Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

Importance of minority viewpoints

Originally published as Opening up climate science can cut off the skeptics as a guest post on the Guardian‘s Lay Scientist blog.

It’s not uncommon to find lists of scientists who hold alternative viewpoints being promoted by those who disagree with established scientific theories. Minority groups use these lists as part of the ‘proof’ that the vast body of evidence in support of a theory is somehow wrong, or to imply a greater amount of controversy or confusion within academia over a topic than there is in reality.

In my belief, this comes from the mistaken view that the scientific community need to agree on a single world view for a theory to have a solid grounding. After all, most people’s education of science is of established principles in a school textbook, which are then examined in
a situation where there is usually a single correct answer. This, in turn, leaves those outside of the community to see even a small division of belief on controversial theories as evidence that the leading explanation does not hold up to scrutiny.

Of course, this isn’t true: those in academia are constantly debating and modifying their ideas over time as new evidence comes to light, and those who hold minority viewpoints are valued for their opinion, but only when they can provide evidence for their stance, not for their ability to sign a petition.

The body of science is like a branching tree of concepts and theories: those at the trunk of the tree are concepts for which there is little debate, such as the existence of gravity or that the world is round, while the periphery of the tree is where the research happens, where new ideas develop and grow or die, and as the evidence gets stronger so the branch thickens.

In contrast, issues are presented to the public as if they are black or white. Headlines often read as if scientists have proved or disproved a whole subject in a single study. In reality, topics are sets of theories that evolve over time with the advancement of knowledge. The important thing to understand, though, is that the core of the research is generally a constant; it’s the fine details that keep developing and moving forward.

Of course, sometimes, a result will shatter preconceived ideas, but this is incredibly uncommon. When it does happen, it is also normally the result that will define an individual’s career, not something to be covered up. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity eventually superseded the concept of the luminiferous aether.

If we want people to respect the scientific community and understand its own confidence in its output, we have to also accept that it’s not the individual scientists or skeptics who hold weight. We need to tear down the ivory towers of the past and remove the walls dividing the public and academia. Journals need to be open, and in complex cases, such as the evidence for climate change, we need to provide the skills and tools that people need to discover the answers for themselves. If we ask them to to accept our viewpoints just because we are the experts, we have already lost. We would be no different than anyone who stands on a pedestal and proclaims the truth.

Climate change is a massively complex topic and it is often assumed that dissemination of the body of evidence is beyond the understanding of the public. Professor Andy Parker, who is leading the ATLAS project in Cambridge, recently stated “[We should] give the public a bit more credit, they may not have the mathematical training, but they have the desire, interest and logic to understand”. If Andy believes he can explain the theories behind something as complex and abstract as subatomic particle physics to a lay audience, we should take note.

Scientific inquiry will not always provide the right answers first but, unlike other methods, it will eventually get there even if it has to admit its mistakes. There is plenty that we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that, given the same resources, tools and time, there is no reason for the public to disagree with the established consensus.


Forgotten Knowledge: The Discovery and Loss of a Cure to Scurvy

Humans and their primate relatives are part of just a handful of animals that are unable to synthesise vitamin C due to a mutation in a single enzyme. Thankfully, most fresh food is abundant with it, in particular citrus fruit. This means that the condition is rare in the western world, with cases normally due to poor diet choice. Sadly for those in less industrialised nations, where food is scarcer, or in countries that rely on food aid, the condition still persists. The treatment is to reintroduce vitamin C to the diet, but this requires both a correct diagnosis and a source of vitamin C. Left untreated, scurvy is inevitably fatal. Before the discovery of a cure, scurvy played a massive role in naval history, particularly in the age of sail when there were limitations on carrying fresh supplies of vegetables and fruit, and long periods were spent on board ship. Ships could not travel far from port out of fear of the deadly disease. It was not unheard of for ships to return to port with 90% of the crew having succumbed to scurvy.

In 1747, James Lind conducted what is probably one of the first examples of a formal clinical trial into the prevention of scurvy in sailors aboard ships. His work was based on that of Johann Bachstrom, who had noted in 1734 that scurvy was solely due to ‘a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens’. Lind conducted his work whilst on board the British naval ship HMS Salisbury and, as was common at the time, many of the crew were suffering from the effects of scurvy. He carried out his studies on twelve of the crew who had succumbed, subdividing them into pairs for the experiment. Isolating these six groups from the rest of the crew, he provided them with various treatments alongside their rations, which included cider, acid, seawater and lemons. At the end of the six day trial, Lind had used the entire supply of fruit on board the ship, but his findings would change naval history: the pair who had received the lemon supplement to their diet made a staggering recovery and were once again healthy, while the others had worsened. This study clearly showed that scurvy could be prevented by the addition of citrus fruit to the sailors’ diets. These findings were eventually adopted by the Royal Navy in 1790, but only after a long period of Lind’s work being mostly ignored. The tactical advantage of a cure to scurvy during the Napoleonic wars was massive: ships could now hold blockades for years at a time. Other navies soon adopted a similar solution (although the merchant fleets delivering the cure to the blockade still suffered).

