Someone did an experiment and declared that the results demonstrated the power of some amazing natural force previously unknown to science. Rebecca is doing another experiment to see if those results can be replicated, and whether that same force can really be observed.

And, predictably, this eccentric skeptical shtick of “giving a shit about the truth” is pissing some people off. Some of the idiotic ramblings in defence of the woman who did the original experiment are quite nicely representative of pseudo-scientific thinking in general. One potted example, bizarre grammar and random capitalisation intact:

There I think is the point you have Been trying to demonstrate so well with this experiment that anything is possible, and that not everything is so ” black & white “

Wow. That was the point this woman was making? That “anything is possible”? I hadn’t realised the scope of her experiment was so huge. I thought it was just some nonsense about apples.

(Also, there’s more than one comment about Rebecca Watson having no “Charisma”. Someone who knows D&D better than I do should make a joke about saving throws or something.)

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You should really be making a point of regularly visiting The Digital Cuttlefish, you know. I think I remember saying that before, but it’s especially true on this, the day of the 133rd Skeptics’ Circle.

Each article featured in this round-up is introduced by one of various forms of delightful poetic verse, which put the lie to the Cuttlefish’s very generous nonsense about being outshone by my own writing. I hope it won’t be minded if I quote in its entirety the piece written about my own entry, Unidentified, which frankly says everything I was trying to say but with much more lyrical elegance:

I gazed up at the nighttime sky, with wonder and with awe
The diamond constellations spread before me
But if I claim that aliens are part of what I saw
You might be better off if you ignore me.
An object, unidentified, was shining in the night—
A spacecraft, and I know that they have seen us!
I’ll sound as if I’m certain, when the truth is I’m not quite,
But it’s so much more romantic than “that’s Venus”.
If something’s unidentified, you don’t know what it is,
And there’s so, so much it possibly could be
The jump to “it’s a spaceship!”, when you could just say “gee whiz!”
Is a little much, I hope you will agree.

You really should check out the others. The dendrochronologist’s limerick is a personal favourite. And the articles linked to are pretty great too.

Another few quick links:

– Using Facebook will not give you syphilis. I’m not even going to track down links to the moronic tabloid stories that have been screeching along these lines this week. Just read about why it’s bullshit from Dr Petra, Tabloid Watch, and Heresy Corner.

A picture of Obama that re-instills the notion there might be something to this “hope” business after all.

– And finally, let’s not forget that the Pope conspired to help child rapists get off scot free. Sorry to bring the mood down a little, but, y’know. Institutional paedophila’ll do that.

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day today.

Ada Lovelace – or, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – was born in London in 1815. Her father was the poet Lord Byron. She died at the age of 36. And, in between, she was the world’s first computer programmer.

When Charles Babbage built his analytical engine, one of the ways Ada Lovelace got involved was to design a method of getting the machine to output the Bernoulli numbers. It doesn’t matter what those are. What she did was to write the first ever algorithm for a computer. This was in the 1840s.

In her honour, some enterprising bloggers have established March 24th as Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which women’s historically under-appreciated contributions to science are celebrated all across the interwebs. This sounded like something worth doing, and which I thought might get me writing some more, so a few weeks ago I got hold of a copy of a biography of Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin was was born in 1920, and died of ovarian cancer in 1958, and as under-appreciated contributions to science go, hers was a big one.

You know DNA? Well, you’re welcome.

To be less glib: DNA is the molecule that contains the genetic code from which everything that has ever lived (and arguably some things that haven’t) has been built. Here’s a rather nice picture of what it looks like. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for figuring out that this was what it looked like – a double-helix, those two looping spirals joined intermittently across the middle like that. Watson and Crick are the familiar names that everyone knows, and are the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who discovered the structure of DNA?”

And they were indeed brilliant scientists, working at a prestigious university, at the forefront of one of the most exciting and important areas of biological research. But the whole idea that science is primarily achieved by lone geniuses, working in near isolation and having individual flashes of insight which suddenly and abruptly lead to huge and fantastic paradigm shifts, is – although not a complete myth – certainly a severe oversimplification.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained this general idea better than I could. The example he uses is of Philo T. Farnsworth, and the many other people involved in the invention of television. (Incidentally, the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who invented television?” in England when I was growing up was always John Logie Baird. He gets a mention only in the final paragraph of Gladwell’s article, described as one of several people “who had tried and failed to produce mechanical television”.)

