Saturday, March 31, 2012

Quantum claptrap

There are certain words that whenever you hear them you should expect to be exposed to nonsense. They include “lifestyle”, “authentic” and “opportunity”. Whenever you see or hear these words you can rest assured that very soon someone is likely to ask you to separate yourself from your hard-earned money.

However the word that irritates me the most, because it’s almost ALWAYS used to talk rubbish is “quantum”. About half the time it’ll be news stories in the papers or on TV about a new discovery in the science of quantum mechanics, the study of sub-atomic particles. Almost always these news stories are rubbish. Some miniscule finding from a laboratory will be misinterpreted by reporters with no understanding of science and before you know it the papers will be full of stories of time travel, human invisibility and creating black holes in Switzerland. I’m not making any of these up by the way, all of these have been mentioned in recent news stories. Not one of them is a true representation of what really happened and is likely to happen.

That’s partially because quantum mechanics is difficult to understand. It’s counter-intuitive. Much of it seems to contradict our common sense. It relies on assumptions that are difficult for us to understand. You need to accept that light, for instance, is simultaneously a wave and a particle. It relies on us imagining staggeringly low or high temperatures, speeds and pressures. Like much of advanced mathematics it relies on us trying to imagine the unimaginable. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

This is usually the time that religious people start making comparisons between advanced physics and religious faith. Both, they will say, rely on belief in things that can’t be seen. This is a distortion and a rather desperate attempt to steal legitimacy for fictitious beliefs. The difference is simple. Even though quantum physics relies on imagining unimaginable things there is concrete evidence that they are true. The satellite navigation device in your car, your cellphone, the computer you use at work and the devices in hospitals that diagnose and treat cancer all rely on quantum physics. All of these things came from our understanding, and the FACTS of physics. Although we can’t see quantum events ourselves we can see their effects. It’s like a police officer investigating a car accident. He wasn’t there at the time of the collision but he can see the skid marks on the road, the trail of broken glass and where the broken vehicles ended up. He can work out what must have happened. In exactly the same way scientists can see the real-life effects of sub-atomic particle collisions.

Unfortunately that’s not the only time you see the word “quantum” being abused. The other time is when quacks, charlatans and frauds try and use the word to describe their bogus devices, treatments and cures.

At various places around Botswana there are bogus “therapists” offering their health-related services using a device often called the QXCI. This is no more than a box of simple electronics that makes some remarkable claims. The initials stand for “Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface”. There’s that word. You can tell this is going to be claptrap, can’t you?

A South African web site that markets this device claims that it:
“is an incredibly acurate (sic) biofeedback stress reduction system, combining the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics”
The web site explains how this device works. Its “multi-layer faclity enables dysfunction unravelling” which, they claim, is “equivalent to radonic operation”. Best of all it explains that “Most computers are binary: 1 or 0. Quantum software is trinary - basis for artificial intelligence”.

This is all monumental claptrap, rubbish and nonsense and the purveyors of this hogwash must know this.

They’re not the only ones. The importation of these devices is banned by US authorities because of the dangerous claims the producers make. A spokesman for the FDA said “This is pure, blatant fraud. The claims are baloney. These people prey in many cases on consumers who are desperate in seeking cures for very serious diseases.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the inventor of this machine is the self-styled “Professor” Bill Nelson, an American with an impressive range of fake qualifications. Hilariously (you couldn’t make this up) Nelson also performs as a tranvestite singer under the name Desiré Dubounet and lives in Hungary, a fugitive from US justice, on the run from fraud charges.

This is a good example of the dangerous and fraudulent use the word “quantum”. It’s dangerous because of the chance someone with a real disease will use it instead of seeing a real doctor. It’s fraudulent because the purveyors of this silliness want your money in return for lying about their claim to be able to cure disease.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Weekend Post - Einstein seems to have been right all along

I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. It looks like Einstein’s theories are still safe. His suggestion that the speed of light can never be exceeded seems still to be true.

Last year, amongst huge fanfare, some Italian scientists published results suggesting they had been able to break one of the fundamental laws of nature. They claimed that they had managed to force a beam of particles to travel faster than the speed of light. Admittedly only very slightly faster than light, but even a little bit would have been enough. Their beam of neutrinos had travelled all the way from the CERN laboratory in Geneva across the border into Italy, a trip of 730km, and they had arrived 60 billionths of a second earlier than light would have covered the same distance. If this was true, if something really could travel faster than light, faster than 300,000 kilometers per second, then our understanding of the universe would have been wrong. After the results were announced the international media was full of headlines asking “Was Einstein wrong?” The internet remains full of conspiracy theorists, alien abduction theorists and every single psychotic-with-a-website who thought this vindicated their bizarre theories. This was a great day for them.