However, during Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole, one of the Royal Navy surgeons is recorded as saying: ‘There was little scurvy in Nelson’s days; but the reason is not clear, since, according to modern research, lime-juice only helps to prevent it’. So how did the crew on an expedition at the beginning of the 20th century not know how to treat an ailment that had been successfully cured over 100 years earlier? The loss of knowledge has been attributed to several factors. Firstly, Lind showed in his work that there was no connection between the acidity of the citrus fruit and its effectiveness at curing scurvy, in particular noting that acids (sulphuric or vinegar) alone would not suffice. Despite this, it remained a popular theory that any acid would suffice in place of citrus fruit. This meant that when the navy changed from using Sicilian lemons to the West Indian lime, for presumably colonial motives, the result was profound: as the limes were more acidic based on popular thought, it was assumed that they would be more effective, yet they actually contained much less vitamin C and hence cases of scurvy reappeared. Further, fresh fruit was substituted with lime juice that had been either exposed to the air or to copper piping, resulting in at least a partial removal of vitamin C from the juice, negating its effect. The discovery that fresh meat contained high levels of vitamin C, and so was also able to cure scurvy, led to the belief that perhaps it was not caused by a dietary problem but instead was the result of a bacterial infection gained from tainted meat. Finally, the development of steam shipping had led to time at sea being reduced and hence the difficulties in carrying fresh produce were lessened, reducing the risk of scurvy. This meant the reduced effect from either copper pipes or the change to West Indian limes were less profound, and so over time the information was gradually lost.

It was not until 1907 that a professor of hygiene and bacteriology at the University of Oslo, Axel Holst, along with a paediatrician named Theodor Frølich, became interested in beriberi, which is now know to be caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Their hypothesis was that beriberi was the result of a nutritional deficiency, and they used guinea pigs as test subjects for their experiments to prove this. The choice of test subject was crucial: outside of humans and other primates, very few animals are unable to synthesise vitamin C. Guinea pigs, by chance, are one such creature and, while they did not develop beriberi, they did develop the symptoms of scurvy. Had Holst and Frølich chosen almost any other animal, their work would not have discovered that guinea pigs develop scurvy when treated on a diet of just grain. They went on to show that they could prevent scurvy by a simple treatment of lemon juice, something that Lind had shown a century and a half earlier. While their original publication on these results was not well received, as the idea of nutritional deficiencies was seen as something of a novelty at the time, the model they had developed with guinea pigs was vital to the work that would succeed them. It was Albert Szent-Györgyi who used this animal model and who eventually discovered vitamin C in 1930, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

The work of James Lind on board of the HMS Salisbury will no doubt forever be remembered in the history books as a great turning point in science, while the loss of a cure to scurvy will continue to be overlooked. The cost of these past mistakes to human lives may firmly in the past, but the tale still holds relivence within the modern world. Time an again during the history of scurvy indivuals pushed their own agendas and beliefs over the results of science, the consiquences of which should not be forgotten.

Previously published in the Michaelmas 2010 edition of BlueSci and on the Naked Scientists website in November 2010

Credit to Maciej Cegłowski who’s own piece on Scott and Scurvy, brought this tale to my attention

“It was a triumph”

On Tuesday 26th October, Ian Ridpath spoke at ‘Skeptics In the Pub’ in Cambridge on the subject of UFOs and common misinterpretations that lead to their being assigned as extraterrestrial. His talk was fantastically successful: the room was rammed, and every feedback form that we received said that the speaker was excellent. While Ian shot to fame over 30 years ago following his investigation and explanation that the Rendlesham Forest incident was not extraterrestrial in origin (his evidence on which I felt was both compelling and complete), on Tuesday he provided up-to-date and relevant examples – quite a contrast to Nick Pope’s beliefs that Ian’s arguments are wide of the mark!

‘Skeptics In The Pub’ is not limited to skeptics; all are welcome to attend. So for me, the real success of the evening was that we had a true believer in the crowd, whom I will call “Steve” as I did not catch his real name. When the crowd was asked at the start if anyone in the audience is a believer, Steve made himself known and sat patiently throughout the entire talk. During the break, he spoke politely to my co-organisers and explained that he had large misgivings about Ian’s theories. He behaved exactly as a civilised person should, despite his contrasting views, and that is something I both appreciate and respect.