The point is that, even though the names of Crick and Watson are the ones best remembered today, being the two names on the particular paper in the journal Nature that first described the double-helical structure of DNA, this one paper was obviously built upon a huge body of previously established scientific study, and the two were never working in an academic vacuum. There were a lot of people involved in the study of the structure of DNA in the early 1950s – sixteen names are listed in Wikipedia’s sidebar on “Double Helix Discovery” – all to various degrees collaborating and competing.

Rosalind Franklin is among the more prominent of those names. She had made a name for herself in the previous decade with her work on the molecular structure of coal, and was widely regarded as a pre-eminent scientist for much of her adult life. She was funded more than once to go on a lecture tour of the US. The PhD students who helped her with her work tended to be somewhat in awe of her.

I mention this because, whenever you hear that a story is going to be about men who took credit for the work of a woman in times gone by, there’s a certain kind of image that may very naturally tend to form in your head. My own inclination is to picture a bunch of smartly dressed men with great hair and chiselled chins, lounging in very comfortable chairs, laughing uproariously at each other’s jokes, probably drinking brandy, and talking either lecherously or condescendingly at the one person who does all the actual work around here whenever she approaches. She’s been hard at work all day doing Science, and can only stammer meekly when the boisterous men grab the paradigm-shattering paper she’s written out of her hands, tell her not to worry her pretty self about this deoxy-ribo-stuff any more, and shoo her away.

And the reason I wanted to emphasise that, to an extent, Rosalind Franklin really was respected and recognised as a serious scientist in her lifetime, is to avoid letting you settle on the above scenario as your idea of what her career was like. Because that scenario is something out of a cartoon. It doesn’t do the feminist cause any favours to imagine that sexist bias only looks like that cartoon, because then it’s all too easy to suppose that sexism just isn’t something that happens any more. We’re done with all that chauvinistic nonsense. The feminists have won. We don’t see those fat-cats sitting around guffawing self-importantly and smacking the womyn-folk on the backside as they leave any more, therefore we have defeated all gender bias in the workplace.

Yeah, um, no. That’s not how sexism usually works. It’s a much more subtle bastard than that, and is something that Rosalind Franklin had to work against in decidedly more insidious ways.

Two years before she was born, women in England didn’t have the right to vote. When she was growing up, intelligence was not always seen as a desirable quality in women; when she was six years old, her aunt observed that she seemed “alarmingly clever”, and did not mean this as a compliment. Women who were clever could get into all sorts of trouble. While Rosalind was at school, the debate society discussed topics such as “That the Entry of Women into Public Affairs and Industry is to be Deplored”. After she got the highest mark in the Cambridge chemistry entrance exam at age 17, she would not be recognised as a “member of the University”, and could not earn an official degree.

She was also Jewish, at a time when many areas of employment and government departments would either not permit entrance to Jews at all, or would place a cap on the number or proportion of Jews allowed in. The fear was that Jews would simply overrun the place if such measures were not installed, and if admission were based solely on, well, actual merit and capability.

From what I’ve read of her career, though, once she’d established her credentials as an excellent scientist and was studying the structures of DNA and viruses full-time, it doesn’t seem like she was constantly fighting an uphill struggle against her gender simply to earn any scant recognition. There was no institutional scorn surrounding the very idea of a woman doing such complicated work. She published 45 scientific papers, a lot for such a short life. Her work was respected. But when most scientists are having their work discussed or giving lectures, we’re not told how, as well as providing fascinating insight into the field of X-ray crystallography, they could probably look quite nice if they did something with their hair.

It was not only complicated work that she was doing, but vitally important, too. Rosalind made arguably as significant a contribution as anyone to the discovery of the structure of DNA – in particular, she took the X-Ray diffraction image that inspired Crick and Watson to produce their famous model. It was a higher quality image than anyone else had managed to produce of its kind, anywhere.

It’s another over-simplification to say that anyone simply stole her data, though. Raymond Gosling was Rosalind’s PhD student at the time, and was involved in the taking of the photograph. Some months after it was taken, he showed it to Maurice Wilkins, who also worked in their department at King’s College London. Wilkins showed it to Watson, and this too seems to have been done in a justified spirit of openness and collaboration. It wasn’t any kind of a “smoking gun” piece of evidence, with vast significance in and of itself. It hadn’t been marked for any kind of secrecy. And Rosalind wasn’t the be-all and end-all of DNA research at the college. The worst you can really say of anyone’s behaviour in this regard, it seems, is that it was ungallant of them not to have at least kept her in the loop – and, certainly, not to have given her work more prominent credit when the famous paper was published.

