Matt Nisbett farts again.

March 31, 2009

Oh dear, it appears that Matt Nisbett has had another little accident.  He appears to have farted again.

Several scientist authors and pundits, led by the biologist Richard Dawkins (2006), argue that the implications of evolutionary science undermine not only the validity of religion but also respect for all religious faith. Their claims help fuel the conflict frame in the news media, generating journalistic frame devices that emphasize “God vs. Science,” or “Science versus religion.” These maverick communicators, dubbed “The New Atheists,” also reinforce deficit model thinking, consistently blaming conflict over evolution on public ignorance and irrational religious beliefs.

Dawkins, you see, is now a maverick communicator, with all the negative connotations that are supposed to go with that phrase.  The fact that Richard Dawkins is arguably one of the most prominent and successful authors on modern evolutionary biology, and – entirely unlike Nisbett – a highly respected author, is not enough to save him from Nisbetts desulutory remark that he is merely a maverick communicator.   According to Nisbett, if you cast doubt on religious faith, you’re a maverick (small ‘m’ please.  Big ‘M’s are reserved for failed Rebulican presidential candidates) communicator.  Bollocks Nisbett.

Suprisingly, Nisbett actually initially allowed some comments on his blog (his is one of very few on Science Blogs that moderates comments for approval) which were almost universally negative.  It took him a while to respond to any one, but eventually he posted a comment, which started with this statement:

I think many objections are clearly addressed in the text of the chapter excerpt or in past articles I have published on framing.

The word “clearly” has a meaning.  I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.  If the objections of the overwhelming majority of people commenting on his spiel were addressed “in the text of the chapter excerpt or in past articles”, then he’s not communicating clearly – which one should imagine would be a problem for someone touting themselves as a communications expert.

He continues:

For example, I explicitly note that as a social critic and pundit, there is nothing unethical about Dawkins expressing his personal opinions about religion.

A statement that I think most normal people can agree with.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure Nisbett is normal.  Consider:

Yet when Dawkins and other New Atheists also use the trust granted them as scientists to argue that religion is a scientific question, that science undermines even respect for religious publics, they employ framing unethically,

A normal person would most likely interpret this as a direct contradiction.  Dawkins is entitled to write about his own personal views, but because he is a trusted scientist (Ha!  Has Nisbett never heard of Ken Ham or William Dembski?) it is unethical for him to do so.

Nisbett would appear to have closed comments on that post now.  His next comment (with no intervening comments from his first) starts, “Some commenters”.  Some of those commenter commented after his first post – I know, I was one.  I called him out for the lying sack he is.

Why is Nisbett a lying sack?  Consider this:

The conflict narrative is powerfully employed in the 2008 anti-evolution documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. By relying almost exclusively on interviews with outspoken atheist scientists such as Dawkins and the blogger PZ Myers, Expelled reinforces the false impression that evolution and faith are inherently incompatible and that scientists are openly hostile to religion.

If you’re not familiar with the story behind Expelled, you may not immedeatly see why this is not just a lie, it is bordering on libel against PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.  I haven’t seen the film, but as I do know the story behind those interviews, and to say they were heavily cut and what made the final film would appear to be a gross understatement.Nisbett then goes on to describe the film as an attack on atheistic science, and how awful it is, and how much damage Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers have done to the integrity of science in the US, finishing off with:

By the end of its spring 2008 run in theaters, Expelled ranked as one of the top grossing public affairs documentaries in U.S. history.

In truth, Expelled was a disaster.  It was a complete and utter failure.  Nisbett here is lying.  Oh, I have no doubt whatsoever that when pushed he will say something along the lines of “it was the highest grossing public affairs documentary in Spring 2008, so long as one only includes April 2nd, somewhere around lunch-time, and limits the category of ‘public affairs documentary’ to ‘Expelled’, therefore I’m not technically lying”, but the simple fact is that Nisbett is a professor of communications – he knows full well that the impression he wants to impart with his words is – to be as generous as I possibly can be – only in the most strict sense backed by the facts.  But the new expert on ethics that is Matt Nisbett ought to know that a lie by ommission is a lie.

Nisbett is a liar.


Jeni Barnett looses the internets.

February 11, 2009

Until a few days ago I’d never heard of Jeni Barnett.  But now she has had her name plastered all over the internet as an excellent example of How To Loose The Internets.

