Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Sam Harris responds to Daniel Dennett’s review of ‘Free Will’

14/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverI recently blogged on New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s lengthy review of fellow “Four Horseman” Sam Harris’ views on “free will” contained in his short book of the same name and additional articles and public speaking, which I reviewed and summarised last year.

Harris has now posted a response to Dennett’s review, which (mercifully) is far shorter than Dennett’s original review.  Rather than correcting Dennett point-by-point, Harris has limited himself to calling Dennett out on his condescending tone and misrepresentations of his work:

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless.  Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind.  This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead.  The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants.  I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering.  I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.

(…)

You do this again and again in your review. And when you are not misreading me, you construct bad analogies—to sunsets, color vision, automobiles—none of which accomplish their intended purpose.  Some are simply faulty (that is, they don’t run through); others make my point for me, demonstrating that you have missed my point (or, somehow, your own).

I’m going for another beer now.

FacePalmStarTrek

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality

03/02/2014

Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

03/02/2014

HarrisFreeWillCoverLast year, I reviewed and summarised the writing and public speaking of Sam Harris in relation to “free will”.  Fellow “Four Horseman” and New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett has written a lengthy review of Harris’ work.  In his short book, Free Will, as well as this article, Harris replied directly to Dennett’s account of “free will” in the latter’s book, Freedom Evolves.  Harris has also promised to respond in detail to Dennett’s latest review.

I have not read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, (it is on my rather-large-and-ever-growing “to read” pile) and to be perfectly honest, I find his review of Harris’ Free Will to be rather dense and far less compelling than its subject matter, which I cannot praise highly enough.  My overall opinion (which I am happy to change once I have obtained a better grasp of Dennett’s work on the matter) is that Dennett has an almost presuppositional commitment to the notion of “free will” and will interpret the evidence any which way he can in order for it confirm to his notion of “free will”.  I also side very much with Harris’ charges in this article that Dennett has redefined what most people think is “free will” and declared it by fiat to be “the only one worth having”.

Daniel Miessler provides a useful executive summary of Dennett’s article at the beginning of his article that is just as long:

It serves as the most elaborate, learned, and desperate hand-waving I’ve ever witnessed. It was such a weak argument that it looked more like an example that a brilliant philosophy professor, like Daniel Dennett, might use to highlight poor arguments to his students.  Sadly it wasn’t a strawman used for instruction—it was his real position.

Here’s what he basically said:

1.  It seems like we make choices, so we do.

2.  It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so moral responsibility is real.

I just saved you ~30 minutes of exasperation.

Nevertheless, the closing paragraph of Dennett’s review dispenses with all the philo-neuro-psycho-babble that has gone before and is all the more persuasive for it:

If you think that the fact that incompatibilist free will is an illusion demonstrates that no punishment can ever be truly deserved, think again.  It may help to consider all these issues in the context of a simpler phenomenon: sports.  In basketball there is the distinction between ordinary fouls and flagrant fouls, and in soccer there is the distinction between yellow cards and red cards, to list just two examples.  Are these distinctions fair?  Justified?  Should Harris be encouraged to argue that there is no real difference between the dirty player and the rest (and besides, the dirty player isn’t responsible for being a dirty player; just look at his upbringing!)?  Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not make allowances for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill.  So it is in society generally: we are all considered equal under the law, presumed to be responsible until and unless we prove to have some definite defect or infirmity that robs us of our free will, as ordinarily understood.

While I accept the bulk of Harris’ account/demolition of “free will”, Dennett has encapsulated the one glimmer of an objection that I have to it.  While the range of human thought and action – from sexuality to psychopathy – may be determined by prior causes over which humans have no control, I still cannot abandon the notion that degrees of human behaviour can be freely controlled.

Dennett uses the example of fair play in sports.  I draw on my own experiences of manners and etiquette (or lack thereof) in a professional (allegedly) office environment.  I have had to deal with rudeness and bullying – both face-to-face and via that accursed medium known as “email” – by men and women who are well-educated, otherwise well-mannered and who clearly know the difference between treating someone well and treating them badly.

Leaving aside the findings of Channel 4’s Psychopath Night that bankers and lawyers are among the top professions populated by psychopaths (!),  I cannot escape my impression that they know full well what they are doing, they are acting in a deliberate, calculating and manipulative fashion, that they are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and that they ought to be held fully accountable for what they are doing.

