Tag Archive | science

A tale of two crimes

In the local paper, two crimes.  In one crime, a man was caught drink-driving for the fourth time in ten years.  The other, a sixty-four year-old man with no previous convictions caught growing cannabis.  The convictions are very different.  The drink driver, who has a history of putting his own and other people’s lives at risk whilst in control of a deadly weapon, gets a four-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and a four year driving ban.  The cannabis farmer is jailed for twenty months.

This is what passes for justice in the UK, applied through a blurry lens of morality which our society should have already outgrown.  I can’t see a rational argument for putting sixty-four year-old William Smith, who has hurt no-one, behind bars.  Yes he broke the law.  He supplied cannabis for profit.  But what risk did this man pose to society?  Judge Jeremy Freedman said to Smith:

“You know very well cannabis, albeit a Class B drug, causes much harm and misery within the community and that is why it is prohibited.”

Ill informed nonsense.  The scientific evidence that cannabis is less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol is clear cut.  That’s not to mean that there are no dangers, there is certainly evidence of health problems related to cannabis use, but much of any ‘harm and misery within the community’ will be down to the criminal supply chain because cannabis is illegal.  This ‘harm and misery’ though, pales into insignificance against the huge cost to society through alcohol related illnesses and crime.  The biggest harm from cannabis use?  I’m guessing that it’s otherwise harmless and law-abiding people becoming criminalised and brutalised by an out-dated legal system and black-hatted judges.

Judge Jeremy Freedman didn’t provide a judgement, it was a moralising sermon.

A recasting of UK drugs law to reduce the harm of drug use is long overdue, despite prompting from successive government science advisors, but whilst there are politicians desperate to look tough on drugs and judges like Jeremy Freedman passing moralising punitive judgements, it’s difficult to have a sensible grown up discussion about a rational drugs policy.

On a side note, Smith’s capture was another in a long line of cannabis arrests featured in the Gazette due to nasally skilled police officers sniffing out cannabis with their super sensitive schnozzles:

“Officers attended the address because of the strong smell of cannabis actually coming from the address.”

Yeah, right.  They would make mint hunting truffles.


Witchcraft in 21st Century UK

This is seriously fucked up:

Some young HIV patients are giving up their medicine after being told by Pentecostal Church pastors to rely on faith in God instead, doctors warn.

It is so far off the scale of wrong.

Presumably if the witchcraft fails, it’s not a god’s fault; the blame lies with the hopeless mug who just didn’t have enough faith.

Recommending that someone abandons medical treatment and replace it with prayers and magic water is ignorant, irresponsible and dangerous.  That should be obvious.  That religious leaders use their authority to do so and with impressionable and pliable young people whilst hiding behind the untouchable shield of faith, demonstrates how despicable religious people can be.

If you believe in fairy tales and magic and you keep it to yourself, you’re at worst eccentric and harming no-one but yourself.  However, if you spread that idiocy and seek to convince other people to stop taking their medicine, it makes you a danger to your fellow human beings.

Whilst it looks like it’s ‘only’ a small number of churches where this occurs, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  You can see how it can grow in an environment and culture where people accept faith healing as a reality, like:

Pentecostal pastor Stevo Atanasio, from the East London Christian Church, said that among his congregation, blind people had recovered sight, deaf people had heard again, and what were considered terminal illnesses had been cured.

This delusional bullshit is all too common.

We live in a society where mental illness dressed in mystic robes is given a free pass and access to vulnerable and young people.  If someone gives health advice based on superstition their advice could at least make someone unwell, or at worst, kill.  Religious leaders have authority and power, but they also have responsibility for their actions.  (I say ‘religious leaders’, but the same applies to occult ‘healers’ of all flavours of delusion.) 

If someone gave financial advice based upon manufactured information, they could end up with a prison sentence.  Anyone who advises someone to abandon medical treatment in favour of supernatural spells and wishful thinking deserves the fullest condemnation from our society on the way to a stint inside a prison cell, no matter how well meaning they feel they are.