The Question & Answer session at the end of the talk provided Steve with an opportunity to voice his views on the subject. (Please be aware that I am writing from memory rather than notes.) His linchpins were firstly the Disclosure Project; and secondly sightings of TR-3B, stating that his friends and family had told him that they worked on UFO-related technologies in the United States. Ian responded that he felt that the Disclosure Project was doomed to failure, but with regard to the latter there was little that he could comment on without evidence from either side.

Steve voiced that Ian’s dismissal of the Disclosure Project was insulting to those behind it and many people were facing jail for what they had said. He unfortunately did not elaborate on this; however, Ian provided the names Sgt Clifford Stone and Gary McKinnon. From his comments, Ian obviously thinks little of Sgt Stone, and I will leave you to investigate him if you wish to find out why this may be the case. Gary McKinnon, who was accused of hacking into the United States military and NASA computers between February 2001 and March 2002, is of course an interesting character, but while it has been established that he did break into the military systems, he has no evidence to show for his troubles.

One interesting and sound point about the Rendlesham Forest incident that Steve made, and that had not been mentioned up to this point during the course of the evening, was that four keys witnesses had visited the landing sight, had seen a craft, and had made a note of the symbols that were on the side of the said craft. Ian responded that there was only one witness, not four, who had claimed that these events had occurred. Also, the notebook detailing the symbols only came to light within the last five years, some 25 years after the incident occurred. He continued that the dates and times in the notebook did not correspond with the witness’s statement (although the witness himself claims this is not true). Ian therefore felt it was reasonable to dismiss this evidence. (As a further point, when I drove Ian to the train station later that evening, he elaborated that the witness claimed the ship was not an alien craft; that he had received messages telepathically, telling him it was actually a ship from the future searching for human DNA, sent to solve their failing gene pool. Interestingly, Ian suggested that this is often overlooked by those who seek UFO evidence.)

During his talk, Ian also mentioned and showed footage of the Phoenix Lights, which he claimed are in fact the result of flares on parachutes used by the military to light up the ground in the dark. Records of the dates, times and locations of these flares being dropped correspond with those of reported sightings. Steve, however, stated that evidence suggests it was laser light, not that of flames. The respectful nodding and polite disagreement from Ian up to this point quickly changed to an adamant disagreement. It took a while for the audience, who were unaware of this theory, to catch up. Once Steve confirmed that the spectroscopic analysis was carried out using a recording, the audience tried to explain the flaws of this method: film or digital recordings do not capture the whole spectrum and instead only record how it is made up from primary colours. This problem is confounded by the fact that television screens only display images in terms of red, green and blue. An example of this problem would be a yellow sodium streetlamp: a recording of it would show it as a mixture of red and green (which, due to limitations in the human eye, is indistinguishable from the actual streetlamp), while spectroscopic analysis of the streetlamp would show just two sharp lines of colour at two different frequencies of yellowish light. There is also the additional problem that laser light has a general property of coherence, which is not replicated in video recording and is also lost over the distances at which the recording is taken. It was at this point that Steve agreeably took his seat at my request, to allow other attendees to ask their questions to Ian. While he was obviously very frustrated and in strong disagreement with the speaker, he never lost his temper, and to this I give him credit.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, Steve was not able to finish voicing his viewpoints and opinions. I, for one, believe we need to listen to and discuss a variety of topics such as this when someone is bold enough to attend a Skeptic event. I agree it is frustrating, but personally I have an interest in gaining a deeper insight into and understanding of what people think and why they believe what they do. (Hence, I was disappointed on leaving the venue that another attendee said ‘Thank you for shutting that idiot up’. I never intended to ‘shut anyone up’, rather I just wanted to give everyone a fair chance to ask questions.) I have therefore invited him to submit a talk for Soapbox In The Pub on 8th February 2011, to which I hope many of you will attend, and I hope that if Steve does take up my offer then it is an experience he will find useful.

If you are interested in applying to give one of several 15 minute talks yourself, please do contact me. Details can be found on the Soapbox In The Pub website.

Note: I’ve tried to make this as unbiased as possible and not to present either side’s arguments in too much detail. I would be very interested to read about your own experiences, and hope that you will add them to the comments.

In Defence of Faith

Originally published as Truth and Consolation in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free – Belief section.

When my grandmother, a devout Catholic, faced death she turned to the
only atheist in the room: my father. The cancer had metastasised throughout and she was left blind, in pain and barely able to speak, yet she still found strength to proclaim that “even this is better than oblivion“.