“They” may well have chosen “A” de facto, but “They” sure as hell ought to have chosen “B” de jure and deep down “They” themselves (whoever “They” are) know this full well.

In this sense, the illusion of “free will” is so powerful that it is virtually indistinguishable from reality.

Further proof (if any were necessary) that it’s all your parents’ fault

30/01/2014

ParentsArguingInFrontOfChild

My post last week presented peer-reviewed evidence that having children adversely affects their parents’ own relationship.  This week, the media has reported that parents can ruin their children’s early development – both mental and physical – if they expose them to their arguments:

Quarrelling parents who fail to resolve their arguments are leaving their children at risk of long-term mental health problems, new research has found.

Exposing children to constant feuding can also cause physical problems in youngsters such as headaches and stomach pains as well as affecting their growth rate, experts have claimed.

The study by relationship charity OnePlusOne examined the differences between “destructive” and “constructive” conflict within the family home and looked at how it affected children.

Destructive conflict, such as sulking, walking away, slamming doors or making children the focus of an argument, puts youngsters at greater risk of a range of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, researchers said.

Children react better when parents can relate to each other more positively during arguments and when conflicts are resolved, they added.

Dr Catherine Houlston, co-author of the book, Parental Conflict: Outcomes And Interventions For Children And Families, said: “We know that conflict is a normal and necessary part of family life.

“It’s not whether you argue but how you argue which matters most to kids.

“Research suggests that over time, the impact of being exposed to arguing between their parents can put children’s physical health at risk.

“Evidence has shown that headaches, abdominal pains and even reduced growth can be brought on by the insecurity a child can feel by seeing their parents at war.

“However not all arguing has a negative outcome.  If a child sees his or her parents in conflict then work things out they understand it’s possible for difficult situations to be resolved and they feel more secure.

“Evidence suggests that working with couples at an early stage in their relationship, or during times of change, we can modify destructive patterns of conflict behaviour.”

University of Sussex Professor Gordon Harold, co-author of the book, said: “Today’s children are tomorrow’s parents.

“The psychological fallout from homes marked by high levels of inter-parental conflict can lead to negative behaviour and long-term mental health problems that repeat across generations.

“Effective intervention can help to break this cycle, improving outcomes in the short and long term.

As Mitch Albom wrote in The Five People You Meet In Heaven, “All parents damage their children.”

Or as Philip Larkin rather more bluntly phrased matters in his poem “This Be The Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Having children ruins your relationships

21/01/2014

FatherBabyUnhappy

Further to my two posts last year examining the unexpected and highly counterintuitive effects that parenthood has on parents’ personal happiness (as well as Bill Hicks’ wonderful take on matters!), my Confirmation Bias is satisfied yet further by a recently published study from the Open University on the effect that having children has on relationships:

Couples without children have happier marriages, according to one of the biggest studies ever of relationships in Britain.

Childless men and women are more satisfied with their relationships and more likely to feel valued by their partner, the research project by the Open University found.

(…)

The study, involving interviews and surveys with more than 5,000 people of all ages, statuses and sexual orientations over a two-year period, will be presented at the British Library this week.

The ellipse in the above paragraph contains one slightly inconvenient truth to my stance:

But researchers also discovered that women without children were the least happy with life overall, whereas mothers were happier than any other group, even if their relationships faltered.

But I’m a bloke; none of that affects me.  So, hey ho!

Further reading over at The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail.

I’ll give the last word to The Onion’s “American Voices”:

“My parents did always tell me I was the source of their unhappiness.”

- Phyllis Ireland, Wax Pourer

Debate on Evolution –v- Creationism: The Science Guy Bill Nye –v- Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Is it too late for Nye to back out?

19/01/2014

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American television’s “The Science Guy”, Bill Nye, is scheduled to debate Evolution versus Creationism Ken Ham, the head of the World’s largest Young Earth Creationist organisation, Answers In Genesis, on Evolution versus Creationism at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky in the US of A on 4 February 2014.  A few years ago, in March 2008, I had the ordeal of sitting through one of Ham’s lectures at the University of Liverpool and recounted the experience just over a year later on Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels website:

It was an appalling experience for an atheist to sit through.  My blood boiled, my teeth gnashed and my choice as a non-believer was very much confirmed.  It wasn’t just the scientific ignorance that this man was peddling; he was also selling something far more sinister: right-wing religious bigotry of a distinctly Falwell variety.

