Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s previous book, Bad Science, was effectively an adaptation of his Guardian columns of the same name, and although it wasn’t a straightforward compilation, it had something of the same character: a bit of a grab-bag of subjects, held together by the broad theme of bad science and bad science journalism, with a emphasis on trying to entertain as well as inform.

This is a more focussed book. And a drier one, which you may or may not think is a good thing, depending on your tolerance for the occasionally clunky attempts at wackiness and humour that characterise a lot of popular science writing.

Personally I thought Bad Pharma did a good job of taking a potentially tough subject and presenting it in a clear, engaging way. It’s not, btw, a tough subject because it is full of difficult science or complicated statistics, but because it’s a book about institutional and bureaucratic failings within the healthcare industry. Institutional structures, bureaucracy, regulation, professional standards: this is not the sexiest subject matter. But Goldacre did a good job of convincing me that it was important enough that I should keep reading, and making it readable enough that I was able to do so.

The book follows all aspects of the life of a drug — the way it is developed, tested, licensed, marketed, prescribed — and talks through all the ways that biases get into the system and distort medical practice. There is plenty of evidence that these distortions make healthcare worse and more expensive; the only question is how badly. But the same processes that distort the science make it impossible to accurately judge the damage.

The pharmaceutical companies are the major villains of the piece, unsurprisingly; they are the ones doing badly designed trials, hiding the results of trials with flattering outcomes, paying academics to put their names to ghostwritten articles, and spending twice as much on marketing as they do on R&D. But as Goldacre points out, they are only able to get away with it because of repeated failures by everyone else involved: regulators, governments, journals, professional bodies, patient groups, and so on. All of whom have been at the very least complacent, and often suffer from deep conflicts of interest, since the drug companies seem to be the only people in the whole system who actually have a lot of money to throw around. So they spend a lot of money advertising in the medical journals, they donate money to patient groups, they sponsor conferences and training for doctors.

It’s a worrying book, which deserves to be widely read.

» Doctor Themed Cupcakes is © Clever Cupcakes and used under a CC attribution licence.

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Drugs Without The Hot Air by David Nutt

David Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is responsible for advising the government on drug policy, and specifically on the appropriate legal classification of different drugs.

He was criticised and eventually fired for being rather too vocal about the fact that the government consistently ignored the advice of the ACMD and allowed political considerations to trump politics, and for pointing out some inconvenient truths about relative harms; that alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous than many illegal drugs, and that horse-riding is considerably more dangerous than taking ecstasy.

This became a bit of a cause celèbre in the geekosphere. Because we all know that  politicians will ignore the evidence if it’s politically inconvenient, but it’s rarely quite so blatant as firing someone for saying what the evidence is.

This book covers various aspects of drug use: how drugs work, how harmful they are, what addiction is, what treatments are available and so on. It covers alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs as well as the illegal ones.

It’s interesting to read because it simultaneously seems radical and rather obvious. Radical because if all the evidence in the book was taken seriously it would involve a top-to-bottom rewriting of UK drug laws; and obvious because actually not much of this stuff should come as a surprise.

For example, however much politicians may splutter about the comparison, can anyone who lives in this country seriously doubt that alcohol causes far more social harm than ecstasy or cannabis? Or that, purely pragmatically, treating addiction as a medical problem is likely to be more successful than treating it as a moral failing? And even if you think cannabis should be illegal, surely it makes intuitive sense that it is counterproductive to imprison users: both because being in prison is in itself more damaging to the individual’s future prospects than the actual drug use, and because it is very expensive to lock people up.

It’s interesting though, and very readable. It helps that, although the book takes a ‘liberal’ stance compared to the current law, it’s not derived from a naive libertarianism. Nutt is not arguing for loosening the drug laws on the basis of increased personal liberty; he wants the law to be better at managing harms and risks. So he supports the ban on smoking in public places and would tighten some of the rules on alcohol sales. And although treating addiction to heroin and cocaine as a primarily medical problem could be seen as ‘soft on drugs’, he’s arguing for it on the basis that it is the best way to minimise harm.