However the scientific world was split. A small number of scientists took the results and went on long, fantastic imaginative journeys. If this is true then reverse time travel is possible, we can reach the stars and every science fiction book you’ve ever read could become true. Well, that’s what the newspapers, TV news shows and the internet said.

The better scientists were skeptical. That is, of course, how scientists are MEANT to be. Just because another scientist has suggested something, that doesn’t make it true. The skeptics said that if this was shown to be true then clearly it’s remarkable but, they said, let’s slow down for a moment. Let’s see if these results are true before we jump to any conclusions. The results had to be exposed to the most critical, skeptical and demanding of all of science: peer review.

To their credit the Italian scientists did just that. They published their results and gave the international scientific community the opportunity to tear them to pieces. That’s the nature of the scientific process. You have an idea, you test it, you publish your results and your colleagues do their best to find a flaw in what you’ve done. It’s not a competition, it’s just a rigorous way of testing ideas. Most importantly you give other scientists the opportunity to try and repeat your experiment.

Here’s an experiment I did at home to illustrate this. Three members of my family all measured the height of my youngest son. They all did it in different rooms but using exactly the same technique. He stood against a wall, we rested a book on his head, marked his height against the wall and then measured the distance to the floor. The results were all different. All three measurements were slightly different. He hadn’t grown in between the measurements, gravity hadn’t changed and we all used the same tape measure. This crude experiment demonstrated that there are always tiny variations in experiments, tiny flaws, tiny mistakes that lead to tiny differences in results.

I’m not saying that the Italian scientists were this incompetent in their measurements, I’m just pointing out that experiments have to be repeated many times to be certain they’re measuring things correctly.

That has now happened. A different group of scientists at exactly the same lab in Italy have repeated the experiment. Remember that last time the neutrinos were a mere 60 billionths of a second faster than light. That’s one forty-thousandth faster than expected. This time? They travelled at exactly the same speed as light.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that this repeat of the experiment is wrong and the first one was correct. That’s why they should probably do it again. However, it’s safe to assume for now that Einstein’s theories and propositions are still ok for now. They’ve worked perfectly well for almost a century and they’re no reason to kick them out yet.

A spokesman for the lab, Dr Sandro Centro, sounds like a proper scientist to me. He told the BBC:
"We are completely compatible with the speed of light that we learn at school … In fact I was a little sceptical since the beginning … Now we are 100% sure that the speed of light is the speed of neutrinos."
It looks like the alien, space travel and time travel fantasists will have to wait a little longer before their ideas come true. Perhaps a lot longer.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Weekend Post - You can't trust your eyes. Or your brain.

You can’t trust your eyes. In fact you can’t trust any of your senses. Or even your brain.

One of the most interesting areas of scientific investigation is the study of perception. I remember that as a teenager I became moderately obsessed by visual illusions and wondering how my brain could so easily be fooled.

The image here is a good example. Which of the two horizontal lines is longest? The surprising answer, even when you know it’s true, is that both horizontal lines are exactly the same length. But that’s not what your brain tells you. Your brain demonstrates quite how easily it can be fooled when it fails to correctly interpret this sort of illusion.

There are hundreds of similar examples of such illusions, some much more complicated than this one. They all exploit the sort of perceptual mechanisms that evolved over millions of years that might have been useful in the jungle or savannah where our species originated but aren’t useful any longer in the world of newspapers, smartphones and the Internet.

The great realization is that illusions like the “Müller-Lyer illusion” shown above are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just our vision that can be deceived, it’s our entire brain. That’s when an illusion transforms itself into that much more dangerous animal, a delusion.

One of the most common delusions we can all easily experience is called “confirmation bias”. The Skeptic’s Dictionary describes this as “a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.” More simply, it’s the mistake of noticing and remembering things that confirm our prejudices and ignoring, or simply not seeing the things that contradict them.

I had a conversation with someone not too long ago who suggested that religious believers are more charitable than non-believers. He seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out that perhaps the two most charitable people in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both describe themselves as agnostics. He admitted that he knew this but had “conveniently” forgotten it. I think it’s plausible that this was because these facts didn’t fit in with his worldview. Similarly, it’s easy enough for those of us who describe ourselves as atheists to forget that the vast majority of Catholic priests, for instance, are decent people and not child abusers. We remember what we find convenient to remember, not what’s inconvenient. That’s a delusion.