In a nutshell, Ham’s line is that the Bible is the unalterable, infallible, unquestionable, literal Word of God. Everything in the Bible happened exactly as it is described, ifs, not buts, no metaphors, no allegories. Seven days means seven days, not a Hebrew term for a long period of time. People must choose between the Bible and human reason.  Clearly Ham is a devotee of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, who recommended that tearing out your eyes of reason was a prerequisite to being a Christian.

Where scientific evidence and the Bible conflict, the Bible is always to be preferred and evidence must be massaged in order to fit it. According to Ham, we all start with “presuppositions”.  Atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott start on the presupposition that God does not exist and the Bible is wrong; creationist scientists such as Kurt Wise start with the presupposition that God does exist and the Bible is correct.  The differing conclusions result purely from differing interpretations of the same evidence.

(…)

The truly sinister side to Ham’s theology is that he believes in the cruel Old Testament God (so brilliantly summarised by Richard Dawkins at the beginning of Chapter 2 of The God Delusion) which became apparent in his explanation as to why God allows so much pain and suffering.  Forget theodicy, none of Richard Swinburne’s logical gymnastics for this guy, the reason why there is so much evil in the World is because God is angry with us all.

No, God does not allow evil for its eventual good to the human race.  No, we shouldn’t all have faith and hope for a better future.  Instead, we are all paying for the original sin of Adam and Eve eating that damn apple.  We all instinctively reject God and have been paying for it ever since. We are lucky even to be here in the first place since we are not worthy of our very existence. The only way of saving our miserable souls is to accept good old JC into our hearts. Cue slide of Hitler and Auschwitz victims: this was OUR fault!

Even as I copy and paste those words, I can still summon the rage that I felt in that lecture theatre all those years ago.  Naturally, my heart sank at the news of Bill Nye’s debate against Ham.  Richard Dawkins has stated categorically that he refuses to debate against Creationists as it would give the lay-public the erroneous impression that the scientific fact of evolution was in doubt and there was an issue worth debating.  It would be like a respectable 20th Century historian such Martin Gilbert or Ian Kershaw sharing a platform with David Irving to discuss in earnest whether the Holocaust happened to the nature and extent described by the victims, perpetrators and rescuers, or at all:

Some time in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish.  I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice.  He was friendly and decisive: “Don’t do it.”  The point is not, he said, whether or not you would ‘win’ the debate.  Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to.  For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all.  They need the publicity.  We don’t.  To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.  “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.”  Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs.  But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

The creationists’ tactic – which, for that matter, runs right across the religious apologetic board – is to duck their responsibility to provide any evidence for their claims and do their worst to discredit atheist scientists personally so their flock has a (wholly arbitrary) reason to discount their opinion and not worry about what they have said against religious faith.  I seriously think that “Ad Hominem” and “Dirty Debating Tactics” are taught as core modules on theology and apologetics courses the World over, from Sunday school to Christian universities.

Dawkins was the victim of covert creationist propaganda in when 1997 he unwittingly allowed an Australian creationist film crew into his Oxford home.  The interviewer’s question, “Can you give an example of a genetic mutation, or an evolutionary process, which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” was a question that only a creationist would ask.  Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused to think about how to deal with the situation and then asked them to stop filming.  He eventually continued with the interview after they pleaded with him on the basis that they had come from the other side of the World.

When the tape was published, Dawkins eventually discovered that the creationists had spliced the tape together to make it look like his was stumped by their question, asked them to stop filming while he considered his answer and then ducked the question and answered a completely different question.  Dawkins gave his own account of the interview and why he paused and asked them to stop filming within the pages of A Devil’s Chaplin.  Australian writer for The Skeptic, Barry Williams, published this exposé of the episode after Dawkins contacted the magazine to investigate the incident in a bid to protect his professional reputation.

The evolution side have been pretty unanimous in their condemnation of the Nye/Ham debate.  American biologist, blogger and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, has commented on the debate here and here (the second post contains this useful interview with Nye on CNN giving his reasons for taking part in the debate) predicting that “it might not end well.”

Dan Arel writing on Richard Dawkins Foundation has summed up the situation rather well:

I honestly think it would be fantastic to see Nye destroy Ham, but will that do any good?  Suddenly a little known figure outside of his circles, Ham will be thrust into the spotlight, reaching impressionable youths around the world, and as great as it would be to see him taken down, the risks of him winning are greater.