A few random interesting points from the book: he points out that coca leaves, cocaine and crack are all pharmacologically the same substance, and that the method of delivery makes a huge difference not just to the experience but also the addictiveness. I was startled to learn that about 500 people a year die of heroin overdoses after coming out of prison because, having stopped or reduced their use while inside, they have lost the tolerance they used to have.

And I was struck by his suggestion that the duty on alcoholic drinks should be proportional to actual alcohol content, rather than by category with one rate for beer and one for wine and so on. That would be a direct incentive for drinkers to switch to weaker drinks and for manufacturers to reverse the trend of beers and wines getting stronger. Which seems sensible. There a general argument for making alcohol more expensive anyway, but it seems like a good start to make Special Brew considerably more expensive than lagers with less than half the alcohol.

» The Pink Elephants on Parade LSD blotter is from the Blotter Art website. The bottle of Papine is from Wellcome Images and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

This is a book about mimicry and camouflage; principally in nature but also in human use — i.e. the military. I heard about it because it won the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011, and the subject sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s certainly pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t help that I was familiar with many of the examples already.

My other slight gripe is that it spends a lot of time using examples of mimicry and camouflage as a way to shed light on deeper ideas about evolution. Which is, obviously, a valuable exercise, and not in itself a Bad Thing. But I’ve read loads of stuff about evolution already, thank you, and so reading yet another explanation of evo-devo is not enormously exciting. I would much rather have been reading about extra examples of strange and curious animal mimicry.

So, you know, a good book; but I am not its perfect audience. Still, if nothing else it introduced me to the jaw-dropping amazon leaf fish pictured above.

Scary research

Genuinely terrifying:

Researchers [in Israel] looked at 1,112 rulings involving requests for parole (or for changes of incarceration terms) presented to eight judges. They heard cases daily, interrupting for a morning snack and lunch.

The odds of an inmate receiving a favorable decision started at 65%, first thing in the morning, then steadily dropped until the snack break. If the judge heard eight cases in the morning, the average success rate for the last one was 25%. If the judge heard 12 cases, the average success rate for the final one was 0%. Favorable rulings popped back up to 65% when the judge returned, then slid again until lunchtime. The same pattern appeared post-lunch.

The authors could find no other factors that might explain the pattern beyond the hearing’s timing, relative to the food breaks. They had no direct measure of the judges’ mood.

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, via the WSJ, via bookofjoe.

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Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Full title: Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. The ten ‘inventions’ are: The origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. Lane explains how each of these work and how they evolved, at least as far as current knowledge can take us — which in some cases, like the origin of life, is apparently rather further than I had realised. The consciousness chapter, if you’re wondering, was rather less persuasive.

What sets this book apart from most popular accounts of evolution is that Nick Lane is a biochemist rather than, say, a palaeontologist or an ethologist. So this is a book which focuses on evolution at the micro level: it’s all biochemical pathways and enzymes and the genes which code for them. This is the real nitty gritty of how evolution works, how it actually achieves things; but it’s also the stuff which I generally find is a complete headfuck. No matter how many times I have read accounts of the inner workings of a cell over the years, it just doesn’t stick.

So it is not a small compliment to say I found this book was not just full of new and interesting information, but also managed to be clear, engaging and enjoyable. I still ending up having a long pause halfway through, and I’ve already forgotten a lot of it, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

» The picture is Cytoplasm to vacuole targeting from the Journal of Cell Biology, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Picked because it’s a striking image rather than because it’s relevant in any way beyond basic thematic appropriateness.

‘The cytoplasm to vacuole targeting (Cvt) pathway uses Atg11 to direct Atg9-containing membrane from mitochondria (top right) to forming autophagosomes (center) before eventual fusion with the vacuole (bottom right). Original painting by David S. Goodsell, based on the scientific design of Daniel J. Klionsky. (JCB 175(6) TOC1)’

A passing thought on the Nutt business

Politicians are always quick enough to invoke ‘scientific advice’ when they want to deflect responsibility for an unpopular policy decision, like the availability of different treatments on the NHS, or the mass slaughter of animals during a foot and mouth outbreak. And as long as they actually are acting on good scientific advice, fair enough.

But if you’re going to hide behind scientists when it’s convenient… well, the flip side of that is that if you later choose to ignore the advice of your carefully chosen independent scientific advisors, you should have the guts to stand up and explain why.