She was increasingly ill in her final months and weeks, and underwent a number of operations. The unfairness that frustrated her and stopped her getting done everything she wanted to get done was due to the cancer, more than to any systematic gender bias. She was eulogised fondly by her colleagues immediately following her death, and her family were astonished at quite how influential their Rosalind – who had never liked to bore the non-scientists in her life with the technical and incomprehensible details of her work, and was too modest to try to convey its importance – had apparently been.

But outside of her immediate circle of colleagues, it was a long time before Rosalind’s involvement in this particular discovery was ever fully understood or appreciated. James Watson’s 1968 book The Double Helix is perhaps the most widely known account of the years surrounding the crucial paper, and has been lauded as a highly personal and detailed scientific account, but it also seems to be where a lot of the accusations of sexist bias lead back to. Lines like “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab” wouldn’t win him many friends today – and his generally dismissive approach to the role that Rosalind played didn’t go down well with those who’d known her at the time, either.

Many of Rosalind’s colleagues wrote to Watson objecting to his unfair portrayal before the book was published. Under some duress, he added an epilogue and admitted to have developed some respect for her achievements in the time since he’d made those first impressions. But Harvard University Press eventually backed out of publishing it altogether. Maurice Wilkins in particular described the book as being “unfair to me, to Dr Crick and to almost everyone mentioned except Professor Watson himself”. At the very least, Watson seems to have found it difficult to acknowledge the contributions of a number of other people to his work, and to have spent a good deal of time in the following years trying to justify certain of his actions, which he may have come to feel guiltier about than he admitted at the time.

Aside from the various links scattered throughout this article, pretty much my only source for all this has been the 2002 biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox. (Perhaps not great scholarship under usual conditions to have such a limited set of references, but I’m pretty sure the overall impression I’ve conveyed here is appropriately balanced and accurate.)

I’ll close with a quote from a letter that Rosalind wrote to her father from University, where he was worried that she was “making science her religion”. It’s one of the finest summaries of humanist philosophy I’ve read.

Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment. Your theories are those which you and many other people find easiest and pleasantest to believe, but so far as I can see, they have no foundation other than that they lead to a pleasanter view of life (and an exaggerated idea of our own importance)…

I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort) but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining…

I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us, as still more insignificant individuals… I see no reason why the belief that we are insignificant or fortuitous should lessen our faith – as I have defined it.

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…and being skeptical just got a little more fabulous!

Sorry. I’m not at all happy with myself for that line. The point is that James Randi, legend and grand high archbigwig of the skeptical world, is gay. So yeah. He talks about it with D.J. Grothe on the latest For Good Reason podcast.

It’s not earth-shattering news. But at the same time, it’s not no news, either. Maybe something like this ought to be a complete non-event, in an ideal world – but for those of us who live in this world, coming out is rarely an entirely trivial thing. It may not be a moment fraught with drama, as Randi’s certainly wasn’t. But we still live in a profoundly heteronormative society. (There have probably been like five or six occasions when I’ve written that word in the years since I picked it up from my uni housemates, but it feels like I use it all the time these days.) The notion of being straight as the default setting is not one that’s been completely given up anywhere, so professing to be of some other configuration is unavoidably a noticeable action.

A few people are insisting that nobody ought to be displaying any interest or expressing any emotional response to Randi’s announcement at all, because someone being gay ought to be such a non-issue as described above. And I’m sure they think that their position is the most tolerant and accepting of all, but I rather think it misses the point. Simply claiming that someone’s sexuality makes no difference to you – even if it’s entirely true and your judgments of people are genuinely made without any prejudice – isn’t enough. While the prejudice and oppression still exist, it’s up to the rest of us to overcompensate.

Not everyone is as comfortable in themselves and as assured of a largely benign response as Randi is. For some people, being open about their sexuality is a big event, and one that may be followed by serious negative consequences. One very easy (and not totally insignificant) way we can help those people out is by adding a cheer to the chorus at times like this. It’s important for them to see that other people who come out publicly are being supported, not chastised for daring to bring it up.

The people not willing to do that because “it makes no difference” sometimes sound quite aggressive in making this point (plenty of examples in the comments thread below Randi’s announcement). But their aggression is for some reason directed at the gay guy who’s just come out, as if it’s offensive of him to expect anyone to be interested in this. Guys. Not helpful. The people you should be angry at are the homophobes and bigots whose hostility and prejudice make this an issue in the first place. In some parts of the world, people are still being murdered over this kind of thing, so don’t get grouchy that some people haven’t simply got over it yet and could still use a little positive feedback on occasion.

