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Archive for October, 2011

Subtitle: Dear Daily Show, please save civilization.

A depressing start to my day. Via Cosmic Variance: “I am generally a fan of the two-party system. Sadly, at the moment in this country, one of the parties is completely crazy.”

The embedding may not have worked. Just click the link.

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Equation of the day

From the epochal “A Natural Measure on the Set of All Universes”, by Gary Gibbons, Stephen Hawking and John Stewart, 1987, pg. 748, equation 3.24:

w'(s) = \frac{1}{3}w^2 + junk

where “junk” is both positive and asymptotically small as z -> infinity.

See, kids. Maths is easy.

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My list of Books I would force everyone to read if I were king of the world has a new entry. It is Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, which is also the name of his blog and column in the Guardian. A more accurate title would perhaps be Bad Medical Science, as Dr Goldacre is a GP and medical researcher, and apart from a few necessary deviations into statistics, most of the book concerns medical issues. As such, its appeal is limited to those who own and operate a human body. Here are a few highlights.

Ear candles are bunk. They claim to suction gunk out of your ear and into the candle. But they don’t produce any suction – we can measure that! – and the gunk inside the candle post-burning is there whether you burn the candle in your ear or not.

I’d never realised how much medical progress had been made so recently:

Before 1935 doctors were basically useless. We had morphine for pain relief – a drug with superficial charm, at least – and we could do operations fairly cleanly, although with huge doses of anaesthetics, because we hadn’t yet sorted out well-targeted muscle-relaxant drugs. Then suddenly, between about 1935 and 1975, science poured out an almost constant stream of miracle cures. If you got TB in the 1920s, you died, pale and emaciated, in the style of a romantic poet. If you got TB in the 1970s, then in all likelihood you would live to a ripe old age. You might have to take rifampicin and isoniazid for months on end, and they’re not nice drugs, and the side-effects will make your eyeballs and wee go pink, but if all goes well you will live to see inventions unimaginable in your childhood. …  Almost everything we associate with modern medicine happened in that time: treatments like antibiotics, dialysis, transplants, intensive care, heart surgery, almost every drug you’ve ever heard of, and more. As well as the miracle treat ments, we really were finding those simple, direct, hidden killers that the media still pine for so desperately in their headlines.

Goldacre points out the remarkable differences between what vitamin salesmen say in their books – where they can say what they like – and what they say on the label on the bottle, which is subject to consumer legislation. For example:

The vitamin pill magnate Patrick Holford, for example, makes sweeping and dramatic claims for all kinds of supplements in his ‘Optimum Nutrition’ books; yet these same claims are not to be found on the labels of his own-brand ‘Optimum Nutrition’ range of vitamin pills (which do feature, however, a photograph of his face).

I did have a few reservations about this passage:

It’s only weird and startling when something very, very specific and unlikely happens if you have specifically predicted it beforehand.

There is some truth here, of course. But most of what we have learned in the last 100 years of physics and astronomy wasn’t predicted: quantum mechanics, superconductivity, quasars, pulsars, the acceleration of the universe, the menagerie of particles discovered by the first particle accelerators, neutrino masses. Goldacre isn’t making a mistake here, and clarifies a bit later: “If your hypothesis comes from analysing the data, then there is no sense in analysing the same data again to confirm it”. It’s just a rare overstatement in an otherwise admirably careful book.

Here, in case you ever need it, is the best summary of the way that scientists are viewed by the media you will ever need:

… science is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’. Having created this parody, the commentariat then attack it, as if they were genuinely critiquing what science is all about.

For example, the “scientist develops wacky equation to describe something menial” type of article that one sees from time to time are almost always sponsored by some company looking for a way to get their product mentioned in newspaper articles.

