Sunday, December 29, 2013

GMO nonsense retracted

So the headlines last year claiming that a study showed that “rats fed genetically modified corn grew massive tumours” were nonsense all along.

The article originally published in Food and Chemical Toxicology has now been withdrawn. The publishers, Elsevier, issued a statement saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that the researchers hadn't made anything up but they had been guilty of very dodgy science.

As I wrote last year:
Firstly the researchers from the University of Caen in France neglected to mention that this particular strain of rat (“Sprague-Dawley”) get exactly this sort of tumor at the drop of a hat. They’re known to develop these enormous growths when allowed unlimited food or if they develop a hormone imbalance after consuming maize contaminated with a particular common fungus, or even if they are just allowed to live to old age. Whether or not they were given GM food, they would probably have developed the gruesome growths anyway. The researchers neglected to mention this in their report. Suspicious yet?

Then there was the rather selective report the “scientists” gave of their results. Their report only gave the results of SOME of the test groups of rats, other test groups exposed to GM food actually ended up healthier than the control group who had not received any GM food. They also neglected to publish any actual statistics from these groups so we could see the actual results. Suspicious yet?

Then there’s a technical detail. Generally in tests like this, the test group (that receive the thing being tested) is roughly the same size as the control group (the ones that don’t). It makes the mathematics simpler. In this case the test group was four times larger than the control group. Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted by New Scientist magazine, saying “these results are of no value”. Suspicious yet?

Sorry to be picky but consider one other thing. The researchers didn’t allow reporters to seek comments from other scientists about the “findings” until after the report was published. Did they have something to hide? Like bad science?
This is what happens when "scientists" are motivated by an agenda rather than by a desire to establish facts.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bigots are stupid?

You can't just assume that someone who is bigoted is stupid. But on average they are.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Herd immunity

Janet D. Stemwedel writing in Scientific American on why we have an obligation to vaccinate our children and if we don't want to, then to keep our kids away from others.
"If you’re not willing to do your part for herd immunity, you need to take responsibility for staying out of the herd."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A hilarious "Motivation Workshop" offer

In comes an email advertising a "Motivation Workshop (including Strategic Laughter)".

You can tell quite quickly that it's hogwash when you see the "Outcomes" they promise.
  • Motivates Employees
  • Reduces Stress
  • Team Building
  • Having Balance in your Life
  • Improves Productivity
  • Attitude
  • The Laws of Attraction (The Power of Thought)
  • Numerology (Character Traits we are born with)
The Law of Attraction is New Age nonsense of the highest order. Numerology is Dark Ages claptrap.

It gets even sillier when they start quoting "research" that they claim supports these ridiculous claims. For instance:
"William Fry M.D. a Stanford University Medical School Professor has studied the effects of laughter upon the human body. He says that laughing 100-200 times a day is the cardiovascular equivalent of rowing for ten minutes."
Let's do the maths. If you laugh 200 times in a 16 hour day that means you laugh once every 4.8 minutes. If you do that in MY office I'll call the Police and a doctor. And isn't it simpler just to row for 10 minutes?

Then they claim that:
"Researchers at Indiana State University studied women who laughed out loud to funny films, as compared to those watching a boring tourism video. They found that when samples of Natural Killer immune cells (which attack cancer cells) were mixed with cancer cells, the immune systems of the people who laughed out loud were BOOSTED BY UP TO 40%"
This is nonsense. This is ONE experiment done in 2003 on a sample of 33 women, divided into two groups that showed an decrease in their self-reported levels of stress if they had been amused by a funny film. An experiment that was undertaken ONCE with a tiny sample group that showed that funny films amuse people and make them feel a bit better. And from that we are meant to believe that laughing in the office will make us more productive?

I've no problem with laughter and happiness, clearly they're both good things in and out of the office. But ascribing all these miracles to laughter is hogwash. Utter hogwash.

And if you want to laugh at something? Just laugh at the claims these people make.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The first death threat of 2013

You know you're doing something right when you get a death threat from a "Prophet".