The American people are not going to dissect Nye’s credentials to accept such a debate and if he goes down, he will take down a lot of hard work in science with him.  If the American people, who are already weary of science and already disown the idea of evolution as quickly as possible, see who in their minds is a top scientist lose to a creationist, we will have taken steps backwards in time.

The risk versus reward in this scenario is not worth it. Nye is putting a lot at risk and he is not the man to do so.

Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”.

I hope Nye proves us all wrong on the 4th of February.  But eternal-pessimist-glass-is-always-half-empty-atheist that I am, I am bracing myself for the worst.

Die In The Summertime

26/12/2013

Manic Street Preachers, “Die The Summertime”, The Holy Bible

Right, that’s enough Christmas cheer people; time for a reality check.

Further to my post a couple of months ago on assisted dying, I recently came across this article from an American doctor on our unrealistic attitudes towards death that has struck a chord with me:

If I’m lucky, the family will accept the news that, in a time when we can separate conjoined twins and reattach severed limbs, people still wear out and die of old age.  If I’m lucky, the family will recognize that their loved one’s life is nearing its end.

But I’m not always lucky.  The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient’s tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it.  For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life’s natural conclusion.

These unrealistic expectations often begin with an overestimation of modern medicine’s power to prolong life, a misconception fuelled by the dramatic increase in the American life span over the past century.  To hear that the average U.S. life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 78 years as of 2007, you might conclude that there weren’t a lot of old people in the old days — and that modern medicine invented old age.  But average life expectancy is heavily skewed by childhood deaths, and infant mortality rates were high back then. In 1900, the U.S. infant mortality rate was approximately 100 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2000, the rate was 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

The bulk of that decline came in the first half of the century, from simple public health measures such as improved sanitation and nutrition, not open heart surgery, MRIs or sophisticated medicines. Similarly, better obstetrical education and safer deliveries in that same period also led to steep declines in maternal mortality, so that by 1950, average life expectancy had catapulted to 68 years.

For all its technological sophistication and hefty price tag, modern medicine may be doing more to complicate the end of life than to prolong or improve it.  If a person living in 1900 managed to survive childhood and childbearing, she had a good chance of growing old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who made it to 65 in 1900 could expect to live an average of 12 more years; if she made it to 85, she could expect to go another four years. In 2007, a 65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, another 19 years; if he made it to 85, he could expect to go another six years.

(…)

This physical and emotional distance becomes obvious as we make decisions that accompany life’s end.  Suffering is like a fire: Those who sit closest feel the most heat; a picture of a fire gives off no warmth.  That’s why it’s typically the son or daughter who has been physically closest to an elderly parent’s pain who is the most willing to let go. Sometimes an estranged family member is “flying in next week to get all this straightened out.” This is usually the person who knows the least about her struggling parent’s health; she’ll have problems bringing her white horse as carry-on luggage.  This person may think she is being driven by compassion, but a good deal of what got her on the plane was the guilt and regret of living far away and having not done any of the heavy lifting in caring for her parent.

With unrealistic expectations of our ability to prolong life, with death as an unfamiliar and unnatural event, and without a realistic, tactile sense of how much a worn-out elderly patient is suffering, it’s easy for patients and families to keep insisting on more tests, more medications, more procedures.

Doing something often feels better than doing nothing. Inaction feeds the sense of guilt-ridden ineptness family members already feel as they ask themselves, “Why can’t I do more for this person I love so much?”

Opting to try all forms of medical treatment and procedures to assuage this guilt is also emotional life insurance: When their loved one does die, family members can tell themselves, “We did everything we could for Mom.”  In my experience, this is a stronger inclination than the equally valid (and perhaps more honest) admission that “we sure put Dad through the wringer those last few months.”

At a certain stage of life, aggressive medical treatment can become sanctioned torture.  When a case such as this comes along, nurses, physicians and therapists sometimes feel conflicted and immoral. We’ve committed ourselves to relieving suffering, not causing it. A retired nurse once wrote to me: “I am so glad I don’t have to hurt old people any more.”  [My emphasis]

When families talk about letting their loved ones die “naturally,” they often mean “in their sleep” — not from a treatable illness such as a stroke, cancer or an infection. Choosing to let a loved one pass away by not treating an illness feels too complicit; conversely, choosing treatment that will push a patient into further suffering somehow feels like taking care of him.  While it’s easy to empathize with these family members’ wishes, what they don’t appreciate is that very few elderly patients are lucky enough to die in their sleep.  Almost everyone dies of something.