Another example is homeopathy. Every piece of scientific research into homeopathy has confirmed what common sense suggests. It’s nonsense and has no effect. However there are vast numbers of people who swear by it based on anecdotes like “I had a cold, took a homeopathic remedy and within about a week I was better!”

Of course they were better. That’s how colds work, they go away after about a week or 10 days all by themselves whether you take a bogus remedy or not. People forget that but remember the time that they took the useless homeopathic remedy. Believers in so-called complimentary therapies remember the times that the delusional beliefs were falsely “confirmed”.

We also make the common mistake of assuming that correlation implies causation. Because two things happen at the same time or in parallel we assume that they must be connected and one must cause the other. A good example is the observation that increases in medical knowledge in the last century have coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of deaths from cancer. Does this mean that better medicine causes cancer? Of course not, all that’s happening is that the greater lifespan brought about by better medicine has caused people to live longer and older people are much more likely to die of cancer. Cancer is an old person’s disease. Now that we’re much less likely to die from smallpox, typhoid or violence we’re dying of different things instead.

In the same way, the assumption that more and more older people are dying of cancer is somehow caused by the new presence of cellphone masts is another delusion. There is no evidence that cellphone “radiation” causes cancer. In fact the evidence suggests that it doesn’t but it’s extremely human to notice that your aged relative died shortly after the local mast was erected and that one must have caused the other. Tragically your aged relative was going to die anyway.

The good news is that simply knowing about human psychology goes a long way towards combatting these delusions. The better we understand how our brains work (and sometimes fail) the better we can avoid dangerous delusions.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Weekend Post - How good is your science and maths knowledge?

How good is your science and maths knowledge? I think the answer is simple. It’s not good enough.

There’s an online science knowledge quiz I found, hosted by the Pew Research Center, that asks visitors 12 fairly simple questions about science. None of the questions are tremendously difficult. They include questions such as “Antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria. True or False?” and “Electrons are smaller than atoms. True or False?”

I know perfectly well that online surveys aren’t statistically sound, they certainly don’t represent the knowledge of the entire population but in this case I think the results tell us something. 46% of the people who completed the quiz didn’t know that antibiotics DON’T kill viruses. That’s presumably the same 46% of people who go to their doctor demanding antibiotics when they have a cold, not realizing that it will have precisely no effect.

More than half the people answering the questions did not know that electrons are smaller than atoms. Perhaps this isn’t as important as the ignorance about antibiotics and viruses but I still think it matters.

Like I said, this isn’t a representative survey of everyone in the world, just of those people who take the time to complete an American-hosted web quiz. However I suspect the results would be worse if we asked everyone else. The sort of person likely to complete the survey is someone already with access to technology, who can read English and who can understand how to click a mouse on a web page. They’re probably more science-savvy than most. It’s disappointing therefore that of all the people who completed the 12-question quiz, only 10% got every question correct.

A third of the visitors got fewer than half the questions right. The average score was between 7 and 8 out of 12 correct.

I think this is all very worrying. I’m not expecting everyone to have a comprehensive understanding of microbiology, quantum physics or stem cell research but these issues are becoming more and more important to humanity. Already we hear concerns expressed by politicians about threats of radiation from modern nuclear power stations, the perceived dangers of genetically modified foods and the risks from cellphone masts. I think the public needs to be better educated about these things so we can tell when a politician, a supposed expert or someone wanting our money makes scientific claims. We need a basic level of science knowledge to know when people talk nonsense. Like each of the three examples I gave above. All of those in fact pose no known danger but that’s not what you hear from so many so-called experts.

Of more immediate concern is our scandalously low level of mathematical understanding. I don’t know of any studies about our national levels of numeracy but the BBC recently reported on the National Numeracy campaign group in the UK. Their research showed that nearly half the working age population had numeracy skills no better than a child in primary school. They suggested that these people probably don’t even understand their own payslip at the end of the month. I don’t see a reason to suspect we’re any better in Botswana.

Chris Humphries, the chair of National Numeracy, said (and I completely agree with him):
“It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say ‘I can’t do maths’”. 
I often hear people saying that they can’t “do maths” almost as if they’re proud of it, as if it’s some sort of achievement. It’s unthinkable that someone would say that about their ability to read or write so why is it acceptable to boast of having no maths or science knowledge?