It began when I saw this posting on Facebook:

I commented as follows:

And then asked this, I think rather simple, question:

When no evidence emerged I then commented:

And finally said:

Then my good friend Profit Bushiri got in touch directly:

I think his threat of imminent death is a good illustration of his nature, don't you?


P.S. A colleague and friend asked me yesterday whether I am "anti Christian" and it's important to know that I'm not. I'm an atheist of course and will happily argue with those of a religious disposition, I mean "argue" in the pleasant, friendly way. I was thinking earlier of a former colleague who was a deeply committed Christian and who was, without doubt, one of the BEST people I've ever met. Generous, charitable, tolerant, open-minded and genuinely committed to his friends, family and neighbours, he spent almost all of his spare time with his wife caring for orphans in Joburg without trying to convert them, just because they needed love, sustenance and entertainment. People like him deserve our respect. But the key thing is that if he'd been brought up a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Rasta or an atheist he still would have been as good as he is. He's just a very good person.

My contempt is reserved for hypocrites, liars and thieves. Unfortunately much of religion is dominated by such people.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weekend Post - I saw a UFO

I saw a UFO recently. It was early evening and I saw a bright light in the sky, much brighter than any of the stars that had just appeared. It seemed to be moving very slowly but was becoming brighter and brighter as I watched. Then, very suddenly it dimmed significantly and moved quickly to the left.

That’s when it ceased to be a UFO, an Unidentified Flying Object, and became an IFO, an Identified Flying Object. It was an Air Botswana flight initially heading directly towards me and then turning to approach the airport.

The problem with the initials “UFO” is that they are consistently misused. When most people see or hear them they think “alien spaceship”, not what it actually refers to, an Object that is Flying but which is currently Unidentified.

Here’s a bold statement about UFOs. So far, without exception, not one UFO has turned out actually to be an alien spaceship. Not one. It’s just like predictions of the End Of The World. Despite some religious cult predicting the end of the world every year, not once has any of them been right. Not once has the world ended. Not once has a genuine alien spaceship been seen.

Of course there’s no shortage of books, TV programs and above all web pages devoted to alien visits to earth. If you do a Google search for “aliens on Earth” you get over 78 million hits. In fact, I suggest you do exactly that as soon as you get a chance. Visit some of the links you find and you’ll learn one sure thing although it’s not about aliens, space travel of advanced technology. You’ll learn that a sizeable proportion of the human race is utterly insane. It’s a very good way of finding web sites written entirely in capital letters (always a sign of internet psychosis), bizarre colors and some deeply peculiar beliefs.

The boring fact is that we are NOT being visited by aliens. Given that it’s estimated that there are over 3 billion cellphones with cameras in the world, why hasn’t there been one, just one, picture showing without doubt that aliens have been here? If our alien cousins have been popping over, I’d expect there to be even a little bit of evidence to prove it.

The really disappointing news is that aliens probably can’t visit. If our understanding of science is correct, and it seems so far to be, the distances between the stars are so horribly vast that the trip simply isn’t worth it. The nearest star to our solar system is over 4 light years away. In other words even travelling at the theoretical maximum speed it would take more than 4 entire years to get there and another 4 to get back. Easy to say, harder to do. The energy required to do this is almost beyond imagination. It’s calculated that to accelerate one ton of matter to just one tenth of light speed would take 125 billion kWh. That’s roughly the output of a very large power station running continuously for seven years, just for one ton of spaceship. Given also that the spaceship would have to carry it’s own fuel to accelerate and later decelerate, the energy required is cosmically vast. Given that the journey times would be measured in tens of years, if not centuries, we’d need to find a way of putting people to sleep for all that time. It’s just unbelievable.

Just in case anyone’s in doubt, the laws of physics apply to aliens as well as us.

And why would we, or aliens, do it anyway? What possible purpose would it serve? What purpose would it serve for aliens to do the same?

Of course it’s impossible to stop people fantasizing about alien visits and why should we? I like alien movies as much as anyone, but they’re movies, just fantasies, just entertainment. They’re not real.

