Sunday, July 29, 2012

Weekend Post - Mythtakes

Tall and short, fast and slow, left and right, science and mythology, they’re all examples from the primary school classroom of opposites. Science is the exact opposite of mythology. Science is backed up by research, evidence and facts and mythology is backed up by, errrr, nothing apart from tradition. And often that tradition is meaningless and made-up anyway.

The problem is that myths are all around us, we’re surrounded by them. I’m not talking about innocent fairy-tales like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy but those so-called truths that are in fact lies and distortions and that many of us fall for. Personally I blame the Internet but some of them have been around for ages. Here goes.

Alternative” medicine. It’s nonsense. The distinction between “conventional” and “alternative” or “complimentary” medicine is a myth created in order to sell things. The only real distinction is between medicine that works, and fake medicine that doesn’t. As has been said before, we tested all the alternative medicines and the ones that worked became medicine. The rest is just a bunch of herbs, some of which smell nice.

Cell memory”. Despite what alternative therapists say, it simply doesn’t exist. Cells cannot remember things. Sorry to all those followers of The Journey, but cell memory is a myth. Find me a single piece of truly scientific evidence for it and I may re-consider. The trouble is there isn’t any. None.

“Darwin denied evolution on his deathbed”. No he didn’t. That was made up by a certain Lady Hope, a lying fundamentalist Christian who claimed she had been there at Darwin’s side as he passed away. No she wasn’t. She made it all up. She never met Darwin. Not even once so she couldn’t have witnessed a deathbed conversion that never happened.

Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness”. Well, I suppose that’s true, but only in the same sense that sneezing is an altered state of consciousness. Yes, hypnosis affects your brain but so does coffee. Hypnosis is just a mixture of extreme relaxation and some people being incredibly suggestible. There’s no magic involved, nothing deep and meaningful. Almost everything you’ve read or seen about hypnosis is utter nonsense.

Crystals have healing powers”. No, they don’t, they’re just pretty. There’s nothing special about crystals. They’re no more amazing than the glass in your window. Hang on, lenses are crystals aren’t they? If crystals could heal your ailments why can’t your spectacles?

“They’ve founds traces of Noah’s Ark”. A huge number of largely American Christian fundamentalists believe the Bible legend that Noah created an Ark and that it’s remains have been found on Mount Ararat in Turkey. No, this simply isn’t true. Much of this can be traced to a film-maker who said the Ark had been found, but the funniest thing is that this was a deliberate hoax to test the gullibility of certain religious groups. It was such a good hoax people still believe it!

“The Greeks and Romans stole their philosophy from Africans”. Yet another myth without any evidence. Much of this so-called “Afrocentrism” comes from Masonic texts. The Masons have a long history of making extravagant claims about their origins, much of it based on earlier books that, in turn, made up Egyptian history. These earlier texts were written well before we could read Egyptian hieroglyphics so Hey Presto, we have yet another myth. It’s a mythological chain made up of mythological links. Myths, all of them.

“Mary Magdelene was the secret lover of Christ”. How on Earth are we meant to believe this? It wasn’t “The Da Vinci Code” that started it, this story has been going on for ages. However as not one of the so-called historical documents is even slightly reliable how can we tell?

“Intelligence is related to race”. Well, as nobody can agree what either intelligence or race really are it’s all nonsense. It’s about as sensible as saying that “success in life” and “being a nice person” are related. We’re not going to agree on definitions of those either so it’s all a bit, well, mythic don’t you think?

“The author is a cynic who believes in nothing”. No, I believe in lots of things. Like truth that is based on facts, not just believed in because someone says we should. I believe in wonders like the safety glass that saved my eyesight when I had a car windscreen explode in my face a few years ago. An eye full of glass fragments and not even a drop of blood. That’s the sort of thing I believe in.