The Chairman of the UK’s Commission for Employment and Skills, Sir Mike Rake, said:
“Poor numeracy is the hidden problem that blights the UK economy and ruins individuals’ chances in life. It’s so often overshadowed by concerns about literacy, and yet there is evidence to suggest that numeracy may be an even clearer indicator of economic and personal success.”
Surely the same goes for us, in both maths and science. Our success as a nation will be based on our ability to communicate and function in a modern business world. If we’re going to be a successful nation in the future we urgently need a radically revised quality of maths and science education. Failing to do this might actually be the end of us.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Weekend Post - The threat from pseudoscience

The threat from pseudoscience isn’t just to our bank balance. It also threatens our health.

The biggest pseudoscientific health threat is probably from HIV/AIDS denialists who dare to suggest that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS and that ARVs are the agents causing illness, not curing it. Personally I’m not too worried about that in Botswana because we are one of the great ARV success stories. You can’t really argue with the effects of ARVs that we’ve probably all seen. There can’t be many people who don’t know someone whose health and quality of life have been drastically improved when they started the drugs.

Then there’s the even more dramatic influence the drugs have when given to expectant mothers. Before the PMTCT program around 40% of HIV positive pregnant mothers gave birth to HIV positive babies. After the program was introduced that figure dropped to less than one tenth of that. Each of those uninfected babies is a pretty good hint that it works.

I suspect that HIV/AIDS deniers might actually be happier if more babies died.

But not all pseudoscience is as threatening as this. What about the less harmful examples like homeopathy and reflexology?

The idea behind homeopathy is quite simple. But silly. Homeopaths will tell you that an ailment can be treated with minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those of the ailment. There is, of course, precisely no evidence that this is true. In fact the evidence shows that it’s all hogwash.

Homeopathy can’t work for a very simple reason. Homeopathic remedies contain no active ingredients. Homeopathic "remedies" are produced by repeatedly diluting a sample of the supposedly active ingredient. A homeopath might take a 1% solution of the active ingredient and dilute it repeatedly. After being diluted to 1% dilutions times it’s easy t work out that only 1 atom in every hundred billion billion will be of the so-called active ingredient. The most common forms of homeopathic remedy are actually diluted in this way thirty times, not just ten. There is simply nothing left from the original ingredient, not a single molecule.

So how do homeopaths claim it works? Apparently the water in which this ingredient once resided "remembers" that it once met the substance in question. Homeopaths talk seriously about "the molecular memory of water".

Want another absurdity? Homeopaths believe that the more diluted the liquid becomes the more effective it is. And another? The principle of homeopathic "succusion" states that the remedy becomes even more effective still if you thump it against the heel of your hand or a leather pad. I promise you I am NOT making this up.

Homeopathy is nonsense. It flies in the face of all that we have learnt over the last couple of thousand of years in the fields of chemistry, physics and biology. And common sense.

Reflexology is just as absurd.

Reflexology is based on the idea that the soles of your feet somehow map the structure of your body. A reflexologist will tell you that if she applies pressure to various spots on your feet it will somehow affect your organs. Squeeze here and your liver will be affected, tickle here and your spleen will be in top-notch shape.

This is nonsense. Every time there has been serious scientific research into reflexology it has been shown to have no more of an effect that having your feet massaged. Of course some of us might like having our feet massaged. It’s not my thing but people say it’s wonderfully relaxing and feels terrific. But that doesn’t make it medicine. It doesn’t make it true.

Both homeopathy and reflexology have been around for years but somehow manage to survive, probably because of human gullibility. But there are newcomers to the pseudoscientific family.

There are places in Gaborone where you can be plugged into an electronic device called either the QXCI, EPFX or the SCIO. This is a box of fake electronics about which some astonishing claims are made. One web site I found describes it as “an incredibly acurate (sic) biofeedback stress reduction system, combining the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics”.

Apparently it’s “multi-layer faclity enables dysfunction unravelling”. It is also “Equivalent to radonic operation”. Best of all it explains that “Most computers are binary: 1 or 0. Quantum software is trinary - basis for artificial intelligence”.

This is, of course, utter tripe.

You might wonder what “QXCI” means? It stands for “Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface”. Here’s your free scientific and skeptical tip for the week. Anyone who uses the word “quantum” when they are trying to sell you something is a fraud or a fool. Or both.

All of these things have one thing in common. They’re nonsense and they are all ways that frauds, charlatans and fools can take your money and keep it for themselves.


For a comprehensive summary of our success fighting HIV/AIDS see here.

If you want to know about the silliness that is homeopathy click here, here and here. For a summary of reflexology see here. For the absurd and dangerous claims made about the QXCI fraud see here.