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This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.

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It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.

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You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.

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A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

QED is the UK’s largest conference on science and scepticism. It’s a get together for people who are passionate about science and evidence in contemporary culture and current affairs. It takes place yearly in Manchester and it’s now in its sixth year. This is my fifth year attending. As ever, it was a wonderful conference. We were really spoiled for choice this year with many tracks taking place simultaneously, so until I am able to master bilocation or out-of-body travelling, this is my account of just a small sliver of events happening over the weekend.

YouTube Debunkery!

The intro video this year was really superb, with production values in the stratosphere. It became clear how this was done when the speaker for the conference, Alan Melikdjanian aka Captain Disillusion, gave us an insight into how he makes debunking videos for YouTube. It was an incredible presentation, complete with audience polls, interpretive dance, hater comments, bad 90’s Powerpoint, arguing with himself on video, all done flawlessly with maximum comedic effect. The slides looked beautiful too.

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In terms of technical presentation skills and using the different types of media to communicate a message, this was one of the best I have ever seen. Really, truly excellent.

Here’s one of his videos.

Good Advice, Bad Advice!

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The next speaker was Petra Boynton, an advice columnist with the Telegraph. She showed how advice columns are a very old and venerable part of print media for over 300 years, and in many ways, they have not changed that much. It was interesting to hear how careful columnists needed to be, as context is everything. She very much sees this as a kind of public service, particularly when access to professional help has been cut back in recent years.

Naturoquackery

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The next speaker was Britt Hermes. Britt had a very unusual story to tell. She thought she was a doctor, then found out she wasn’t. Britt studied naturopathy in Bastyr University in California, where she was indoctrinated in alternative medicine. Even though there was a small amount of medicine taught, everything was solidly encased in new age woo.

I’m taking down these notes and I’m thinking “Wow. These doctors are so stupid.”

During her studies, Britt went to Ghana. She learned to give intravenous injections of ineffective medicines to people who were very sick. She then went to Nicaragua where she dispensed homeopathic products to treat cardiovascular disease.

When she graduated, she started teaching in Bastyr. She moved to Arizona under Michael Uzick, which was where the wool was pulled from her eyes. Uzick appeared to be involved in a dangerous, so-called cancer drug called ukrain. She reported him to the authorities, with predictable consequences. She ended up leaving naturopathy, a profession which, by this time, she had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

I realised I was a fraud.

Britt found help and support from within the global skeptic community. She has since set up a blog to expose the practices of naturopathy to the rest of the world. It’s hard not to see naturopathy as a kind of twenty-first century cult, despite it’s veneer of medicine.

Naturopaths can basically say and do what they want. There is no standard of care.

Britt is adamant that naturopaths should under no circumstances be given the title of doctor. They should not be treating children as they get only 10% the training of paediatricians.

There is no doubt that many naturopaths have good hearts. But without a medical degree, they are nothing more than good hearted charlatans.

Britt has stared a petition “Naturopaths are not doctors” to raise awareness of the inadequacy of naturopathic care, and to stop naturopaths being licensed as doctors in America.

You have to fool patients and you have to fool yourself. So I am glad to say, I am one of the most unsuccessful naturopaths on the planet.

Britt has shown incredible bravery in admitting her mistake and then challenging the fundamental basis of naturopathy to a world audience. Britt got a well deserved standing ovation from the audience for her talk.

We’re not done (not by a long shot)…

Imagine tending to a very sick patient who was about to die. Imagine having, on one hand, a doctor or nurse working with the patient to make their remaining time as comfortable as possible, and comforting the family in their grief. On the other hand, you have a preacher telling that patient that they must immediately convert over to Jesus before they passed away, unless they wanted to go to Hell. Who would you choose?

Or imagine going to university, taking geology or botany or zoology, and having two classes for each subject – one that presented the scientific view, and the other threatening students that they must deny evolution and accept an 8,000 year old Earth, in order to pass their final exams.

Not appropriate, right? But this is the problem we seem to be increasingly facing these days – one of ideology over expertise.

There was a debate on the radio a few days ago where there two worlds came clashing together in an interesting way. The subject was vaccinations. On the one hand, you had people arguing from scientific and medical perspective, while on the other hand, you had people with strongly anti-vaccination worldviews. (They prefer to call themselves “vaccine informed, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? In the end, it amounts to the same thing).

If you were a parent, concerned about nasties such as whooping cough, rubella, measles and the flu, whose advice should you listen to? Your doctor, who, has the training, clinical expertise and direct experience working in the community with patients? Or perhaps some random person with none of this experience who tells you to ignore or distrust the doctors, that they are all shills or dupes, that they have done all their research on the Internet and are therefore more knowledgeable?