Close friends of ours brought their father, who was battling dementia, home to live with them for his final, beautiful and arduous years.  There they loved him completely, even as Alzheimer’s took its dark toll.  They weren’t staring at a postcard of a fire; they had their eyebrows singed by the heat.  When pneumonia finally came to get him, they were willing to let him go.

It reminded me of Manic Street Preachers’ less-than-comforting ode to growing old from their classic, white-hot-scattershot-punk masterpiece, The Holy Bible:

“Die In The Summertime”

Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Colour my hair but the dye grows out
I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal

Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams

I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die

The hole in my life even stains the soil
My heart shrinks to barely a pulse
A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle
If you really care wash the feet of a beggar

I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die

I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I want to die, die in the summertime, I want to die

Or as The Who once phrased matters, “I hope I die before I get old”.

Lawrence Krauss Q&A at The University of Liverpool, 22 October 2013

23/10/2013

KraussLiverpoolUniBanner

I am having a very intellectually stimulating week of it.  On Monday night, I saw Simon Singh talk at The University of Chester and last night (Tuesday), I saw a Q&A at Liverpool University with world-renowned theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss.

And here’s a picture of me with him:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And here’s a scan of his autograph in my copy of A Universe From Nothing:

KraussUniverseAutograph

Krauss is a wonderfully engaging and humorous speaker.  Like Sam Harris and The Onion, he disproves the cliché (provides an exception to the rule?) that Americans have no sense of irony.  The talk was entitled “God, The Higgs and a Universe from Nothing”; however, he dismissed God in his opening sentence saying that there was “nothing interesting to say about God because she does not exist.”

Since someone had already mentioned William Lane Craig and Krauss described him as a “con artist”, I asked Krauss why he had decided to debate Craig for a second time (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3) after their first encounter in 2011 was such a disaster and he had written a very uncomplimentary article accusing Craig of lies and distortions. Since Craig only wants to promote himself and his dogmatic conservative Christian faith, isn’t a respectable scientist sharing a platform with him only giving him publicity and credibility, which is the reason why Richard Dawkins refuses to debate creationists?

Krauss replied that he had not altered his low opinion of Craig.  He explained that before the first debate he knew nothing about Craig and was “like a deer caught in the headlights” in the face of the lies and distortions that Craig was spouting.  He thought very long and hard about sharing a platform with him again, but eventually decided to it in order to expose Craig publicly.

Krauss also mentioned Craig’s blunder over an upcoming documentary film featuring Krauss and Dawkins called The Unbelievers.  Craig had recorded three podcasts based on a pirated copy of the film’s audio but had not actually seen the film itself; indeed at the time of this post it has still not been released.  In the original podcasts, Craig had accused Krauss and Dawkins of deliberately trying to trip up one Cardinal Pell on evolution, however, viewing the visual and audio of the exchange shows no such thing.  Craig was forced to apologise and amend the podcasts.

At the time of this post, I have only seen Craig and Krauss’ first debate from 2011, read his follow-up piece and watched his YouTube response to Craig’s podcasts on The Unbelievers but not any of his three most recent debates against Craig in Australia, all linked above.   As I stated at the end of my review of Craig’s debate on morality against Sam Harris, I am now deliberately avoiding Craig.  I have better things to do with my time than listen to his lying pseudo-intellectualism and I think this photo meme says it all:

KraussDebatedAsshole

Simon Singh lectures at The University of Chester, 21 October 2013

22/10/2013

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I recently posted about Simon Singh’s kind thanks to me in his latest book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets.  I saw Simon lecture on his book at The University of Chester last night at 7:30pm, Monday, 21 October 2013.

And here’s a picture of me with him:

MSP and Simon Singh

And here’s a scan of his autograph in my copy of The Simpsons:

SinghSimpsonsAutograph

The lecture itself covered many of the points that were in Singh’s book, which I have now finished and highly recommend whether you are a maths PhD or a numerical incompetent like your humble servant.