Fact free foolishness

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Aldous Huxley

David Potts, South Tyneside’s councillor for the bunga bunga party, put a remarkable example of science illiteracy on display for everyone to see.  Last Thursday, he declared on Twitter:

“I wish people would realise that climate change is a total myth backed by zero evidence.”

I’m not sure what he thinks of the masses of evidence for climate change that has been collected over decades.  The many years of work dedicated by scientists, the millions of pounds worth of experiments, the satellites and a planetary network of climate data collection.  If it’s a ‘myth’, did the legions of scientists make it up?  Is there a massive conspiracy by a shadowy green cabal with a diabolical plan for mind control?  Could all of those scientists be wrong?

Not likely.

Most climate scientists agree that the evidence points to one conclusion: climate change is proven.  If there’s any uncertainty, it’s the pace and severity of the changes that will come.  The impacts of climate change pose a real risk to current and future generations.  For the UK, it is a national security issue.  Ignoring it is foolhardy and dangerous, and addressing the risks is a sensible approach.  A destabilised ecosystem means a destabilised food supply, infrastructure and ultimately, society.  It’s also an ethical issue.  Those who are likely to suffer the most will be those from low incomes, or from countries where the support infrastructures are poor or non-existent.

The denial lobby have no credibility – scientific or otherwise.

From a party political standpoint, Potts’ view is entirely consistent with UKIP policy.  Xenophobia and homophobia aren’t the only personality disorders that UKIP shares with the BNP.  Like the BNP, UKIP holds a position denying that the planet’s climate is changing, or that the activities of homo sapiens could be responsible.  When challenged on Twitter, Potts responded:

“Show me one solid, irrefutable piece of evidence and I’ll believe it”

What about the mountains of evidence?  This is remarkably similar to his comment piece in the Journal newspaper in 2005 where he called on:

“anyone to show me just one single solitary shred of concrete proof that humans contributed or are at all responsible for global warming”

…and claimed that:

“reducing emissions is a complete and utter waste of time and money.”

Such buffoonery would be comical if it wasn’t for the fact that Potts sits in a position of responsibility.  There’s no excuse for a politician not to be familiar with climate change after all this time; the causes, the science, the risks, and the possible solutions and mitigation actions.  Potts makes decisions on policy.  He has a responsibility to be informed, to know what the science says.  If a politician claims the science to be a “myth”, then that’s not the voice of rationality, but an ignorant opinion poisoned by the confirmation bias of political ideology.

As Huxley also noted:

At least two-thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity: idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political ideas.

What is time?

Simple question, yes?  Indeed, but what about the answer?  Last year, actor Alan Alda, together with the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, issued a challenge to scientists and science teachers to answer the apparently simple question ‘what is a flame?’ in such a way that could be understood by an eleven-year-old.  It’s actually not that simple.  The project, called The Flame Challenge, was inspired by Alda’s own childhood scientific curiosity, and asked schools across the United States to participate and decide on a winner from the hundreds of entries.

This video here is the entertaining winner:

What is a flame


This year, the challenge was inspired by the question most commonly posed by eleven-year-olds to the Center for Communicating Science: what is time?  Even Albert Einstein struggled to describe what time is in simple terms, and often resorted to jokes:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

I think this is a great initiative, to take the complex explanations for the natural mechanisms we take for granted, and deliver them in an easy to understand way – easy enough even for me.

Death by Papal decree–a faith based initiative

This is terrible.  A pregnant woman, in awful pain and knowing that she wouldn’t be able to carry to full term, asked a doctor to abort her foetus.  She was refused an abortion, not for medical reasons, but for religious reasons.  Her condition worsened.  She asked again, and again.  She was again refused, and couldn’t have the abortion until the foetus had died.  By then it was too late.  Seven days after first being admitted to hospital, she died.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that someone could submit another human being in so much suffering to so much cruelty.

This didn’t happen back in the Middle Ages, in the remote Taliban-controlled mountains of Afghanistan or in an African refugee camp with no medical facilities.  This was in 21st Century Republic of Ireland, in a modern hospital, short of nothing.  Except compassion.

The Republic of Ireland; a modern, civilised western country.