Finally, the most disturbing part of the book was the part that wasn’t in the first edition because Goldacre was being sued. It seems like anyone who devotes their time to testing dubious claims by quacks – Goldacre, Simon Singh, James Randi, Penn and Teller, anyone who mentions scientology – must then spend their time and several hundred thousand dollars defending libel suits. In Goldacre’s case, the accuser was Matthias Rath, who convinced much of South Africa to give up on HIV vaccines that could prevent the spread from mother to daughter, and instead buy his vitamin pills. Goldacre won, and published the relevant chapter of the book online. Even if you don’t buy the book, go read the free chapter. It is incredible and terrifying in equal measure. Seriously … go read it now.

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My history education was utterly woeful. I had some smatterings of myth and cliche in primary school – people in the middle ages thought the earth was flat, the early European explorers of Australia found things a bit difficult etc. In high school I had two years of Australian history, which for anyone interested can be summarised in one line: Aboriginals hunter-gather, the British somehow see the south of Wales, Federation (1901), Bodyline (1933) and the Gatting ball (1993). From year 9 we could choose between history and geography, and thus the last time I was in a history class, I was 12 years old. Pathetic.

I’ve been trying to catch up for a while now, and decided that a few choice biographies of twentieth century figures would be a good place to start. (Please recommend some in the comments!). Thus I came to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 700 page biography of Josef Stalin.

The book was enjoyable though not easy reading. That last remark requires further clarification: I usually read popular science, and occasionally a novel. Such books can be read quickly, and only become difficult when they lack lucidity or encounter particularly complex material. The difficulty with Stalin was not the difficulty of the material but its gravity. One feels that passages such as the following should be read more than once,

They did not even specify the names but simply assigned quotas of deaths by the thousands. … The aim was ‘to finish off once and for all’ the Enemies and those impossible to educate to socialism, so as to accelerate the erasing of class barriers and therefore the bringing of paradise for the masses. The final solution was a slaughter that made sense in terms of the faith and idealism of Bolshevism which was a religion based on the systematic destruction of classes. … On 20 July [1937], Yezhov and his deputy Mikhail Frinovsky proposed Order No. 00447 to the Politburo: that between 5 and 15 August, the regions were to receive quotas for two categories: Category One – to be shot. Category Two – to be deported. They suggested that 72,950 should be shot and 259,450 arrested … The quotas were soon fulfilled by the regions who therefore asked for bigger numbers… the original arrest quota ballooned to 767,397 arrests and 386,798 executions, families destroyed, children orphaned, under Order No. 00447. (more…)

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I’ve hit something of a purple patch with books of late, so its time for some brief book reviews. Most of these will concern topics outside my area of expertise, and so I can’t offer anything like a rigorous critique.

My first book is “The Decisive Moment”, by Jonah Lehrer. I blasted through this book in a few evenings back at the hotel during a conference. It made very enjoyable reading. In particular, the author makes very good use of narrative – one is enticed into each chapter with a variety of case studies. Chapter six’s account of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, for example, makes for compulsive reading.

The theme of the book that most resonated with me was the importance of emotion to rationality. Emotions are often thought of as irrational – we see this in expressions like “I let my emotions get the better of me” and the connotations of objectivity attached to the adjective “dispassionate”. I think this goes back at least to Plato. Lehrer, however, shows that emotions do have an important role to play in decision making. They allow for fast, unconscious decisions to be made and implemented. Those who due to brain injuries have seemingly lost the ability to form emotions find that even the smallest decisions – chicken or beef? – paralyse them like Buridan’s ass. Conscious thought can actually lead to worse decisions, as in the case of would-be jam experts (page 138). Those who simply tasted a selection of jams and reported which ones they liked best broadly agreed with the opinions of food experts. Those asked to analyse their impressions via written questionnaires suddenly preferred inferior jams. It’s a beautiful little parable, and Lehrer’s discussion of such examples is both nuanced and insightful.

The book is both practical and philosophical, ranging from how to make better decisions to the most contrived ethical conundrums. Experimental findings and anecdotes are weaved seamlessly. I read the book over a year ago, but looking back over it now makes me want to read it again.

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