This is the choice that people have. And it should be a no-brainer. In fact, for decades it has been a no-brainer. Most people wouldn’t even think about going for the ideologue over the trained expert.

But it seems this is not as much the case today. More people choosing the naturopath over their doctor, choosing detox over vaccines and choosing all sorts of fad diets so they can avoid cancer and live forever. In certain areas, ideology is starting to win over expertise.

Much of it is marketing. Ideologues are getting better at exploiting hopes and fears. There are certain messages they put across that have an emotional impact. Tell people Big Pharma is out to get them. Tell them they only care about profits and not health. Tell them that there are poisons and chemicals being injected into their children. Tell them there is another way, and that it’s being suppressed. Tell them about the brave lone pioneers who have been castigated for their views. These are powerful, emotive messages that can be applied to any situation. They do not need facts to support them, just half-truths, glimmers of hope and a large dollop of fear.

Experts are to be distrusted, according to the ideologues. Experts, particularly individual experts, can sometimes get things wrong, so the ideologues use that against them. Knowledge is often incomplete, as is the way with science, so ideologues will exploit the gaps in knowledge for their own purposes. Companies sometimes do unethical things, so ideologues will use this to portray them in the worst possible light.

But let’s not kid ourselves – when it comes to a fight between expertise and ideology, expertise wins. It has the facts on its side.  Just maybe not the marketing.

Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.

Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.

Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.

With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.

The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.

In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?

Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.

After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.

Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.

There is a difference between Science and Religion.

Science needs evidence. Science embraces evidence. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts with your beliefs, then in science, the evidence wins. It must win, because that’s how progress happens in science. Scientists follow the evidence, irrespective of how uncomfortable that might mean towards their beliefs.

Religion needs belief. Religion embraces belief. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts your beliefs, then in religion, the belief wins. It must win, because that’s the way religion preserves itself, often passing down the generations. Religious adherents follow the belief, irrespective of whether evidence exists to support those beliefs or even if if it refutes those beliefs completely.

If you are a scientist, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, but you hold fast to those beliefs despite strong evidence to the contrary, you are no longer practicing science. You are practicing religion.

If you are a religious adherent, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, so you change your beliefs to come in line with the evidence, you are no longer practicing religion. You are practicing science.

There is a difference between Science and Religion and this difference is unreconcilable. A wide, yawning, unbridgeable gap. You either accept that evidence has primacy, or that belief does. You can’t have both. Efforts to reconcile the two are unlikely to be very productive.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but perhaps the issue is somewhat moot. The real question is what difference this makes to most of us. The problem is our brains, you see. Our brains have an interesting relationship with ideas, both scientific and religious. In our brains these things tend to get mashed together, confused with each other. Our brains can accommodate conflicting ideas. While science and religion are different, when it comes to scientific people and religious people, the distinction is far more blurry.

Most people don’t think about religion or science all the time. Most people spend their time thinking about other things. Whether they left the heating on, the pain in their foot, the hallway that needs a paint job, the local team losing last Saturday. Most people have friends to talk to, families to care for, work to do. Muslim, atheist, Christian, secular, Buddhist: when it comes to life and everyday concerns, we become less different. We become more human. The gulf can be traversed. It’s no longer black and white. It’s complicated.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but our humanity keeps getting in the way. 

Here’s what most people think critical thinking is. You take on a position, then you develop arguments as to why this viewpoint is the correct one. It’s the stuff of debate, polemics, law and politics. We admire people who can present strong arguments, then defend their positions under withering pressure. Sometimes we elect such supremos to powerful positions. It’s a handy skill, not to be dismissed, often to be admired. But I’ll tell you one thing it isn’t: it’s not critical thinking.

Real critical thinking takes a bit more work.

To be truly critical about a viewpoint, first you need to figure out if it’s wrong. That’s not an easy thing to do, because it goes against our innate mental biases. Our brains are naturally predisposed to taking on positions then finding support for such positions. What critical thinking asks of us is to challenge this mental process head on; finding evidence that suggests it’s not true, or not valid under certain circumstances. From this a more complicated picture can be drawn.

A critical thinker needs to spend time to understand if their position is based on valid or fallacious logic. If you are basing your position on the mere fact that everyone else accepts it, that’s not a great starting point. Neither is it much help if it originates from an emotional feeling or a desire for something to be true rather than bothering to establish if it is true in the first place. There are a ton of pitfalls – logical fallacies – that can trap the unwary thinker.