That event was over twenty years ago and it is now roughly ten years since I shed the religious indoctrination of my childhood. Instead, I now run a successful meeting group for sceptics and critical thinking, an environment where atheism is almost ubiquitous. I hoped in such an environment that constructive discussion would always prevail but, as with any tribal belief, there are few within the group who are willing to truly discuss religion out of fear of undermining their social standing. The result is that arguments supporting faith are given the condescending rebuttal that a parent might give to a child’s fanciful stories.

Why, then, defend what I don’t believe in? When a religion demands faith and stipulates that God will never provide evidence of His existence, we have a dilemma. Science is based on the idea of a hypothesis and testing, but there is no clear test to prove or disprove the existence of a god. While a rational thinker will explain that there is no need to invent God to rationalise the existence of intelligent life, there is always an infinitesimal chance that they are wrong. The result for a sceptic is that they should have no issue with discounting God as implausible.

Beyond science, though, there is also the human aspect of faith. The inevitable reality of death haunts the thoughts of many. Science promises no hope of a different outcome and the majority of us will be forgotten a few generations thereafter. For some, faith provides the answers and they are comforted by the hope or belief of a purpose or life after death. I use the word “hope” as, for many, faith is not absolute, which many sceptics fail to appreciate. When a religion is called stupid or irrational, it is those with doubts who suffer and the perceived insults will only alienate them, while those with absolute faith will not be swayed by any amount of logic.

We therefore have to accept that science does not contain answers for that which cannot be measured. Furthermore, it is inappropriate to apply it to such concepts. There are at least some for whom religion provides a hope of answering those questions that science cannot, and in doing so facilitates the enjoyment of life. I therefore question if it is morally right to take away that hope when you cannot provide a suitable alternative.

Should we ignore religion altogether? No, but do not attack it for being without evidence; it is a pointless discussion. Question it, fight it even, when it is used to oppress, control or exert superiority over others. Just do not hurt the individual, the believer who does not want their hopes shattered. Perhaps I am wrong and it is nothing more than the ‘opiate of the people’, but if we want to promote rational and scientific thinking then trying to wage war on God is both pointless and futile. Instead, we should find common ground with those religions which are open to discussion and work to promote that. Many sceptics define themselves on the principle that factual truth is more important than belief. In the experimental laboratory, this is an absolute, letting belief cloud judgement makes science worthless, but in life a simple belief can provide the strength to enjoy the world. I believe the right to enjoyment of life is far more sacred than being right.

In spite of these views, I accept that when my grandmother made that final reflection to my father, her faith provided no comfort. At that point of already having undergone her last rites, it was the atheist she looked to for hope.

Not-So-Harmless Placebo

A while ago, I wrote to Pregnancy & Birth magazine complaining about an article which had homeopathy next to conventional medicine. I was unhappy with how they unfairly portrayed conventional medicine for varicose veins (there isn’t a magic bullet to stop them), while allowing the homeopath to say, as expected, they did have a treatment in the next column on the page. The result is that you make the conventional medicine look bad for being honest, and promote a placebo-based medication. You can see the letter (which Pregnancy and Birth rewrote) below and their response.

Please note that I’m not a medical doctor. When I sent the letter, I clearly stated that I am a researcher and have a PhD, hence the title.