Some myths are fun. Those of us with kids have no doubt repeated many of them. I know I have. I’ve gone to great lengths to construct reindeer footprints outside my house on Christmas Eve, I’ve slipped Tooth Fairy money under the pillows of my children when they lost teeth and I’ve threatened them with eternal damnation if they disobey me. But none of these things are actually true. None of them are scientific, they’re all mythical and deserve either to be ignored or rejected by grown-ups. With the exception of entertaining immature children shouldn’t we abandon them?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weekend Post - Transplants

It’s hard to write this. A year and a half ago my Dad died. This was a tremendous shock because he was still fairly young, was fit and healthy and seemed full of life. It was a devastating experience for the entire family but despite the shock, the grief and the sense of emptiness we all felt, my mother in particular, there were nevertheless certain comforts about the way he died. The first was that the cause of death was a sudden and catastrophic burst aneurysm in his brain that caused almost instantaneous death. According to the doctors he would have known virtually nothing about it and the knowledge that he didn’t suffer remains a huge comfort to us all.

However there was an even greater comfort, something that happened after he died. Because he died in the UK the family was automatically asked if we would consent to his organs be transplanted to people in need. None of us had any hesitation in saying yes. It helped that he’d discussed it with us several times in the past and on every occasion he’d made it plain that after he was gone he’d be delighted if any part of his body could be used to help others. As a result of Pete’s death two grandmothers who never knew him now have working kidneys and are off dialysis treatment for the first time in years. Burn victims who didn’t know he existed were given skin grafts as temporary dressings while their own skin could be grown. Two blind people who’d never heard of him can now see. Trying to describe these events is the closest I ever come to using the word “miracle”.

Organ transplantation has become one of the great achievements in science over the last half a century. Despite some legends about transplants done in ancient history, genuine transplantation began in the early 20th century and as often happens it was prompted by warfare. Skin transplants began shortly after the First World War as a result of the burns so many soldiers experienced but these weren’t “donor” transplants. Skin was moved from an intact part of the patient to another, damaged part of his own body. The first successful donor transplant was in 1954 when a kidney was transplanted from one person to their identical twin, neatly avoiding the issue of “rejection”. This was the biggest challenge that transplant surgery faced. An organ taken from a donor would be rejected by the recipient’s body. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we had drugs that effectively suppressed the immune system’s desire to reject foreign tissue.

Despite what you’ll hear from some people the real breakthrough wasn’t in South Africa, where Christiaan Barnard successfully transplanted a heart in 1967. In the next few years over a hundred more transplants were undertaken in South Africa but very few of the recipients lived more than a couple of months. Barnard and his colleagues cracked the plumbing side of things but the real breakthrough was the immune suppressors that became available in the 1980s. [Yes, I know describing transplant surgery as “plumbing” is insulting but I’m sure you get the idea.]

As a result of these immune response suppressors in countries like the UK transplants can now almost be described as routine but this is just one technique to fix broken bodies. Carnegie Mellon University in the USA recently announced the award of a $1.1 million grant to a researcher to develop an artificial retinal implant to help people with impaired vision to see better. A wafer thin film will be inserted behind the retina with electrodes to stimulate nerve signals from the eye to the brain using signals coming from a special pair of glasses the patient will wear. In effect the glasses will act as a camera feeding information into the brain through the retina.

The long-term future is even more impressive. Regenerative medicine offers the possibility of growing replacement parts of the body to replace damaged or diseased ones. Using stem cells either from umbilical cord blood or bone marrow, bits of body might be grown to provide spare parts. So far this has been done with fairly simple body parts like cartilage, trachea and even the tip of a finger but it’s early days yet. Once we become more familiar with how to manipulate stem cells the possibilities are amazing.

However all of this faces the usual threats from ignorance and religion. Shortly after Pete died I mentioned his death and organ donation to a shopkeeper who knew him. He expressed the usual sympathy for our loss but pointed out that “in my religion we don’t permit transplants”. I restrained myself from pointing out that I felt that whatever religion he followed was clearly an immoral one.

There’s been the same objection in principle to the stem cell research that would enable regenerative medicine, mainly because of the mistaken perception by certain faith groups that stem cells are obtained from aborted embryos. While this is possible, and was once thought of as a source of stem cells, things have long since moved on to much simpler sources. But that hasn’t prevented the religious right-wing in the USA and elsewhere from resisting progress yet again.

