Polonius

To thine own self be true

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Religion brings out the worst in people

Posted by Polonius on 10 May, 2010

A few nasty little individuals are gloating over Evan Harris’s election defeat. They’re afraid of science, afraid of anything that puts reason and evidence before a Bronze Age creation myth. It was ever thus, and they’re not even ashamed of it. Not far from here, in Glasgow, there’s actually a school named after the inquisitor who prosecuted Galileo. I struggle to understand the celebration of wilful ignorance. I’ve read Dennett, am reading Boyer and have Atran to look forward to; I’m sure there are sound evolutionary reasons for this stupid behaviour, but it’s still stupid. Dunning-Kruger effect, perhaps?

Advertisements

Posted in Politics, Religion, Science | Leave a Comment »

It’s no time to gloat

Posted by Polonius on 28 August, 2009

I’ve had misgivings for a while now about Pharyngula. I think the issue of science versus religion is a kind of triage (in the original French sense): there are basically three groups of people in the world:

  1. the ones who will believe in a god or gods regardless of evidence,
  2. the ones who won’t,
  3. and the ones who might be open to persuasion.

Ridiculing Group 1 is entertaining in the short term, but gets tedious after a while. Preaching to Group 2 is pointless. Telling Group 3 they’re stupid is counterproductive, and Pharyngula is all about ridiculing religion.

PZ Myers doesn’t explicitly impute any causal link between religion and the events that have recently come to light in Antioch, California. He simply juxtaposes a few facts and leaves readers to form their own conclusions. Sadly, most of the comments on his post are about as reasoned and evidence-based as those at Garrido’s disturbing blog.

Rational people, especially scientists, can do better than this. “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote”, and this incident doesn’t prove anything. We should not aspire to be as unscientific as the religious in our treatment of evidence.

Posted in News, Religion, Science | Leave a Comment »

BBC News does science right (Shock! Horror!)

Posted by Polonius on 11 June, 2009

I’ve often been critical of BBC News coverage (postings passim ad nauseam), so it’s only fair to report when they do something right. It’s even more surprising when it’s science. Kudos to Victoria Gill, Science Reporter.

Posted in News, Science | Leave a Comment »

On the buses

Posted by Polonius on 16 November, 2008

A few months ago, my place of work changed – the company headquarters moved to newly-refurbished premises in Glasgow city centre. This change has a number of consequences, some good, some bad. My commute, instead of a 25-minute drive door-to-door, is now a 35-minute bus ride plus a 5-minute walk (Assuming the bus turns up, etc.)

One good change is that I can read on the bus. That’s quite a dramatic change because, for some years, the only time I’ve found for purely recreational reading has been in bed, and then I’ve only ever wanted to read books that would help me sleep. Now I can read stimulating, intellectually challenging, books. I’ve actually read a computer language text-book (apart from the reference section) – the PIckaxe (Wikipedia). It’s a longer read than the legendary K&R (W), but far more readable than Stroustrup (W). I also have a copy of the Camel (W), but I’m not tempted to read that, other than for reference.

My most recent read has been Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s an impressive book, if a little hard work. It’s longer than it might need be for some readers, but much of that length is a result of the sheer weight of evidence that Darwin presents, enough to convince all but the most determinedly pig-ignorant. And it worked.  Flat-earth creationism is now rare outside of the USA.

The strongest argument of the pig-ignorant seems to be that “it’s just a theory”, but that just shows their ignorance of the scientific usage of the word “theory”. In science, the word “hypothesis” is roughly equivalent to the everyday word “theory”. In science, for a hypothesis to become a theory, it must withstand prolonged attempts by hostile scientists to disprove it. It is a measure of scientists’ modesty (acquired from experience – a concept that the flat-earthers bizarrely refuse to understand) that they recognise that their current best understanding of the way the world works may benefit from future refinement. Since flat-earthers are so determinedly ineducable, it’s pointless trying to explain. A better approach is simply to use different words.

The thing that struck me most about Origin of Species was how obvious it is, in hindsight. Of course Darwin was ignorant of Mendel’s near-contemporary work. And it’s hard to imagine that both of them worked at a time when the role of chromosomes was not understood.

The writing style of Origin of Species challenges the reader. I believe there was a tendency in those days towards long sentences, but Darwin often lost track of the number of subjects by the time he came to the verb, which makes those long sentences even harder to untangle. There’s one behemoth of, if I’ve counted correctly, 218 words (on pp 275-276 of the Oxford World’s Classics 1996 Edition). It’s hard to read, but you don’t have to. If you don’t need to have the evidence beaten into you with a stick, the last chapter, Recapitulation and conclusion, sums it up. Just read that.

