He said…What?

September 12, 2008

Reading through today’s headline over at the National Secular Society, there’s a few headlines all dealing with one question: Creationism.  The Times, in particular, issues the headline, “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools“.  Later, over at the BBC, was the headline, “Call for creationism in science“.  A Times editorial on “Unintelligent design“, an Independent article stating, “One in 10 pupils believes in creationism“. A bizarre analysis, again from the Times stating, “You need to understand your opponents’ argument“.  What’s with the sudden interest in creationsim?

Well, it all leads to one thing: a scientist – the Prof./Rev. Michael Reiss – is saying that creationism should be taught in schools.  And not just any scientist: Scientist, ordained minister, and member of the Royal Society.  We are in very muddy territory indeed if a member of the Royal Society – and a biologist at that – is endorsing creationism.  The Times actually went further, proclaiming that:

Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.

If this is true, then we really are in deep do-do.  The position of the Royal Society, when it was last embroiled in this farce of a “controversy”, was categorically that creationism is not science.  Have they suddenly performed an about face?

Well. No.

What the Prof./Rev. actually wrote can be found here, and this appears to be the crux of his argument:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

Now, if I’m reading this correctly, he’s not saying, “side must be set aside to discuss creationism in the science classroom”, he’s instead saying, “if a child asks, or mentions, creationism, the correct response is not to say, ‘we can’t discuss that at all’, but to say, ‘okay, defend that statement'”.  And I think he’s right.  Especially as he goes on to clarify:

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationsim or intelligent design observe equal time.

He’s not saying, in any way, shape or form, that either intelligent design or creationism are valid scientfic viewpoints, or represent any form of challenge to evolution. Rather he’s saying, “let’s show how science works“.  Simply hand-waving and dismissing the idea does not teach children anything: instead, he’s saying, show them how there pre-conceptions differ from the way science works. And he’s right: this is hardly novel. Take physics as an example.

Almost all of modern physics is counter-intuitive, yet it is by far the best description of the world we see.  We are taught in schools that two objects of different weights – a feather and a lead weight, say – when dropped in a vacum will drop at the same rate.  This runs counter to our every-day observation that the lead weight will fall faster.  Similarly, we are taught that an object at motion will remain in motion unless a force is appled against it.  But if you roll a ball along a straight plane, it will eventually stop – the physical truth runs counter to normal experience.  It has to be explained that the discrepency is air-resistence.  In many respects, it could be argued that if a person has not experienced the “huh?” moment when newtonian physics is explained to them then they probably haven’t understood the implications, and probably never felt the, “Oh!” feeling of exaltation when they finally do get it.  I regularly meet people who, even in adult-hood, still don’t understand that an object in orbit, whilst aparently weightless, is not mass-less, and make eroneous assumptions based on this.

Evolution is the same.  Evolution – just like modern physics, and all good science – is overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and is overwhemingly backed by predictive power, but is overwhelmingly counter-intuitive.  Humans and apes share a common ancestor.  And, in fact, we’ve got common ancestors with every mammal.  Huh?  On the face of it, it makes no sense. Yet it is absolutely true.  The kids coming into the classrooms to be fed these apparently nonsensical viewpoints may well believe that humanity was created, because they have no other frame of reference.  They haven’t learnt what science is.  Surely nothing could be better for the teaching of evolution – and the teaching of science in general – than to point out why creationism isn’t scientific, and why intelligent design isn’t scientific.  All this guy is saying is, “teach kids critical thinking”. Otherwise, all you’re doing is teaching them a bunch of facts they don’t understand, and can never connect to their own lives.

And he’s appropriately cautious too:

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said.

I’m deeply dissapointed that an honest assesment of how to explain evolution in the classroom is distorted and grossly misrepresented by the media in an attempt to garner a few newspaper sales.  I can imagine the glee with which creationists, on both sides of the pond, will look at these headlines and shout, “See!  Even the Royal Society agree with us”, when they, most profoundly, do not.

LHC goes (almost) live!

September 10, 2008


And, not unsurprisingly, the world stubbornly failed to come to an end.  Not that – even if the scientifically illiterate doomsayers were right – the world could have come to an end today: they’re only firing protons one way around the ring, which means no actual collisions yet.  But it’s still cool – it means it looks like it’s going to work.

This is a fantastic day for particle physicists, and I can’t wait to see what new information will be coming out of this thing in the years ahead. Cosmic Variance has an excellent list of what may or may not be found by the LHC. My personal favorite on that list is, “Something that Has Never Been Predicted”.  Sure, if they find Higgs – which is what everyone seems to be talking about – then it confirms one field of physicts, but how much more exciting if they don’t!