Briefly, Jeni Barnett is a radio and television broadcaster who hosted a three-hour phone-in broadcast stating that vaccines cause autism.  Ben Goldacre at caught wind of it and used a 40-minute clip of the show to play a quick game of Bad Science Bingo.  Normally this would have been left at that, and life would continue as normal, and most people outside of London would have remained blissfully unaware as to who Jeni Barnett was and how woefully ill-informed she is on the current state of vaccine research.  Unfortunately it didn’t end there.

LBC – the company who pays Jeni to broadcast to Londoners – decided to send in the lawyer attack-dogs to Ben Goldacre claiming copyright infringement on the clip he’d posted on his blog.

Now whether you agree with the lawyers or not, this is a monumentally dumb thing to do.  Ben Goldacre is an extremely popular blogger, and his posts regarding the piss-poor state of science journalism in the UK is both frightening and enlightening in equal measures.

Can you guess what happened?

The clip in quesion is now on Wikileaks, and pretty much every corner of the internet.  It is now being discussed in everything from the most obscure blog (which I think is officially this one) to the most popular.  Pretty much everyone with the most vaguest interest in good science is now aware of LBC and Jeni Barnett.

And do you think it stops there?

Does it hell.  Ms Barnett later decided that she was only interested in a health debate, and posted a comment to this effect on her blog, whilst calling Ben a “Bad Scientist”.  As she’d invited comment, people – informed people – commented.  Of course, being interested in debate, she removed the comments and closed comments on her blog.


The comments are freely available here.

Jeni Barnett: EPIC FAIL,

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.

Could you answer this question

June 28, 2008

Silly post time.  Could you answer this question correctly, seen this morning on the children’s program, “50/50” (10:00, BBC 2)

Which planet in the solar system is furthest from the Sun

This was a multiple-choice question, with the possible answers being:

a) Pluto

b) Saturn

c) Neptune

Answer below the fold

Read the rest of this entry »


April 21, 2008

Universal Mecca Time

Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

Erm, do you think that someone should tell them that a point on the surface of a sphere is not the centre of that sphere?  I’m really not sure if these guys are being serious or self-satirical, but something tells me they’re being serious.

One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca’s was in perfect alignment to magnetic north.

A geologist said this? Aligned with what? Mecca lies roughly on 40˚W, whilst Magnetic North is roughly 114˚W.  You might as well claim that T’aiei in Taiwan or Manila in the Philippines should be  0˚Longitude!  But then you need to account for the slight problem that magnetic north moves. This is staggeringly stupid thing to say.

He [I’m assuming this is the geologist] said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.

Not quite.  England didn’t actually go around the world imposing GMT by force on the world.  In the long struggle to pin-point longitude, the English just got there first. Several times.  If you go to the Grenwich Observatory in London you’ll discover that there wasn’t one GMT, but a progression of GMT’s as more telescopes were built and courtyard space was slowly used up in an ironically pointless endeavor to try to discover a way of pinpointing Longitude at sea using telescopes.  The story is fascinating and is actually a story of very English blunders. If you’re interested, the story is brilliantly brought  to life in Dava Sobel’s book, “Longitude” (ISBN: 1-85702-571-7)

A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim “qibla” – the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.

The cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy is clearly following in the footsteps of his more deluded christian theologians.  I’m not familiar with this “qibla”, but I’m reasonably certain that it no more “proves” that Mecca is “the centre of the Earth”, than the Bible “proves” the Madam Adam and Eve story is true.

This one’s a good’en though:

The watch is said to rotate anti-clockwise and is supposed to help Muslims determine the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth.

Kudos to them. Hope it works.  The only problem I can think of is that they may need to think about points that are not “on Earth”.  It’s apparently bad enough for astronauts in Low Earth Orbit; how will they respond should humankind ever venture to the stars, or – the various mutually incompatible gods forbid – to the galaxies?

The meeting in Qatar is part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Koranic precedents for modern science.

It is called “Ijaz al-Koran”, which roughly translates as the “miraculous nature of the holy text”.

Also known – just like creationist apologetics – by the more technical term, “bullshit”.



42 was a JOKE

March 7, 2008

Trust the BBC to ruin a perfectly good joke. 42 was a JOKE. J-O-K-E. JOKE. Or, (testing out my Japanese), shijuuni wa joudan desu yo!

But the other interpretation is that the joke was wise. It shows that seeking numerical answers to questions of meaning is itself the problem. Digits, like a four and a two, can no more do it than a string of digits could represent the poetry of Shakespeare.