However, Simon started off with a few nifty observations at the beginning of his talk that were not in the book.  The Toblerone logo has a bear hidden in the mountain as the original makers of the chocolate were based in the Germany city of Bern (or Berne) whose symbol is the bear:

TobleroneLogo

Likewise, Parcel delivery company FedEx’s logo has an arrow between the ‘E’ and the ‘X’:

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And finally Amazon’s logo has its arrow going from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ to signify that they too are a parcel delivery company:

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At the end of the main talk, I asked Simon whether any complimentary alternative medicines (“CAM”) are ever effective at anything beyond the placebo effect and “regression to the mean”; for example, does chiropractic actually do anything to ease back pain?

Simon replied that the majority of the evidence and medical opinion is stacked against CAM, but there is some evidence that they have some effect: meditation can relieve anxiety and chiropractic can be as effective at relieving back pain as other more conventional medical interventions such as physiotherapy.  He mentioned that he updated the paperback edition to Trick or Treatment? co-authored with Edzard Ernst to include new research that the Alexander technique has some positive effect in treating and preventing back pain.

Most amusingly, Edzard Ernst is a professor in complimentary alternative medicine; however, he does support it outright.  When this stance enraged the CAM community who though he should axiomatically be on their side, Ernst replied that if he was a qualified toxicologist, that would hardly make him obliged to be in favour of toxins!

Simon mentioned that the current bane of his life in this area is the fairly new magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You.  They seem to be the “9/11 Troofers” of the medical profession telling the lay public that medical science is a big conspiracy, that tried and trust remedies are actually killing scores of patients and we would all be better off visiting our homeopaths instead of our GPs.

The writers of this pseudo-scientific rag have already threatened to sue Singh for voicing his concerns.  I listened to the opening segment of this edition of Radio 4’s “Inside Health” featuring the magazine’s editor Lynne McTaggart and was pretty appalled by her biased and unsupported claims.  This website also has some hilarious  photoshopped versions of the magazine’s front cover, which make the skeptic’s point crystal clear such as:

WhatDoctorsDontTellYouREALANDSKIT

Now to gear up for Lawrence Krausslecture at Liverpool University tonight…  :D

Simon Singh goes on a book tour. And mentions me in his new book!

15/10/2013

SimonSinghSimpsonsHeader

Way back in February 2010, I posted on science journalist and author Dr Simon Singh’s campaign to have British libel law changed in view of his defence of a legal action brought by The British Chiropractic Association who sued him for libel following publication of a highly critical piece on The Guardian Comment Is Free in April 2008.

My original piece bemoaned that I had signed Singh’s online petition and forwarded it to my local MP only to receive a discouraging reply that while he supported the aims of the campaign, he was not in the habit of supporting “Early Day Motions” as he felt they are a waste of Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money.  Apparently, they are seldom debated, rarely brought to a vote and require neither recognition nor response from the government.  They are known in Westminster as “parliamentary graffiti” and can cost in excess of £627,000.

Since that post, I did not comment any further on the matter and indeed went on an extended blogging sabbatical shortly thereafter.  However, I forwarded my post to Simon Singh and received a delightful reply.  I post both my email and his reply in the comments section below.   I also followed the case with interest and am glad that my original post was proven wrong.  Firstly, Singh won the libel action in April 2010 when The British Chiropractic Association dropped the case after he was given leave to appeal using the defence of “fair comment”.

Furthermore, in April 2013 Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 which should provide more protection for individuals and organisations, including newspapers and broadcasters, which criticise big companies.  The Act also aims to end London’s status as the “libel tourism capital of the World” by stopping cases being taken in London against journalists, academics or individuals who live outside the country, denting the libel tourism industry (but not ending it altogether, as foreigners will still be able to lodge claims in the High Court).

I then received a group email from Simon Singh on 8 October 2013 announcing that he was going on a speaking tour to promote his new book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets, and that everyone who had signed his online petition had been mentioned in his new book.  I will be seeing Simon speak at The University of Chester on 21 October 2013 and then hopefully again at Merseyside Skeptics Society – Skeptics In The Pub on 12 December 2013.   A scan of the page in his new book where I am thanked is below; first full name on the bottom line.

Singh Simpsons p 233 CROPPEDAt the time of posting, I am about one third of the way through Singh’s book.  For someone who just barely scrapped a Grade ‘C’ on the lower paper for GCSE Maths and still to this day shudders at the mere sight of numbers, I am finding it a most lucid and humorous journey in equations through one of my all time favourite television shows.  It may not transform me overnight into Good Will Hunting, but it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than having SOHCAHTOA drilled into my head at school ever was.


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