None of this stops people making the leap from seeing a UFO to thinking it’s a space ship. In the last few months I’ve seen stories of people reporting UFOs, thinking they were alien, but which turned out to be the plant Venus, floating Chinese lanterns, insects caught in front of a camera, car headlights on a distant hill, planes near a military airbase and on one occasion the Moon. None of these false sightings of alien spaceships turned out to be real, they were all mundane, everyday things. Of course that doesn’t mean aliens won’t arrive tomorrow but I suspect it’s as likely to happen as those predictions of the end of the world, homeopathy being proved to work or a TV evangelist turning out to be honest.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend Post - Where did the moon come from?

My father used to tell me that the Moon was made of cheese.

I didn’t believe him. Just like I’m told I didn’t believe in Father Christmas or any other mythical creatures. Maybe it was because I had the good fortune to be born and be a curious child in one of the historical golden age of science and engineering, the 1960s. In that decade and in the early 70s humanity achieved some remarkable things. The most obvious was the triumph of the missions to the Moon.

The Apollo missions were famously inspired by President John F Kennedy, who, in 1961 told the US Congress of his plan for "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before the end of the decade.

There were several reasons for this. One was that Kennedy was desperate to get back in the lead in the so-called Space Race. Only 6 weeks beforehand Russians cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, leaving the Americans lagging behind. Although space exploration wasn’t itself a defense priority any perception of weakness or being in second place was going to be a Cold War propaganda disaster for the USA.

The more uplifting motivation behind the program was a simple human one. Like our cousins, the other great apes, perhaps the one thing we have that separates us most from other species is our curiosity. It’s human nature to want to know what’s on the other side of the hill. Exploration of the world and of space has always fascinated humanity and in the 1960s Kennedy encouraged that with resources, money and a very limited amount of time.

Perhaps the most influential of all the reasons for this was the least planned. Out of this spirit of exploration came innovation and inspiration. There were also enormous economic benefits. It’s been suggested that for every $1 the US Government spent on the space program they received $8 back indirectly. The technological developments you and I now have that came from, or were encouraged by the space program is almost endless. Miniaturization of electronics, water purification, scratch-resistant lenses, smoke detectors, improved solar panels, fire resistant materials, radiation protection, air purification, MRI scanners and even sports bras were all influenced by the space program.

c/o Wikipedia
For me the most important thing was the generation of kids (like me) who were inspired to get involved in science and its often neglected cousin, engineering. The program created a genuine sense of excitement with regular launches of the enormous Saturn V rockets and the sense of achievement that resulted when a mission succeeded. There was also a genuine sense of danger, that technology was being pushed to the very edge as with the Apollo 13 mission which so nearly ended in disaster. If ever you want to see a movie that teaches you about creativity, perseverance and leadership watch Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13.

The trouble today’s generation face is that the space race is over. For various reasons, manned space exploration is effectively shut down. This is partially because of the expense but also because of the growing realization that it’s simply not worth the money. The latest exploratory missions have all been robotic, mainly because robots don’t need air, water and food and they don’t ever get bored. They also don’t expect ever to come home to earth. Robotic missions are therefore cheaper than manned ones. The science done by the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars is wonderful but let’s be frank, it’s not thrilling.

c/o Wikipedia
Last week there was fairly widespread news about new findings on the origin of the Moon. Despite stories of it being made of cheese, the new evidence seems to confirm a fairly recent theory that the Moon was formed from the debris following a collision between the early Earth and another planet, perhaps one the size of Mars. The scientists behind this, from Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed a phenomenon called “isotopic fractionation” and looked at fractional differences in the geology of the Moon and Earth.

The details of the research are fairly interesting to those of who aren’t geochemists but the thing I found surprising (silly me) was how little coverage the story received. This was about something meaningful, how our Moon was created. Forget the myths and fables, forget the business about cheese and forget superstition. This is about how it was really created, using the latest evidence.

But perhaps that’s the biggest result of the absence of excitement in Science these days. At the moment it’s hard to get people excited about the one thing that can possibly improve their lives in a genuine, measurable and meaningful way: genuine progress in material, knowledge and well-being.