Huh? I must have missed that in the book. No; it was a joke. A play on words. Read the whole thing, then wonder who writes this stuff. The author is one Mark Vernon who, as an agnostic, has this little quiz, which is a bit silly. I looked at it, and a couple of questions showed that the results are likely to be somewhat skewed:

1. Whether you think God exists or not, would you say you hold your position:(a) as a matter of personal belief; (b) because it is the most likely; (c) as a matter of scientific fact?

Okay, so I’d go with ‘b’. It is overwhelmingly unlikely that any form of supernaturalism exists. (You’ll note the bias, incidentally, in the question: you think God exists. Capital ‘G’, singular).  That’s a perfectly reasonable question, with a suitable answer provided. So why, when you get to question 6, are you confronted with:

4. Why do you think people do not believe in God? Is it:(a) because of churches and people in religious authority; (b) because science has disproved God; (c) because of the way they were brought up?

Erm. 42? I can’t answer that question honestly with any of the options provided! Yet in the first question, a perfectly reasonable answer was there that could also answer this question: Because it is most unlikely! Whilst I dislike churches and religious authorities it is nonsense to assume that one does not believe in gods simply because of the people and institutions who run the god business. And it is equally nonsense that science has “disproved” gods; it has simply given them vanishingly few places to hide.

Take a look at the test, then be prepared to submit your answers for a lesson in pop-philosophy at its worst. If you answered question 5 (what is science) as “reductionist” (remembering that this is from three answers where you can only provide one):

The problem is that the whole is so often more than the sum of its parts. Something is, therefore, always lost in the reductive approach, supremely so in the case of life which, like a dissection, cannot be reassembled when dismembered. Incidentally, science is also circular and mechanistic!

No shit Sherlock. But you posed a question, then provided three mutually exclusive answers that you then admit aren’t mutually exclusive, then assume that I didn’t know that they’re not mutually exclusive. Way to insult your readers.  Of course, if you then factor in that science is not purely reductionist, but is also mechanistic and circular, his objection vanishes in a puff of pure logic! 

And the answer to question 6? I tried both evolution and the big-bang. For evolution, I got:

Continuing the spiritual exploration of science, you next said that the origin of life by evolution is the best of the three theories. Actually, it is the worst. Evolutionary theory is silent on the origin of life.

Once again Vernon is being insanely presumptive in assuming that I – not being a professional philosopher – don’t understand the difference between abiogenesis and evolution-as-the-origin-of-species. The problem is that Vernon is wrong: abiogenesis is an evolutionary process, as PZMyers points out. Evolution is both the theory of the origin of species, and the theory of the origin of life.

If I answered question 6 as big-bang, I get:

This is not a bad theory at all. But it does beg that question, what caused the big bang? The best answer is random quantum fluctuations – something sprang out of nothing – which is, of course, to say nothing about why that something sprang.

Which demonstrates that Vernon is no more a cosmologist than he is a biologist. The “best answer” is NOT that “something sprang out of nothing”. Perhaps Vernon should look into Brane theory, and what exactly is likely to have existed at the singularity at the time of the big bang. (Hint a massive amount of energy is not, “nothing”. Remember: E=mc2). Amusingly, I got 82/100 if I answered “big-bang”, but only 80 if I answered evolution. I can’t bring myself to answer, “something sprang out of nothing”, although – according to Vernon – I already did. Twice.

Mark also didn’t like my answer to question 12, “Is science a religion” (hint: I answered, “no”):

Science does depend upon belief, in a certain way. Science seeks evidence for its theories.

Can you say, “equivocation”? Science seeks evidence, ergo it is a belief. Huh? I almost can’t parse that sentence! His reasoning?

However, that evidence can, in general, only show a theory to be more likely than not. In other words, science depends upon the belief that what is most probably right is true in reality.

No, no, NO! Science looks at the available evidence, and chooses the theory that best matches the evidence, until a better theory comes along. But that new-and-improved theory had damned well better be able to explain the existing body of evidence, as well as make predictions about future bodies of evidence or it is useless. It does not say, “this is therefore true in reality”, and it gets a lot of flak from people wanting to deny science (creationists, Mark Vernon) for this very admission.

No wonder this man can take a joke and twist it out of all proportion, whilst not even getting the original context right.  It’s almost enough to drive a man to Vogon poetry.