» If you don’t know what I’m talking about: a government minister sacked an (unpaid) senior drugs advisor, a professor of psychopharmacology called David Nutt, for giving a lecture saying that the government’s drug policy ignored the scientific evidence. You can download the lecture as a PDF here; it is worth reading.

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The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Full title: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I don’t need any persuading about the fact of evolution, but Dawkins is always worth reading on the subject. And Amazon had it at 50% off, so as much as I dislike hardbacks I thought I’d give it a go.

Since I’ve read so many books on evolution, not least the half dozen by Dawkins, what I’m really looking for in a book like this is interesting new examples I haven’t encountered before, and there are certainly some of those, like the wingless fly that lives in termite mounds; generally, though, a lot of it is fairly familiar: Tiktaalik, the evolution of the whale, the guppy experiment, Lenski’s E. coli, eyeless cave-dwelling animals and so on. There are good reasons why these examples are popular, of course, and if you don’t read as much about evolution as I do, they may well be unfamiliar to you. It’s certainly a different repertoire than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. And Dawkins writes engagingly and clearly, even in the chapter about embryology, a subject I usually find a complete head-fuck. So I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The review in New Scientist complains about his occasional side-swipes at religion. The book doesn’t actually talk about religion as often as that review might suggest, but when it does touch on it, it’s about as unflattering as you would expect. It’s easy to understand why creationism is such a red rag to a biologist: his analogy is of a teacher of Latin and Roman history who is constantly confronted by people who insist that the Roman Empire never happened and that the myth of ‘Rome’ is a conspiracy. His abrasive manner when he talks about religion doesn’t bother me, although I can see there’s an argument that it is bad tactics in the battle for hearts and minds.

At least in this book he confines his comments to creationism rather than religion more generally; and I for one am not going to tell him he should be respectful towards young Earth creationism. Because 40% of the US population (and 22% of the UK) believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, when you are rude about creationists, you are being rude about an awful lot of people, and I’m sure they are largely nice, well-meaning and valuable members of society; but come on! Believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old is like believing that the Earth is flat, or that leprechauns bury pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. Or indeed that if you dilute poison over and over again until it is just water, it magically gains healing powers. These ideas are worthy of mockery.

So, I enjoyed it; I’d rather read Dawkins on evolution than Dawkins on religion any day of the week, mainly because evolution is a much more interesting subject. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s well worth reading.

» The photo is © Troy Li and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

The Earth: An Intimate History is big, fat (480 page) book about geology. Richard Fortey writes extremely well and it’s an impressive attempt to make a fairly dense subject exciting.

I have to admit though I nearly didn’t finish it; by about halfway though I’d had about as much as I could take of schist, gneiss, nappes and the endless litany of different places, geological periods and minerals that every new page seemed to require. So I put it down for a few weeks.

But eventually I built up the willpower to finish it off, and I’m glad I did; there’s plenty of interesting stuff in there, like the fact that the rocks of England and Scotland were formed on different sides of the Atlantic — or at least a previous ocean that lay between previous versions of Europe and America. Or the fact that in university laboratories, geologists have built vast machines that can squeeze minute samples of rock to the point where they mimic the temperatures and pressures found hundreds of kilometres below the earth’s surface.

» The Grand Canyon is possibly a rather unoriginal choice of photo to illustrate geology, but wotthehell, it’s relevant and looks spectacular. Couleurs de la Terre / Colours of the Earth is © Olibac and used under a CC by-nc-nd license.

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a book which uses comparisons between human anatomy and the anatomy of other animals, living or extinct, to show how evolution helps explain the way we are and the way our bodies develop. Shubin is the palaeontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, one of the key fossils in understanding the fish/tetrapod transition, so that features somewhat, but he also draws on a wide range of examples from other species. tiktaalik

So for example, he traces the evolution of fin into hand over evolutionary history, but also examines how the growing embryo creates a hand (or a fin) from a blob of undifferentiated cells. He uses the evolutionary relationship between the structure of the human head and the gill arches of a shark to explain why the nerves of the head have such a peculiar relationship, how hiccuping is related to our amphibian ancestry, and so on.