Stem cells offer humanity an unparalleled opportunity to cure disease and restore damaged bodies. The forces of ignorance cannot be allowed to prevail. My Dad would have wanted progress.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Weekend Post - The Higgs

It had to be the Higgs boson, what else could I write about?

The recent discovery of persuasive evidence of the existence of this mysterious sub-atomic particle is one of the biggest discoveries in physics in recent decades. It really is a big one. Strangely it doesn’t actually introduce anything new to our knowledge of the universe but it does confirm our current understanding of how things work. For now.

This current understanding is usually called “The Standard Model”. This describes the different types of sub-atomic particles that comprise everything that we can see and sense. It describes particles such as electrons, the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, photons and a range of bizarre things that collectively comprise matter and it’s non-identical twin, anti-matter.

One mystery that the Standard Model couldn’t fully explain was mass, the amount of physical “stuff” that each particle comprised. Some had lots of it, some just a little, others none at all.

In 1964 Peter Higgs, a physicist at Edinburgh University, predicted the existence of an energy field throughout the universe that would explain why things had mass.

Higgs suggested that certain particles have mass only because they interact with this field, now called the Higgs Field, as they pass through it. The more particles interact with the field, the more they develop mass. Those that interact travel slowly as a result, those that don’t continue travelling at full speed, the speed of light. Photons, the particles that make up light, whizz around at blinding speeds, the particles that make up you and me lumber around like elephants in custard.

But all of this has been theoretical until recently. Two competing laboratories, Fermilab in the USA and CERN who host the Large Hadron Collider in Europe have been doing their best to discover evidence of Higgs’ prediction using a technique that doesn’t sound that advanced. Each has constructed massive particle accelerators that shoot atomic particles at each other at speeds very close to the speed of light and see what happens. You could argue it’s a bit like trying to work out how a cellphone works by repeatedly hitting it with a hammer but it is actually more thoughtful than that.

CERN, having a bigger and more powerful accelerator were the ones most likely to make any discovery and that’s what appears to have happened. Last week they announced that they had found convincing evidence amongst all those particles smashing around of something that really looked like a Higgs boson, one of the particles that makes up the Higgs field. Like all decent scientists they’re treading cautiously, they’re not actually saying they caught the real thing yet, they’re just saying that they saw something that was “consistent with” a Higgs boson. Like proper scientists they had done the maths properly. The chances of what they saw not being a genuine particle was at the “5-sigma” level of certainty, 5 standard deviations away from the mean, in other words there’s only a 1 in 3.5 million chance that this isn’t genuine. As the Director General of CERN said: "As a layman I would now say I think we have it."

There is one major misunderstanding that many people have experienced about the Higgs boson. For some unaccountable reason, much of the media decided to refer to it as the “God particle”, a reference to a popular science book published twenty years ago. The particle of course has nothing to do with God, religion or anything “spiritual”. Higgs himself has rejected the term, not because he is religious, in fact he’s an atheist, but because he doesn’t want his theory to offend people who have religious sensibilities.

So where do things stand, now that we’re confident the Higgs field exists?

The Standard Model is still with us, but there’s still a lot of things we don’t know. Perhaps the most mysterious is the existence of “dark matter”, the matter that our understanding of physics says is out there but we just can’t see. About 95% of the universe is invisible.

Unfortunately, covered up by the almost hysterical reaction to the Higgs’ discovery was another, much quieter science news story, one that’s perhaps just as important. A paper published in Nature announced the first observations of wispy filaments of dark matter between galaxies connecting the much larger clumps of dark matter whose enormous mass give the universe it’s gravitational structure. While the word “filament” might imply that these things are small and insignificant in fact they’re massive. The filament identified is estimated to be a billion trillion kilometers long and has a mass a hundred trillion times greater than our sun. So not exactly small.