So, rock on, Randi. You’ve deserved a big parade of your own for a long time, anyway.

Also, Baba Brinkman is awesome, and excels more than any other in the field of “music that on paper I really shouldn’t like but which actually totally does it for me”. Go watch the video for his rationalist anthem, Off That.

Also also, Rebecca Watson is doing some APPLE SCIENCE, bitches. (I would add a “WITH HER FALLOPIAN TUBES, BITCHES” but I don’t want to cross the memes.) Watch her experiment, and learn how you can set up your own! All you need is an apple, a knife, some cheap containers, and a callous disregard for the fragile emotions of the helpless fruit in your care. Go team science!

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I don’t know the sky that well.

I mean, we’re not completely unfamiliar, the sky and I. We’re on friendly-nod terms, when we see each other. But we’re not what I’d call close. We don’t really hang out together much. I’d definitely miss it if it went anywhere, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t much notice my absence.

I imagine we all have friends who we’re not as close with as perhaps we’d like. And the sky has a lot going on in its life that I don’t know anything about, often because I never really bothered to ask.

So what does the sky fill all its space with? Well, you’ve got birds up there flapping around a lot. You’ve got buildings and other man-made structures towering up into it. You’ve got human-designed machines, like aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, and whatnot. You’ve got a lot of weather happening: rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, not to mention clouds of numerous shapes, shades, and consistencies, and the very odd things the Sun sometimes gets up to. You’ve got your Aurora Borealis.

And then you’ve got the rest of the Universe. Well, not all of it, but even just the bit you can see in the sky is pretty extensive. Other stars, other galaxies, distant nebulae, passing comets. Planets like Mars or Venus, a bit closer to home, are often visible from Earth with the naked eye. Orbiting satellites, closer still.

And there’s a lot of stuff I probably haven’t even thought of. All the things I’ve mentioned so far have their own fields of scientific endeavour, with some people spending years studying them to acquire a high level of expertise. I am not an expert in aircraft, or architecture, or astronomy, or aurorae, or aviation, or… a synonym for meteorology that starts with ‘a’. A lot of the time, I really can’t speak with much authority on what I’m seeing when I tilt my head up and open my eyes.

This is my point. I often don’t know what I’m seeing in the sky. And neither do you.

The term ‘UFO’ is widely used to describe alien spacecraft – machines that have been piloted here from another planet by extra-terrestrial intelligences previously unknown to human experience. But a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. Once you’ve decided that it’s a spaceship, it’s not unidentified any more.

And if you make that call, that means that you’ve positively identified something you’ve seen in the sky. Something quite possibly far away, small, blurry, moving rapidly, obscured, and otherwise pretty damn hard to see. Positively identifying the exact nature of something like that, without getting any closer or using any more technical equipment to examine it, or in any way verifying your assessment objectively, isn’t easy. Especially if you’re not an expert in aircraft, astronomy, and all the rest – but even if you are an expert, there are limitations on your deductive abilities based on what you might be able to squint at in the far distance. You’d have to have gathered a lot of information, and have some serious expertise in analysing and processing it, before you could really claim such a thing confidently.

Astronomers use carefully calibrated telescopes to observe their chosen celestial objects of interest, and take detailed notes of exactly what they see and exactly where they see it, so that a coherent picture can be carefully pieced together over time by repeated verification of observations. Naturalists use binoculars to track animals such as birds, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disturbing them, and to get close enough to have a good look, so that they can be really sure exactly what they’re seeing. And ufologists… well, they have a tendency to just point at stuff in the sky, and say “Wassat? Must be aliens.”

Okay, that might be a little unfair on some of them. It’s not like there isn’t any room for a proper scientific discipline here. You could examine this stuff critically, and do all sorts of technical sciencey things like checking your facts. But the people who actually do that tend to conclude that there’s probably nothing to any of this. It’s been observed before that amateur astronomers are the perfect people to find some reliable evidence of an alien presence in the sky, given how much time they spend looking up there and how much more they know about what they expect to see, but it doesn’t happen.

The people who witness these extraordinary things in the sky that can’t possible be explained are usually unqualified amateurs with no specialist equipment or knowledge. Of course they can’t explain what that curiously moving point of light is. But for some reason they often decide that their lack of expertise trumps anyone else’s potential insights, and if they can’t think of a mundane explanation, then they decide it must be something completely outside mundane science’s ability to account for.