Most of this material is rather technical and many of the examples were somewhat familiar to me, so the book could easily have been either impenetrable or just dull. In fact I found it worked very well; even when I had encountered some of the examples before, having them all put together into one book was very helpful. I really did feel after reading it that I was more in touch with my inner fish (and inner wormy thing, for that matter).

And it’s well written, as well. There was a rather clumsy bit in one the first chapter where he attempts to explain cladistics via a visit to the zoo, which had me worried that the book was going to be aimed at eleven-year-olds, but fortunately it turned out to be a blip. Generally the book seems well-pitched for intelligent adults who are curious about biology.

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  • via Carl Zimmer, sciencey mini-zines
    ( tags: science zines )
  • ‘The Earth Observatory is a website run by NASA’s Earth Observing System Project Science Office. Bringing together imagery from many different satellites and astronaut missions, the website publishes fantastic images with highly detailed descriptions, feature articles and more. Gathered here are some standout photographs from the collections in the Earth Observatory over the past several years.’ The Big Picture is usually worth a look, but these are especially fab.
    ( tags: Earth photos )

A good day to collide some hadrons

So the Large Hadron Collider has finally been switched on; very much later than originally scheduled, but then it’s a staggeringly big, complicated, expensive piece of kit, so it was just as well to make sure they got it right first time.

It really is pure geek porn: the sheer size of it, just as a piece of machinery; the amount of energy it’s going to throw around; the mind-boggling degree of precision required to smash protons into each other at nearly the speed of light; the amount of computing power it needs to process the data produced. And of course the fact that all this money and expertise and time is being expended simply to advance our knowledge: it is the purest of pure science. It makes me happy every time I think about it.

With all the publicity surrounding the LHC, I’ve been thinking how sad it is that so many people find science boring or scary or completely alien. Of course you can get through life without ever having felt the joy of science, just as you can get through life without ever having understood why some people place such a high value on poetry, or art, or music. But it seems a bit of a waste.

I guess a lot of people start without much natural sympathy for the subject anyway, and then school finishes the job by putting them off for life. I found science lessons at school pretty deathly myself, and I was interested. And I don’t really know what the answer is.

Part of the problem is perhaps that science is presented in school as a very static entity: there’s no sense of it as a dynamic process, a gradual painstaking effort to build up knowledge, with dead ends and wrong turnings and leaps of genius. I’ve always found science more interesting with a bit of historical context; it humanizes science to learn about Newton and Darwin as people. It’s also easier to appreciate the brilliance of some particular insight if you know what people thought beforehand, and why they realised they were wrong.

For example, Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation are very dry when you learn about them at school as a way of predicting the behaviour of falling objects and billiard balls and pendulums. They gain some resonance when you understand that, for the first time, Newton tied the whole universe together. The significance of the famous apple that Newton saw fall from a tree is not so much that he came up with a way of explaining falling apples: it’s that he realised that the apple falling to the ground and the moon orbiting the Earth are the same thing. The same simple set of equations can be used to explain both.

But the trouble with all this human colour and historical context is that it is window-dressing. It’s like trying to teach science by discussing scientific issues in the news: it may make for a lively discussion, but that isn’t enough unless you manage to teach the science itself. Students need to feel the power of theory; of abstract thinking, of reductionism. And I think that’s quite a difficult thing to teach.

» The pictures, both stolen from CERN, are simulated images of collision events; the first is a proton collision creating a microscopic black hole, the second is a lead ion collision.

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Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Full title: Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life. The bacteria Escherichia coli is best known for occasionally causing food poisoning outbreaks, but most strains of it are harmless and indeed a normal part of our gut flora. It’s also one of the most-studied life forms on earth because, like fruit flies and white mice, they are used as a standard laboratory research subject. So Zimmer has been able to use E. coli as a way of looking at a whole range of related topics: evolution, cell biology, genetic engineering and so forth.

'Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate'

As I would expect from him, he writes clearly and well, and the book is certainly interesting, but I wasn’t as excited by it as I expected. The material was broadly familiar: I wouldn’t claim to know the subject well — I only know the bits and pieces I’ve picked up in other popular science books and New Scientist — but there weren’t that many wow moments when I learnt something surprising and new. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m not too excited by bacteria.

