Expelled exposed

15 April 2008

OK, you must have read about it by now. So here’s my contribution to getting the right Expelled to the top of the search rankings.

Nuff said.

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Aah-ta!

15 April 2008

While my son was having a bath the other day, we belatedly realised that a sound he has been making for a while – “aah-ta” – was his way of saying water. Duh!

Ever since, I’ve been pondering the mysteries of communication. Was this sound devoid of meaning, of information, before someone else started to understand it? Or is it enough for one person to intend something for some kind of signal to have meaning?

As far as I can tell, information is one of those concepts that, like money, becomes harder and harder to pin down the more you think about it. Wikipedia’s entry is certainly a confused mess.

This did make me think of Wittgenstein’s idea of a private language, but by this he meant something that could never be understood, not a poor attempt to communicate nor a poor ability to grasp a child’s meaning.


Qualified to lead?

28 March 2008

After the GW Bush debacle, many of us in the reality-based community support the idea of a science debate for the USS presidential candidates (Science Debate 2008). But it seems to me this idea doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Would you be happy getting brain surgery from a lawyer? Do you want chief executives determining minimum wage levels? Would you trust a professional soldier to determine whether defence budgets should be cut in favour of education? Should religious nutters like Tony Blair be allowed to determine scienctific or economic policies?  

It seems utterly bizarre to me that democratic countries choose to elect as leaders people who completely lack any knowlegde or understanding of key subjects, from the importance of randomised controlled trials to the Cuban missile crisis. Civil servants from China to Britain have to undergo tough exams, yet their leaders can be pig-ignorant. Why do we tolerate this? It’s crazy.

It seems to me every democratic country should, with the help of its citizens, develop a curriculum for politicians, covering everything from science to medicine to economics to history. There could, for instance, be a basic test politicians have to pass simply to stand for election, and a more advanced examination for politicians to undergo before they can take office.

Of course, getting agreement on a curriculum will be a challenging task in itself. But that debate could be very interesting in itself, in exposing the often-ludicrous beliefs on which many people base their everyday decisions. Ideally, of course, we should aim to eliminate all beliefs in favour of educated guesses.


Making the iPod shuffle perfect

28 March 2008

I like the iPod Shuffle. I especially like the fact that you can use it without ever having to look at it. When you spend a big part of your day dodging fellow commuters on busy trains and streets, you know how annoying it is when people bump into you because they’re staring at a mobile or iPod screen. As a music player, I really do prefer it to its bigger brethren, including the iPhone. 

That said, there are times when I would like to know what I’m listening to. And it seems to me there’s a simple way Apple or another software developer could make it happen: use Leopard’s built-in Text to Speech software to generate a short, small MP3 or AAC sound file naming the song title, artist and album for each track on the Shuffle. 

Ideally, it’d be good to be able to press some button combination to hear  this sound file when you want to know what you’re listening to. But it would be even simply to add the name, track and album speech file to the beginning or end of each track when songs are transferred to an iPod Shuffle. It wouldn’t be that difficult to do. Would it?


Natural breeding more dangerous than genetic engineering

3 March 2008

OK, that title is slightly mischievous. When I say natural breeding, we’re not talking normal hot plant sex here, but something even hotter: bombarding the hapless veggies with gamma radiation to induce mutations.

It might not sound very natural to you and I, but according to regulators around the world, this counts as natural compared with genetic modification. If you induce a change by genetic engineering, you have to prove it’s safe. Do it by mutagenesis and no one cares.

Except a team in Portugal are now claiming that mutatagenesis results in more changes in gene expression (which genes are turned on or off) than genetic engineering. For greater changes read more potential to produce (more) toxic substances. After all, plants are primed to produce toxins to deter those that want to eat them.

In fact, history shows that even old-fashioned conventional breeding can be dangerous. The Lenape potato bred in the 1960s turned out to have dangerously high levels of solanine, the toxin found in all potatoes. The Magnum Bonum, an century-old breed from England reintroduced into Sweden in the 1990s, was similarly toxic. (“Old”; “traditional”; “natural”: gotta be good, hmm?)

The kiwi fruit bred in New Zealand from an inedible (but not toxic) Chinese berry and introduced to the US in the 1960s never underwent safety testing and caused allergic reactions in some people (recently shown to be due to a protein called actinidin). Hybrids between ordinary potatoes and related species have been found to produce a novel toxin not found in either parent called demissidine.

The list could go on and on. My point is not that genetic modification is wonderful but that we should be wary of everything we eat, however it was bred or created.


“Faith schools”

15 February 2008

Many months ago, I signed a petition calling on the UK government to abolish faith schools. Tonight, I got an email telling me there was an official response.

Let’s start with the last line:

Many parents who are not members of a particular faith value the structured environment provided by schools with a religious character.

Now, why can’t state schools provide a “structured” environment? What is a structured environment anyway?

Parents like me want the best education for our children, and we’ll lie through our teeth about our beliefs to get it if we think the state-supported religious schools in our area are better than any others. I know lots of parents who have lied about their beliefs to get into such schools. I even know some people who have been asked to lie on their friends’ behalf.

Parents’ dishonesty has nothing to with any inherent superiority of faith schools, just the fact that these schools tend to have been around longer, have more money and, most of all, the pick of the best pupils.

It gets even worse:

Religious Education (RE) in all schools, including faith schools, is aimed at developing pupils’ knowledge, understanding and awareness of the major religions represented in the country. It encourages respect for those holding different beliefs and helps promote pupils’ moral, cultural and mental development.

I have no problem with teaching people about different religions. Teaching them to “respect” superstitious rubbish is another matter.

And the idea that “moral development” depends on learning about religion just makes me despair. We’re in real trouble if that’s true.

It get worse still:

In February 2006, the faith communities affirmed their support for the framework in a joint statement making it clear that all children should be given the opportunity to receive inclusive religious education, and that they are committed to making sure the framework is used in the development of religious education in all their schools and colleges.

Really? The faith communities support faith schools? Well I never.

They think children should be given the “opportunity” to receive religious education? Of course, they want the opportunity to spread their lies to impressionable young minds.

What is unbelievable, in this day and age, is that any government is sponsoring and supporting those lies, let alone the British government.

PZ Myers, I hope you’ll pick up on this on Pharyngula. You might think the US is behind Europe in terms of religion and evolution, but really, you’re way ahead of us in banning religion from state-sponsored education.


A load of shite

3 January 2008

OK, I’m coming to this party very late but I can’t let this go. Some reality-challenged editor at the New Statesman published this rubbish about global warming having stopped in 1998, which, as usual, lots of people leapt upon in their desperation to avoid facing the truth.

Personally, I didn’t have to look beyond the byline to know the article isn’t worthy of anything other than scorn. The author was apparently known among his erstwhile colleagues at the BBC as David Shitehouse for his habit of writing seemingly great scoops that turn out to be utter rubbish, or very old news rehashed, or both. (The other British science journalist whose work also deserves instant dismissal is Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times. If he writes it, you can be confident it ain’t true.)

The reality is that the long-term temperature trend is very much on the up, despite the fact that we’re at the low point of the 11-year solar cycle, which means we’re receiving less heat from the Sun than usual. See here, here or here.