The wonderful thing is that in the same week scientists have discovered something unimaginably small and something else unimaginably massive, both of which were predicted but not yet spotted. Both perfect examples of the scientific method. Create a theory that explains things, make predictions from it, identify how it can be tested and then sit back and wait.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Weekend Post - Wishful thinking

You can’t make things happen just by wishing for them. No, you really can’t.

Despite what New Age mystical thinkers like the authors of The Secret will tell you, positive thinking is utterly useless. If you make the mistake of buying a copy of The Secret, you’ll learn that their nonsensical “Law of Attraction” suggests that positive thinking will magically lead to positive results. In the same way, thinking sad thoughts will lead to sad things happening, anger will beget anger and homicidal thoughts will transform you into a combi driver.

For a moment let’s ignore the fact that this is nonsense. Does this really mean that Jews got themselves Holocausted because they weren’t thinking positively enough? Did slaves get kidnapped and murdered because they weren’t looking on the bright side of life? Do murder victims deserve it? That’s what The Secret implies.

It IS nonsense of course, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that wishful thinking works. In fact there’s evidence that it doesn’t. It’s not exactly the same thing, but there HAS actually been some experimentation into one form of magical thinking: prayer.

Does praying for sick people actually help them? Millions of people are told by their religious leaders every week to pray for the sick and unfortunate so it must work, mustn’t it?

No. It doesn’t. While there have been experiments showing some benefit, so far all of them have been discredited. One of them was even undertaken by a mixture of researchers who didn’t actually exist, others whose names had been hijacked and another who was a convicted criminal.

One of the very few properly controlled, truly scientific experiments was undertaken by a Harvard professor in 2006. A sample of 1,800 heart patients was divided into three groups. Group 1 were prayed for by unnamed strangers but didn’t know this was happening. Group 2 were not prayed for and also didn’t know this. The members of Group 3 were prayed for but they were told this was happening. The real test would be whether there was a difference in outcome between Groups 1 and 2. Did the prayers offer any benefit to people who didn’t know it was happening? The results (pdf file) were disappointing for the believers. Precisely no difference. The prayer had no observable effect on people who didn’t know they were the “recipients” of it.

However the really interesting thing though was what happened to the third group, the patients who knew strangers were praying for them. Members of this group had a noticeably greater level of complications. It seems that knowing that people are praying for them actually seems to have made them more unwell. Whoops.

The non-religious equivalent of prayer, often used in business, therapy and sports, is visualization. People are taught to picture mentally their success, their happiness and prosperity and are taught that this will help these things come true.

The science is simple. Visualization works but only if you do it the right way. Despite what the mystics will say, imagining success doesn’t work. What DOES work is imagining HOW you might succeed. Successful athletes don’t visualize winning the race, they visualize how they will win it. They picture leaving the starting line, how they accelerate, how they control their breathing, how they maintain their speed and how they cope with the pain. Students who visualize HOW they’ll study for that exam do better than the ones who just imagine getting an A grade.

I’m not really a big believer in self-help books but if you are interested in making changes to your life and you want to use techniques that actually work, go and buy a book called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. Wiseman is a psychologist who has done genuine research into the vast array of self-help myths and talks about the things that actually work and dismisses the pseudoscience that doesn’t. He discusses exactly how techniques like visualization can actually help but also covers how to do better in interviews, reduce stress and even how to do better on a first date and it’s all based on scientific research. And the reason the book is called 59 Seconds? It’s because every suggestion he gives can be understood in less than a minute.

Wiseman also recently wrote an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which he discussed the fallacy of positive thinking. In particular he mentioned the studies showing that students who visualized success in their examinations actually ended up studying less and performing more poorly in the exams. Another study showed that graduates who fantasized about getting fantastic jobs actually received fewer job offers and got lower average salaries.

The irony is that positive thinking and visualization are perhaps the worst things you can do to achieve success. Maybe instead you should try the scientific approach. Get off your backside and take some action instead of just fantasizing. The science will support you.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Weekend Post - Vaccinating against intelligence

Intelligence is dangerous. What’s more dangerous is skepticism. Worst of all is the combination of both.