I do tend to find microbiology rather hard going. It’s not that it’s too conceptually difficult, I think, at least at the level it’s being presented here; it just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. I think it’s partially that I can’t visualise the action, and partially that there are all these long names for enzymes and proteins and I can’t keep track of them.

This book is pretty good, but if you haven’t read anything by Zimmer, I’d suggest you read Parasite Rex first, because that’s one of my favourite science books ever.

» The photo, Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate, was posted to Flickr by YW Lim and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This is the latest of Pinker’s books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain’s inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.

weasel diorama

He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don’t really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker’s model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.

If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying “well yes, obviously” even though there’s nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I’ve read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there’s no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.

sad lion

So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it’s sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven’t done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there’s still enough there to help sugar the pill.

When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I’d make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don’t hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I’d at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.

bear and dog

The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn’t suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It’s only a popular treatment and I didn’t make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn’t get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it’s all quite interesting, but it doesn’t instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there’s a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn’t offer anything that you wouldn’t find in a good book on how to write poetry.

Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don’t actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can’t claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read.

» I couldn’t think what pictures to use for this post, neither language nor thought being very visually striking, so I went with stuffed animals. The weasels are by dogseat; the lion is by cenzMounted bear and the hunting dog who found him, and was killed by him is by Curious Expeditions. All are used under a by-nc-sa licence.


Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney

Or to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (under 200 pages, including the index) overview of dating technologies for a general audience: radio isotope dating, dendrochronology, Antarctic ice cores and so on. And I enjoyed it; Turney writes well, and he whizzes through the material leaving me feeling a bit better-informed without it being too much like hard work. And I think that’s pretty good going for what is a very technical subject.

Interestingly he starts with what I don’t think of as a ‘scientific’ technique at all: his first example of dating is an attempt to fix a plausible date for King Arthur by looking at all the different manuscript evidence and trying to coordinate it. This carries all the usual problems of early medieval history: sparse evidence; second, third, fourth-hand accounts written many years after the event; confusions between different calendars and so on.

I was slightly surprised by this way of starting the book, but actually it’s quite a good way into the subject. Without any of the technical stuff about radioactive isotopes it illustrates the same kind of problems you might have dating a fossil or anything else: trying to reconcile various kinds of data, each of which carries its own particular problems and sources of error.

knitted ammonite and belemnite on Flickr

The choice of King Arthur, as opposed to any of the other myriad shadowy early medieval figures, is an indication of his popular instincts: he does like to use colourful examples. So we get the Turin Shroud, the Pyramids, Thera, Java Man. Which is fine by me.

So brief, colourful, and not too technical overview of what is really a vast and complex subject, but if that’s what you’re looking for (and on the whole I think it was), it does a good job of it.

» Pictures from Flickr. iggy6, the felt Iguanadon, is by feltfinland; the knitted ammonite and belemnite is by audreym.

More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.

Science ≠ Atheism

There’s a post over at Pure Pedantry about the dangers of presenting science and atheism as equivalent or too closely connected; suggesting, for example, that atheism is the natural or inevitable end result of a scientific mindset.

It’s understandable that they sometimes get run together. There is a connection; it’s not a coincidence that scientists are disproportionately likely to be atheists. And because the atheist of the moment, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist by training, much of the coverage of his book and the ensuing controversy has framed it as an argument between science and religion, even though very little of The God Delusion is about science.

I really think this is a mistake, though. And I really think it would be unwise for scientists and atheists to encourage it. Partially this is for the strategic reasons that Jake Young gets into in the post I linked to above: if you link science and atheism, it is likely to make religious believers more suspicious and hostile towards science. It will also make people who for whatever reason dislike science—or are just bored by it—less receptive to atheism. Even if you are keen to promote both science and atheism, blurring the two ideas together is probably counterproductive.

But it’s not just a marketing issue. I’m keen to treat the ideas separately because I actually think they are separate. I’m not making the argument that science and religion are inherently different kinds of idea which operate in parallel (Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’), because I think that’s a cop-out; a way of ducking the question.