Posted in Religion, Science | 1 Comment »

Dumbing down

Posted by Polonius on 19 February, 2008

I’ve followed the journey of The Independent with interest since its inception. When new, it was visually striking. Its then state of the art printing process, together with its editorial policy, led a renaissance in photojournalism. Its initial attempts at political neutrality made it a bit boring, but it soon settled down. As it struggled to find its niche in the market, it sought new stories, often with a strong, sometimes preachy, moral voice. Its international coverage has been better than most.

The story of why the Indy went tabloid is an interesting one. Somebody on the staff (I don’t recall who) drew up a chart. Draw a vertical line down a page, dividing it in half. Draw two horizontal lines across the page, dividing it in six. That’s the UK newspaper market (as it then was). Left and right are the political stance of the papers; top to bottom you’ve got broadsheets, mid-market tabloids and red-tops. Top left is The Grauniad; top right, The Times and The Torygraph. Bottom left is The Daily Mirror; bottom right, The Sun. Middle right are The Daily Express and The Daily Mail. Middle left is (or was) nothing. That was an obvious gap in the market.

I used to buy the Indy daily, then weekly. The Saturday magazine crossword is one of the most entertaining there is. Of course, nobody can beat Araucaria in the Grauniad. And The Listener Crossword is more challenging – but I wouldn’t buy The Times for that. More recently, I’ve found that my main reason for buying the Indy on a Saturday has been (though it pains me to admit it), Jeremy Beadle’s quiz. Now he’s dead and, though his replacement compiled a creditable effort on Saturday, I thought I’d take a long hard look at the paper to see if it was really worth my while.

Of course it’s got a lot of crap in it. It’s always had fashion pages, and the centre pages on a Saturday are always full of bling for brain donors. Even Saturday’s cover story was about fashion. Racism is a serious issue, but I can’t get terribly worked up about serious issues set in a context of a market that only exists because some people are too stupid to choose their own clothes.
I’ve been vaguely aware of a few stories in recent editions that appeared to be pure padding, with no substance to them at all. Turning to page 5 of Saturday’s edition, I came across something that triggered alarm bells – “Computers ‘to match human brains by 2030’“. The first sentence was enough to convince me this was likely to be garbage. Computer power to match the intelligence of human beings – by what measure of intelligence? I don’t know if the piece said, because I never reached the end of it. The second sentence talks of “technical progress” in a way that suggests to me the author doesn’t know the difference between “technical” and “technological”. But maybe he’s a fairly junior writer – or out of his area of expertise? No, his name is Steve Connor and he styles himself “Science Editor”, no less.

I got as far as the fourth paragraph before I encountered this gem: “optical character recognition – the technology behind CDs”. Remember, this pig-ignorant cretin describes himself as a “Science Editor“! Not only should he be dismissed for incompetence, but so should whoever employed him in that post. I gave up in despair and disgust.

Posted in News, Rants, Science, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Doublethink

Posted by Polonius on 28 July, 2007

I find the popularity of the Abrahamic version of the creation myth in America quite depressing. But a Gallup poll reveals the inconsistency of people in responding to polls. 53% of people think that evolution is at least probably true, while 66% think that creationism is at least probably true. Even before we start taking account of those who had no opinion (which reduces the total who did have one below 100%), that means that 19% believe both evolution and creationism are probably true.

Posted in Religion, Science | Leave a Comment »

Feeling the heat?

Posted by Polonius on 23 May, 2007

I haven’t yet finished reading the RES report on global warming, but it seems a pretty decent summary of the issues. For further reading on the subject, RealClimate is a good starting point.

Update

New Scientist recently published refutations of some of the more persistent denialist FUD.

Posted in Science, Society | Leave a Comment »

Faaar right

Posted by Polonius on 23 March, 2007

There are a couple of amusing comments on the latest badscience posting. The first is Neil Desperandum’s, drawing attention to the Daily Hate’s standards of proof-reading.

The second is Andy’s pointer to an interesting Web page. Horizontal scroll bars are widely seen as a usability no-no. I have seen an online art gallery that mimicked a real-world gallery, and it suited the metaphor to stroll (or scroll) horizontally through the site, but that was a rare exception. Now Phrenopolis bring us what may be the world’s widest Web page.

Posted in Design, Science | 1 Comment »