In short, the people with the expertise are better at identifying what they see, which makes those things no longer UFOs. The people who really stand by their alien stories tend to be the ones who really want to believe they’ve found something, and can’t let it go, needing to sift through to find a particular interpretation of a particular set of evidence which supports their idea, and focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

And the particular self-affirming flaw I’m talking about here is the point of the word “unidentified”. I’m always seeing stuff in the sky that I don’t know what it is, and can’t reliably identify, and the same must be true of alien-hunters. But it should seem odd that alien craft are all they seem to be any good at identifying. How many people who claim to be capable of spotting a flying saucer in the far distance with their own eyes, and reliably telling you how far away, how big, and how fast-moving that blurry smudge is over there, could also tell you anything about the position and luminosity of Venus?

And if it’s not very much, then how do they know that Venus can’t look exactly like what they think an alien spaceship looks like?

If something is truly an Unidentified Flying Object, then by definition you don’t know what it is. But the assertions made by enthusiasts so often amount to nothing more than an argument from ignorance: “What we’re seeing here has no explanation, therefore you must accept my explanation“. But it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a lot of things going on in the sky that neither you nor I could spot and describe precisely from a single distance glance. “Something unknown to me” is a simpler, and therefore preferable, explanation than “something unknown to me and from another planet“.

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– I am an insufficiently funny atheist. This is genius. From that guy who brought you that weird email prank thing with the spider.

– Shock news: loud minority of idiots continued to get unbelievably upset and whiny about a tiny suggested change to the current way of doing things. Specifically, police have been advised to use an alternate term than “Christian name” when referring to someone’s first name, and this is apparently as horrible an infringement on our liberties as if they had BANNED CHRISTMAS FOREVER. Seriously, grow up. You call it a Christian name because you’ve grown up in a society where Christianity is the norm. Why would a Muslim have a Christian name? Or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or any non-Christian? I’m not going to be bothered one way or the other if someone asks me for mine, but… what the fuck is difficult about saying “forename”? Oh god now I’m looking at links to other articles on this site and I’m just going to bail out now for the sake of my blood pressure. (link via @NewHumanist)

– Jack of Kent has posted Jack’s Defamation Challenge, in which he claims to defame some notable public characters, but I don’t think he actually does. You can make up your own mind, though.

– I’m not going to personally be able to join in with lobbying the House of Commons on libel reform, but lots of awesome people will be more than making up for my absence.

– A couple of guys wrote a pretty crappy book about Darwin, and Adam Rutherford was not impressed with the Guardian’s lame reporting on how “everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong”. It’s probably not. Biology is just an ever-developing branch of science in which we regularly learn new things. This very lengthy book review discusses the problems with What Darwin Got Wrong in what I assume is a brilliant and insightful analysis but I can’t be sure because I haven’t read it because of tired.

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– Old people doing a bit of exercise in a church hall is incompatible with Christianity if the exercise has a funny foreign-sounding name. This is far from the most objectionable embargo laid down by a Christian church, but possibly one of the silliest.

– The unfathomably brilliant Douglas Adams was eleven years ahead of his time, and counting, on the basis of this essay from 1999. So many people still don’t understand any of the points he’s outlining here, and this was before the internet had begun to branch out in many of the ways it’s famous for these days. (link via @megpickard by way of @MitchBenn and @aleksk)

The Digital Cuttlefish is truly one of the great poets of our time, and if you’re not checking his/her blog regularly, you really should be. One of my recent favourite works was titled “I thank thee, God, for buttocks firm”, and the announcement that the Cuttlefish will be hosting the next edition of the Skeptics Circle blog carnival is characteristically delightful. Submit your entries over there within the next few days, if you’ve written anything on a skeptical theme lately that you think deserves a wider audience.

– I was watching Question Time just now, which is more or less the extent to which my ideas of political activism have gone anywhere lately. I was Twittering about it here, but without a great deal of insight. Most of the people involved didn’t take too long to say at least something to annoy me and make me frustrated with them and the whole process, particularly the audience members, but with the notable exception of Charles Kennedy.

I’m also redrafting a couple of proper full-length posts for the Skeptictionary, which should appear in the next couple of days.

Crap, less than a week till Ada Lovelace Day. Going to need to hurry up with my research on that, too.

Sorry, I’m just thinking aloud now, really. I think I’ve said as much as I’m going to say of any note. As you were.

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