Or maybe the sources themselves are invalid. A peer-reviewed scientific paper may hold more water than the flatulent utterances of a Daily Mail headline, but even this might require consideration if it’s rowing against other research on the same topic. Many newspapers and websites promote strong political, cultural or religious viewpoints. There may be vested interests involved, whose job it is to muddy the debate. It can be a minefield trying to winnow the grammes of wheat from the tonnes of chaff.

If you do put in the ground work to validate and perhaps adjust the stance you have taken, it’s then when argumentation and debate has a role to play. But even then, you have to be willing to accept that, even at this late stage, you might be wrong. There may be evidence out there that you failed to consider. You need to be open to this possibility.

Going through this process of formulating hypotheses and testing is one of the most valuable skills an education can give us. It’s the basis behind most forms of professional and scientific inquiry and it’s fast becoming a useful tool of business and management. So why aren’t our kids learning more about it in school? Why aren’t they getting any chances to practice it?

So many subjects are presented as just-so facts. The desire to complete the curriculum as expeditiously as possible trumps everything else. Where discussion is permitted, there is little effort to evaluate positions on their merits or to examine our biases and the many flaws of argumentation. Debates are little more than exercises in one-upmanship – opportunities to talk across each other while playing to the audience. Being wrong is something to be avoided at all costs. Our education system is miles from where it needs to be.

We have to find ways to break this cycle. We need to give curiosity, exploration and inwardly directed criticism greater prominence in our educational system. We need to elevate hypothesis formulation, testing and investigatory work, allowing kids to make mistakes as they try to figure out what is right and what is wrong. Instead of telling them the answers, give them the tools to find the answers for themselves.

A real critical thinker has to shroud themselves in doubt, and it’s from doubt that real critical thinkers are born. Our education system has become too enamoured with certainty to give this much consideration. We need to find ways to change this.

Source: vaccine.gov

Source: vaccine.gov

A BBC news report today reported that a woman in the US died from an attack of the measles. While the measles does not normally kill, a small percentage of people who get it can die; others will be left with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. If you are a rational person, measles is not something that you and your children should ever have to deal with.

Measles is one of the three diseases, along with Mumps and Rubella, that the MMR vaccine is effective in preventing. Vaccines like MMR act by priming the immune system with a weakened version of the virus. This allows your body to create antibodies, so that when the real disease comes around, the body is ready to defend itself. The mechanics of how vaccination works is not new: it was pretty much understood by the 1940s, and as the graph above shows, it has proven itself over and over again to be highly effective against the types of diseases that destroyed the lives of so many people throughout history.

The woman who died was immunocompromised, which means she was unable to take any vaccines because of a health condition. Small babies and people like this woman depend on vaccinated people to stay free from these diseases.

The choice to remain unvaccinated is therefore not a simple personal choice. If you or your children do not take vaccines, you put people such as this woman at greater risk of being exposed to the measles. While measles might be unpleasant for you, you could be directly harming their lives. This goes beyond personal choice. It makes you a menace to public health. Expect lawsuits to arise in this case against the people who put this woman’s life at risk by not vaccinating. If they had been more responsible, she would be alive today.

You will see a lot of websites, alternative practitioners and some celebrities preaching the benefits of not taking vaccinations. They are wrong. The studies they use to support their beliefs are poorly thought out, incomplete, and in a few high profile cases: fraudulent. They have confused the idea of personal choice with what is good for society at large. They condemn “big pharma” and the “sickness industry” while forgetting that executives and employees of these organisations get sick too. They talk about poisons while conveniently forgetting that almost everything is a poison – it’s the dosage that matters. They cherrypick from anecdotal information and they exaggerate the dangers in order to frighten parents of small children. Not one major medical organisation agrees with them. Not one. They are manifestly wrong and they are putting lives at risk.

Ultimately, vaccines are a lot safer than the diseases they prevent. Less than a hundred years ago, people used to die, routinely, from smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, cholera, polio, tetanus and diphteria to mention just a few. Nowadays nobody does, or at least they shouldn’t. The reason is vaccines. While there can be side-effects to taking vaccines, they are usually minor and transient.

If I could recommend one link to take a look at, it’s this one: it shows clearly the difference that vaccines made when they were introduced. The evidence could not be clearer than this.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Wall Street Journal

The bottom line: if you are scared by all the scare stories out there, talk to your doctor. Vaccines are safe, effective and help save lives; not just yours, but others who need vaccinated people like you to keep them alive.

Other resources:

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

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