Savita Halappanavar is a victim of a repressive theocratic state and an uncaring doctor who put the pronouncement of a Pope before the well-being of a patient, before the survival of a fellow human being.  This is a death which could have been avoided with a relatively simple treatment.  Except that simple treatment is illegal in a country where the laws are driven by dogma and faith.

I know it will be of no consolation to her family, but hopefully the Republic of Ireland will learn from Mrs Halappanavar’s tragic death, and that it’s people seek to reform their barbaric abortion laws.  And hopefully, it will be a warning and a lesson for us here in the UK of what could happen here if the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Nadine Dorries (and others who seek to remove the reproductive rights of women) got their way and reduced abortion limits.

Not so super psychics

If there’s one consistent feature of claims of psychic ability, it’s that they fail to show when exposed to close scientific scrutiny.  Since Harry Houdini started to explore the world of mediums in the 1920s, no definitive evidence of psychic ability has been conjured up, and not for want of trying by successive generations of scientific exploration.  So yesterday’s report that two professional mediums were unable to show any psychic ability under test conditions isn’t really a big surprise, particularly when you consider that nobody has been able to accurately describe a measurable mechanism by which psychic powers work.

The series of tests, carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Merseyside Skeptics Society, found that the two mediums performed no better than chance.  Was the test a definitive refutation of psychic abilities?  No.  But this test now adds to the many others where a person who has claimed to be in possession of psychic powers has been unable to prove them.

At least these two mediums had the nerve and belief in themselves to have their abilities tested under blind test conditions, and they deserve credit for that.  It is a pity that one or more of the big hitters in the world of professional mediumship didn’t use this test as an opportunity to prove themselves.  Are they afraid of something?

This raises for me a question about the claims of mediums and the services they provide.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a medium sagely admit that there are some dishonest mediums out there cynically taking money off people.  But how does the average consumer know that a medium can do what they say they do?  A domestic gas engineer needs to be qualified to touch your gas fire or boiler.  A financial adviser has to pass exams to give you advice about your investments.  For many service industries, the consumer has an expectation that the one providing the service has some objective measure qualifying them to provide that service.  Surely mediums, some of whom earn millions from their claimed psychic abilities, should have to pass a series of blind tests to show they are consistently and significantly better than chance before they can ask their clients for money, and more importantly, trample all over their emotions and mental wellbeing?  Shouldn’t there also be a way to ‘strike off’ discredited and dishonest mediums found to be making it up, to protect their industry and protect people, some of whom are vulnerable, from being ripped off?

This isn’t only about whether the paranormal is real, but an issue of ethics and responsibility to fellow citizens.  Sadly, I doubt that mediums will get together any time soon to clean up their industry.

Fortunately for the mediums in this test, another similarly consistent feature of psychic abilities is that they reappear once the the psychic is in control of the environment, so I don’t expect their careers to suffer any adverse reaction from their failure to prove their powers.

Watch the skies!

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104)
Source: Hubblesite.org

Looking for something to do next week?  Then look to the skies!  Starting this Saturday is BBC2’s Stargazing Live 2012, a week-long series of live TV shows to get people interested in, and share their love of, astronomy.  In parallel, events are being held the length of the country, and here in the North East we are not alone.  One of our own local astronomy groups, the Sunderland Astronomical Society (SAS) is holding three events next week at the Washington Wetland Centre in Washington, Tyne & Wear.

The great thing about this celebration of stargazing is that it’s not just for astronomy geeks, the wonder of the universe is for everyone to behold – it’s for people of all ages and levels of knowledge.

At this time of year Jupiter is looking bright and beautiful in our sky and will rightly be the ‘star’ attraction at the Sunderland Astronomical Society events, but the gas giant won’t be the only cosmological celebrity.  As well as using the Society’s telescopes to see our planetary neighbours, visitors can explore and discover distant nebulae and galaxies, and learn how by looking into our skies we are also looking deep into our universe’s past.

The events are free and the times are:

1. Thu 20 Jan 19:00–21:00
2. Fri 20 Jan 19:00–21:00
3. Sat 21 Jan 19:00–21:00

Wrap up well for the cold.

Contact details are here.  Places are available, but it’s recommended to book quickly, as events across the region are filling up quickly – Gibside is already fully booked!