No, it’s that, with the glaring exception of Genesis, I can’t see any conflict between science and scripture. Or much connection at all, really. Scientists are obviously going to be sceptical at stories like Christ turning water into wine, but as it happened (or didn’t) two thousand years ago, it’s not really open to testing. Science can point out that’s it’s impossible to turn water into wine or walk on water, but that’s beside the point; everyone knows it’s impossible. That’s why it’s a miracle. Scientists may find the idea awkward, but if a God who works miracles does exist, science will just have to live with it.

When a religion does make a scientifically testable claim—that prayer can help recovery from illness, perhaps—by all means test it, and if, necessary, challenge it. The big one, in this context, is the claim that God made the Earth in seven days. As long as there are a significant number of people who believe in the literal truth of Genesis (or any other pre-scientific creation myth), there is a real and substantial conflict of ideas between science and religion, and I would expect biologists and geologists to argue their case accordingly. And if someone comes forward today who says he can turn water into wine and walk on water (or bend spoons with the power of his mind), then test his claims.

But most of the time, that doesn’t apply. The subjects don’t generally overlap. A mathematical model for the internal structure of the proton is no more in conflict with the sermon on the mount than Aristotle’s idea of catharsis is in conflict with a recipe for fairy cakes.

Of course there is a natural tension between science and religion. The scientific emphasis on scepticism, logic and measurable evidence sits uneasily with ideas of revelation, faith and subjective religious experience. Religion’s apparent view of humanity at the centre of creation sits uneasily with the idea of evolution as a contingent, undirected process. As an atheist with an interest in science, I find the two things complementary, but they are not equivalent or inseparable.

And the main arguments against God are not scientific arguments. They may be in a similar intellectual tradition, but they certainly aren’t the result of scientific research or scientific knowledge; I imagine they had been thoroughly argued over well before most of modern science existed. The broad-brush arguments are philosophical, and the arguments against details of scripture are mainly drawn from history, archaeology, textual criticism, comparative theology and so on. Science, by providing enormous explanatory power without reference to religion, may have weakened the authority of religion, but largely without directly contradicting it (with, again, the glaring exception of Genesis).

If I was trying to convert someone to atheism, I can’t think I’d even invoke science at all. Assuming they weren’t a creationist, it just wouldn’t seem relevant.

How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!

I’ve just started a book called ‘Irrationality’, about the irrational behaviour of human beings. So far, much of the general drift has been fairly familiar, but no matter how many times you get told about the untrustworthy tendencies of the human mind, the specific experiments are still startling. Three that happened to jump out at me:

‘In one study, a telephone call was made to a nurse by someone claiming to be a doctor in the hospital whom she had never met. he told her to give a patient a 20 mg dose of a drug called Aspoten (in reality a placebo), adding that she must give it immediately because he wanted the drug to take effect before he saw the patient, when he came to the ward. He added that he would sign the prescription then. Despite the fact that he had ordered twice the maximum dose set out on the label and that there was a rule that no one should administer a drug before the doctor had signed the prescription, 95 per cent of nurses approached complied.’

‘Subjects were encouraged to give (sham) electric shocks to a stooge. When they were dressed like nurses they became less aggressive than those normally dressed, while wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits made them very much more aggressive.’

‘In a simple experiment, four short lines were each labelled ‘A’ and four slightly longer ones ‘B’. People saw a bigger difference in the average length of the two sets of lines when they were labelled in this way than when no labels were attached.’

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

This book was recommended to me when I was in the Galapagos; I finally got round to reading it and I’m really glad I did. It’s an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s long-term study to measure the effects of natural selection on finches in the Galapagos. When this book was published in 1994, the study had been going for twenty years, but it’s still ongoing.

The choice of Galapagos finches isn’t just because of their iconic status in history of evolution; they’re an isolated population, they’re particularly variable, and a few very similar competing species live together in a very simple environment — only a few species of food plant, and almost no other small birds.

Over that period, they and their students have collected a staggering amount of data; detailed measurements of every finch on the island of Daphne Major, and records of who breeds with who, where their territories are, what songs they sing, what they eat, which territories are most productive, how the food supply varies from year to year and so on. That data has enabled them to show not just that tiny variations (in this case, particularly beak size) can have a measurable effect on the survival and breeding prospects of a bird, but that a change to the environment — a very wet year or a drought — can select for different physical characteristics to the extent of having a measurable impact on the average measurements of the population.