Rational Thoughts

It has been a nearly a decade since the first claims that there was a link between MMR and autism hit the news, yet despite a mountain of evidence against the link there is still talk as if the debate is ongoing. The evidence is clear – there never was and isn’t a link between the two, but why do such ideas persist? The answer is that we are all terrible at rational thought due to what is called ‘confirmation bias’, a tendency for us to prefer information that confirms our preconceptions regardless of whether they are true. We’re all guilty of it – go in to any science lab and even there I’m sure you’ll find some ritual or voodoo for using a piece of old machinery which no-one dares question in fear that it might stop working.
Campaigning for rational thought appears to be a growing pastime, slowly breaking into the mainstream with advocates like Ben Goldacre and his ‘Bad Science’ column in the Guardian. In a growing number of cities one can find a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ group for rational debate on topics ranging from easily dismissed UFO and paranormal stories to the more emotive issue of holocaust denial. Times are changing and scientific method is growing up and leaving the classroom. Of course you may wonder what this has to do with you – you’ve never tried claiming you’ve been abducted by a UFO, well except maybe that one time you were embarrassingly late to a party and even then you didn’t think it would hold up against the inebriated crowd.
One may think that the average member of the public can continue to go uninformed with little risk, but the truth is far more sinister. In 2007 Russell Jenkins, who ran a centre which offered complementary medicine, died from a minor injury.[1] The reason was that on suffering the injury he shunned conventional medicine, and when it became infected with gangrene he instead treated it with honey and magnesium sulphate. While Mr Jenkins’ death is tragic and probably avoidable with a simple course of antibiotics, he died at age 52 as an adult making his own choice based on his beliefs – a freedom I’d have trouble denying and something on some level we should all be able to respect, though not without some remorse. The story of Gloria Thomas in Australia on the other hand is far more disturbing. Gloria died at the age of just nine months from eczema after her parents treated her with homeopathic remedies instead of conventional medicine. The parents were both charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence.[2] In light of these events can anyone really say that this pseudo-science is harmless? It’s hard to look at such an event without feeling that everyone has lost due to the lack of understanding of the dangers and risks of letting these myths persist. The list goes on – in 2006 a Newsnight investigation showed homeopaths advising customers to take their ineffective alternatives to anti-malaria drugs[3] and there are even some homeopaths who claim to treat AIDS.[4]
For those who are unaware, homeopathy was invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann and is based on his idea that ‘like cures like’. For example, if I have a problem getting to sleep I would take a dilute solution of something that keeps me awake or if I was ill I would take a dilute solution of a substance that causes the same symptoms. An important bit to the homeopath is the dilution which is carried out in successive steps with vigorous shaking, termed ‘succussion’. Homeopaths call this ‘potentization’. Hahnemann advocated the use of 30C dilutions, where C is his own centesimal scale, representing the number of times the solution has been diluted by one part in a hundred. I would hope at this point homeopathic remedies have lost all credibility with the reader, as a 30C dilution represents a dilution to 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1 % of the original concentration. This dilution is less concentrated than adding a single molecule of water to the entire mass of our sun! Or if you prefer probabilities, the chance of finding one molecule in the final dose is less likely than winning the national lottery jackpot five weeks in a row. The pseudo-scientific counter to this is that the water ‘remembers’ the material added to it, an idea first proposed in 1988 by Jacques Benveniste, nearly two hundred years after the method was originally put forward. In 2005 a Nature paper showed that all ‘memory’ of structure in water was lost in fifty millionths of a second.[5] From this we can say that unless the remedy is created by and administered to the comic book character ‘The Flash’ (and that his super-powers extend to his rate of metabolism) that any such memory will be lost before it passes the user’s lips. Even more importantly homeopathy has been tested in randomised controlled trials far beyond what is needed to conclusively show that it does not work beyond the placebo effect. This research is all to appease those who argue that science cannot explain everything (a totally null point I might add, as all researchers know science can’t currently explain everything, otherwise they would soon be unemployed). Often advocates will claim a few select examples of trials where it has appeared effective, but these are either not properly conducted or too small to be statistically significant. Depressingly, they cling to this evidence, displaying a perfect example of the aforementioned confirmation bias. Despite all this you can still get homeopathic treatment on the NHS, which spends around £4 million every year on it, and the government also supports four NHS Homeopathic Hospitals. It is even possible to walk into any Boots store and buy a 30C remedy, with no clear indication that the product you are buying is completely ineffective and only a placebo. Many homeopaths would argue this is about patient choice. I would argue that an uninformed choice is not choice at all.
The dilute nature of homeopathy makes it an easy target, sometimes to the detriment of the highlighting of dangers of other alternative medicines. For reasons that will become clear why I feel it should be highlighted, one example is chiropractic. You may think modern chiropractors no longer believe that they can treat anything by manipulating the flow of energy though the body as their founder did (chiropractic first being used to treat deafness), but rather, as I thought, that they concentrated on back pain. In reality, many offer a wide range of treatments. In an article in the Guardian, science author Simon Singh commented that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) promotes ‘bogus’ treatment to help with childhood issues such as asthma and colic, despite no evidence that they are effective.[6] The result was that, instead of being engaged in a scientific discourse, he was sued for libel by the BCA. You may hope that this kind of use of the libel law in the UK is limited to just alternative medicine but two years ago Henrik Thomsen, one of Europe’s leading radiologists, presented his evidence relating to the possible dangers of the drug Omniscan, with the result that he is being sued by GE Healthcare for libel in the UK. It would seem that at the very same time that people are starting to finally give call for rational thought, the UK libel law is being used to squash scientific debate.
[5] Cowan ML, Bruner BD, Huse N, et al. (2005) “Ultrafast memory loss and energy redistribution in the hydrogen bond network of liquid H2O”. Nature.
[6] This article originally appeared in the Guardian on Saturday April 19 2008 on p26 of the Comment & debate section, it has now been removed due to legal action.