One unfortunate effect of this, of course, is the nut-jobs.  Not just the doomsayers, but the naysayers. Such as the one highlighted on the BBC’s own report, from their “Have Your Say” section:

I think it is disgraceful that huge sums of cash have been spent on this project

Pfft. Twaddle.  Far from being “disgraceful”, this is finally a step in the right direction: science, especially in the UK, is woefully under-funded.  Nowhere near enough money is spent on science – you just have to look at the fate that nearly befell Jodrell Bank to see that!  And what does that science spending bring? Technology!

Too many times, a science project is criticized, because it’s money that could have been spent on feeding the poor, without understanding that it is precisely science that provides benefits to the poorest regions of the world.  How do you record about famine in a remote part of the world? Satellite technology, digital video technology, broadcasting technology. All Science.  How do you co-ordinate a world-wide response to a natural disaster? Aviation technology, GPS technology, communications technology – including the WWW developed at CERN. All Science.  How do you type a message to a BBC website complaining about money spent on a science project being “disgraceful”? By using a computer: a device that functions as well and as cheaply as it does thanks to the discovery and improvement of semi-conductor technology, which required an understanding of Quantum Mechanics: SCIENCE.  Does this woman think her computer technology just dropped out of the sky?

Science is cool: it comes up with really weird results (seriously: just think about what’s physically going on in that Intel Core 2 processor – that’s weird!), but it changes our understanding of the universe, and enables us to control our environment in ways we wouldn’t have foreseen before experimentation. Yes, it costs money, but it’s worth every damned penny, and people who don’t see that should just pack up their damned computer, and stop spouting nonsense on the networks science created.

UK man did NOT invent the iPod.

September 10, 2008

From Slashdot, I came across this article, stating:

Apple has admitted that a British man played a part in developing the iconic and extremely profitable iPod, although he has so far received no money for his invention.

Let’s be quite clear: this is an absurd claim.  Why? Well, from the same article:

In 1979 Kane Kramer from Hertfordshire filed a patent for a digital music player that stored just three and a half minutes of music to a solid state chip – limiting media options to just one short song.

And what is the iPod?  Well, until recently, the iPod was a hard-drive based product.  And it could contain a little more than three and half minutes of music.  And this guys patent expired. 20 years ago. Furthermore, the iPod was successful, not because it was some unique new technology, but because it had a working – useful – interface.

Nonetheless, a company was set up by Kramer to bring the IXI to a commercial release, but it slipped into the public domain in 1988 when the firm failed to raise the £60,000 needed to renew international patents.

Okay, so the patent failed to be renewed (not unsurprisingly; who’s going to pay good money to carry around one song in an age when portable cassette players were inexpensive), but the article carries on to state:
Because of this patent lapse, Kramer has received no money from the sale of any of the 163 million iPods Apple has so far sold.
And neither did he receive money from any other MP3 player manufacturer.  Shouldn’t that minor fact have clued this clueless journalist into something: Apple are not the only company manufacturing digital audio products – either hard-drive or solid-state based.  But the fact that this claim is patently (ahem) absurd, nothing stopped it from making it into Wikipedia (correct as of 09/09/08):
In order to defeat a lawsuit from patent holding company Burst.com, Apple finally admitted in September 2008 that the true inventor of the device was not in fact employed by the company; it was Kane Kramer who patented the idea of a “plastic music box” in 1979, which he called the IX.
The reference for the above quote, incidentally, is CNet, which makes this extraordinary claim:
The iPod was, apparently, invented not by some genius at Apple (not even a British one) but by a British furniture salesman who left high school at 15 and still has not been paid a dime for his brilliance.

And who does CNet reference in order to justify this claim?  The Daily Mail. Chosing the “big bad American company screws over hard working Brit” angle:

A staggering 163million iPods have been sold since the device was launched by Apple in 2001.

But Mr Kramer, in contrast, last year had to close his struggling furniture design business and move with his wife Lorraine and children, Jodi, nine, Luis, 14, and Lauren, 16, into rented accommodation.

And the proof they provide that Apple should pay this guy for expired patents that don’t bear any resemblence to the iPod?  Well, have a look at the sketch yourself.  This really is Flat Earth News: aka. Making stuff up.

Kramer did not invent the iPod.  Kramer is not entitled to a penny of the sales of the iPod, the Zune, the Walkman MP3, or any other digital audio device.  And the news people – once again – are making stuff up.