It’s not that knowing more about the world and questioning received wisdom will directly threaten you but it they will both expose you to things that you might not want to experience. Things like uncertainty, doubt and the acceptance of ignorance. The nature of science, the primary tool used by skeptical, intelligent people to conquer ignorance, is that it’s incomplete. There are things we don’t know, at least not yet. One day we will. We’ll know whether dark matter and dark energy exist, we’ll know whether string theory does indeed reconcile relativity and quantum theory, we’ll even know why combi drivers drive the way they do. One day.

But some things we DO know. There are things we know for sure, about which there is absolutely no doubt. Gravity exists and we now have a very good theory that explains it. Evolution happened, is still happening and will continue to happen and we have theories that explain it very well. More practically we know for sure that vaccinations work, they protect us against dreaded diseases and they’ve extended our lifespans enormously. That’s why it’s horrible to hear of cases of resistance to vaccination. Earlier this month the Pakistani Express Tribune reported on objections to an anti-polio vaccination campaign in the Punjab region of Pakistan:
“When the local cleric, Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti found out about the campaign, he immediately went to the biggest mosque in the area and declared that polio drops are ‘poison’ and against Islam. He added that if the polio team forced anybody to partake in the vaccination campaign, then Jihad was ‘the only option’.”
Clearly this particular religious leader is an idiot. As a result of idiocy like this, the Indian Express reported that polio is back.
“Eight cases were detected in the Khyber tribal region. Polio cases have also been reported in areas like Rajanpur district of Punjab and Larkana district of Sindh that were free of the virus since 2004-05.”
It’s not often that progress is actually overturned and the forces of idiocy drive us back into the Middle Ages. With a little luck the pragmatic Pakistani authorities will enforce some reason and rationality and Pakistani kids can live life with one fewer threat to their health.

However it’s not just the ignorant that oppose vaccination.

In the UK in 1998 a doctor called Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study in The Lancet incorrectly suggesting that there was a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. He even invented a fictitious medical condition that he called “autistic enterocolitis”.

This caused a major panic in the UK that spread worldwide. Unfortunately it took many years to fully expose Wakefield as a fraud. In 2004 the UK Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer revealed Wakefield’s fixing of experimental results, his improper and unethical treatment of children and his corrupt financial interests. Faced with this The Lancet fully retracted the article and the UK’s General Medical Council formally investigated Wakefield’s conduct. They were so horrified by his conduct that he was struck off the medical register in disgrace. There were even calls for him to be prosecuted.

But the damage was done. MMR vaccination rates dropped significantly. In the UK the vaccination rate dropped from 90% to 73%. In the USA more cases of measles occurred in 1998, following the reports, than had occurred in the decade beforehand. Obviously nobody can prove this beyond doubt but it’s likely that Wakefield’s activities killed children.

The fascinating but dreadful news is that despite Wakefield and his ideas being completely discredited, despite every single piece of evidence showing that childhood vaccination is a life-saver, vaccination levels in the developed world haven’t recovered. Worse still we can’t make the easy assumption that the parents of the non-vaccinated children are all stupid. In fact according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, unvaccinated children in the USA were more likely:
“to belong to households with higher income, to have a married mother with a college education, and to live with four or more children”.
The irony is that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to protect your children’s health. Part of this is undoubtedly the higher levels of curiosity that intelligent and educated parents are likely to express. In particular smart people (like readers of the Weekend Post!) are more likely to surf the web to research important decisions. The problem is that the Internet is filled to the brim with a mixture of lunacy, idiocy and lies. That’s if you can avoid the porn and celebrity gossip. The pseudoscience available on the Internet is dangerously prevalent.

Many examples of progress are mixed. While nuclear power is the safest way to produce electricity we all find radiation scary. The internal combustion and jet engines have each made travel easier but they bring pollution. The internet can be wonderfully empowering but it’s full of garbage.

Vaccination is an exception. It’s saved and prolonged everyone’s life and there is virtually no downside to it. The terrible irony is that the greatest threat this remarkable bit of scientific progress faces is the very same intelligence that created it.