In effect, they have showed that you can observe evolution in action and that in the right circumstances it can happen extremely fast.

I really thought this was an excellent book. The detailed account of a single large research study sets it apart from all the other popular accounts of evolution I’ve read. There’s easily enough material to sustain a whole book and Weiner does an excellent job of communicating all the details with enough human interest to keep the book getting bogged down.

Fucking bootiful

It takes a lot to make me have sympathy for Bernard Matthews, whose company represents everything that’s worst in industrial food production, both the way they rear the turkeys and the revolting processed foods that they make from them. But I did get a twinge of sympathy when bird flu started killing all their turkeys.

I’ve got over that now.

The breeding ground for new strains of flu seems to be mass poultry production facilities around the world where huge numbers of birds are reared together in close contact with people. Ironically though, this outbreak isn’t going to do the free-range chicken industry any good. A chicken free to roam is a chicken free to expose itself to, and spread, infection. Perhaps if all the world’s chickens were reared in low-density, free-range conditions, the problem wouldn’t have started, but it’s too late for that now. And as far as I can gather from what they’re saying on the news, if H5N1 gets established here, free range will be thing of the past.

Crappy journalism in action

I nearly posted a link to this story on the BBC website about cows having regional accents because I thought it was mildly interesting. But the internet linguistics police quickly debunked it.

The BBC story starts by saying “Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.” What actually happened was that a PR firm working for a cheese manufacturer had called a couple of linguists and asked them whether there was any possibility that cows’ moos varied geographically. The answer was something like “well, it seems very unlikely, but it’s not completely impossible, because regional ‘accents’ have been observed in birds”.

Now I don’t particularly blame the cheese people’s people. They’re a PR firm. Spinning the truth is what they do. Trading on other people’s professional authority while misrepresenting what they actually said isn’t exactly attractive behaviour, but they’re salespeople and they are open about the fact that they’re selling you something. And to be fair, the original press release clearly bases its claims only on what the farmers have said. It’s not claiming to be any more than anecdotal.

But I do blame the BBC. They are the ones who reported this as a news story on their science pages, and who failed to call the linguists in question for a bit of fact-checking. They’ve actually made it worse by cutting out all the references to the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers. That’s presumably because they aren’t supposed to be providing advertising for anyone, but the result is that they’ve cut out any indication that the story is based on a press release put out by the PR firm for a dairy company, rather than, oh I don’t know, a paper in a scientific journal.

You’re probably thinking “chill out, Harry, it’s only a silly story about cows having accents”. And that’s probably what the BBC would say in their defence. Well, fuck that. I know that the fate of nations doesn’t hang on it, but if something is reported as news, I want them to have made the basic minimum of effort to report it correctly. Otherwise, why bother?

It’s typical of the media’s approach to reporting science. Or indeed just about any subject outside politics. They get all up their own arses about the importance of their role as protectors of democracy and speakers of truth to power, and the seriousness and integrity of their political journalism. And on their better days, all that stuff is true. But the moment they report on science, there’s a feeling that well, no-one can be expected to understand the technical details, so it’s alright to provide a watered-down and simplistic version; and anyway, it’s not very important like the political stuff (as though most political journalism was any more than gossip), so as long as it’s mildly entertaining, who cares if it’s really accurate? And then because that’s their attitude, they get all surprised when people like me get annoyed by it, because it’s ‘just’ a silly season story about cows, and surely people are media-savvy enough to know that it may not be held to the same standards as their political reporting?

Well, no. I actually care about the truth of these stories. Even the cow story; if it’s true, it’s interesting. If it’s not true, it’s just a waste of my time. I really feel quite strongly that if they’re going to do science and health reporting, they should do it properly. At the most basic level: if they get a press release about a piece of scientific research, they should call the scientists involved and make sure they don’t misrepresent them. And if it appears to be making an outlandish or controversial claim, call someone who can be expected to know about the subject and check with them. Otherwise just stop it. Stop reporting about science altogether if you can’t be bothered to get it right.

And if you think they’re more reliable when the subject, instead of cow accents, is something vitally important like vaccinations causing autism: *hollow laugh*