“Fashion is the art of making people unhappy with the perfectly good clothes they already have.”
Jarrod Hart, 2001
“Fashion is the art of making people unhappy with the perfectly good clothes they already have.”
Jarrod Hart, 2001
“Alternative and complimentary therapies”. They sound so nice. So warm and fuzzy. Surely they augment the cold clinical scientific approach to regular medicine, and have a more holistic approach catering to the soul and spirit as well as the flesh?
I argue not. Hear out my logic…
Any treatment that has proven to provide reliable benefit, is automatically added to the canon of ‘western’ medicine. Therefore the only treatments left available for ‘alternative’ to claim, are those that are unproven, or worse, treatments known to be actively harmful.
Promoters of alternative medicine will argue that western medicine is still woefully weak, and not tuned into holistic and spiritual matters and that such things defy proof. This is clearly claptrap. If you do a well designed double-blind, placebo-controlled test of an ‘alternative therapy’ and the outcomes are no better than for the placebo, then the participants who got the treatment are no better off, spirit or no spirit.
I personally prefer the sort of benefits that can be detected!
How did this situation come to pass, where unproven medications have such a grip?
I think there are three main ingredients:
I think that people who understand this do a disservice to our communities by giving this bad medicine the label ‘alternative’ or ‘complimentary’, so I would like to propose the term ‘unproven medicine’. I would however welcome some more lyrical suggestions!
I have a question I would value my reader’s well-informed opinions on:
…if science develops the technology to clone a human from a single donor cell, would every cell in our body, now having the potential for a fulfilling life as a human, be sacred?
It occurs to me, as it may well have occurred to you at some point, that the very idea of anything “supernatural” existing is self-defeating because anything that blatantly defies our methods of analysis and understanding would totally undermine the entire show. Thus our system of understanding which is so incredibly consistent that it’s able to convince electrons to run such complex mazes that the whole internet results, would be fatally flawed if even the smallest miracle were possible.
The application of logic has yet to be shown to fail. The world has never thrown up any scientifically verifiable evidence of anything outside of our model. Thus there has never been any evidence for any god, any miracle, any ghost, any anything supernatural.
Yet its not as if God (as rep for all things supernatural) is deliberately covering his tracks. If He was, no one would know about Him. Clearly his followers have detected some “evidence” – but amazingly no science or logical analysis has ever trapped any of it.
So if you believe in God, how can you have any faith in such a poor system, that can’t detect this God you see so evidently? The system so good it cures diseases, determines the compositions of distant stars and genetically engineers mice so they glow in the dark can’t see something so big and important three quarters of the planet believe in it.
There is indeed an elephant in the room.
I inhabit a post-theistic world. God or the idea of God has long-since lost its influence on my thinking – my morals, my emotions or my research. I am thus not so much an atheist as a “post-theist”. To me the debate is over, so the categorisation into the do’s and do-nots is now only an interesting study of human gullibility rather than a deep & heart-rending dilemma.
Anyway, I thought it would be good to put into words my position on the whole God-vs-Science debate, which is really rather important and most certainly cannot be ignored.
I have frequently been tempted to write about this topic, but have opted to keep my powder dry, because I was not sure which approach would actually increase the net happiness in the world (groan away, but what other approach is better?). Options included:
However, I realise that Hecht, Dawkins, Harris and several others have walked this path (rather well) for me. Perhaps I should focus my efforts on subjects not yet so well covered? Some would argue that atheists need to rally together and ride the current wave of interest and publicity – we need to gain the critical mass.
This is the real question. What would help?
I don’t know! Please help…
There is a very powerful scientific reasoning tool that I use, that, it occurs to me, I wasn’t actually taught… the simple art of extrapolation.
Most people have a pretty good idea of what extrapolating is – its where you look at a trend and predict what will happen if that trend persists.
For example, if I said it took me 6 months to save £500, I can use extrapolation to predict how long it will take me to save £2000; its something we do all the time – yesterday I was driving down from Bristol, I could count off the the miles, and knowing the distance, I could predict if I would make it for dinner (I didn’t).
Scientists use this too. A good example is the way we can calculate the temperature of “absolute zero” by looking at the volume of a balloon as you heat it up. If you had a balloon at 25C, and you heat it to about 55C its volume would increase by about 10%. What does that tell us? It tells if we cooled it, it would eventually have no volume – and that this would happen at around -275C (-273.15C actually) – absolute zero.
Of course, the method relies upon assumptions – usually the assumption that the trend will continue in the same way (people often use the term “linear” to represent relationships that form straight lines when plotted on a graph).
What if the relationship is non-linear? For example, if little James is 5 feet tall when he is 10, how tall will he be when he is 20? Clearly he won’t be 10ft tall – that is because the relationship between height and age is “non-linear”.
Most of us are smart enough to extrapolate without knowing the jargon, but when the relationships get complicated a bit of maths and jargon can help.
For example, if we want to examine the population of bacteria in a petri dish, or the spread of a virus (or a rumour) through a population, our mental arithmetic is not always up to it. Luckily, some scientists have realised even these complex affairs have some predictability and although “non-linear”, they can still be modelled – graphs can be plotted and extrapolations made.
If this interests you, I refer you to books on epidemiology; I will move onto another sort of extrapolation – one used to check people’s theories by identifying ‘impossible’ extrapolations.
Let’s say, for example, that the want to predict how the obesity epidemic will progress in the coming decades. If the media says obesity in a certain group increased from 14-24% between 1994 and 2004, and then goes on to predict that obesity will therefore reach 34% by 2014, does this withstand scrutiny?
Never mind that the definition of obesity may be faulty (BMI), never mind that they are extrapoliting from 2 data points – let’s rather ask if the linear trend is justifiable. This can be done by extrapolating the prediction to try to break it.
If the model is right, obesity will go on increasing and soon enough 100% (or more!) of the population will be obese. This is clearly wrong – obesity is not likely to get everyone – vast swaths of the population are likely to be immunised to some extent against obesity due to active lifestyles and good dietary educations, or perhaps its in their genes, the lucky things.
The truth will of course be more complex – the first group to become obese will be the most vulnerable, so an increase from 14-24% may incorporate that group, but each successively 10% will be harder fought. All this is enough to suggest the predictions made for 2014 are doubtful, and those that go further are downright shameless. But it doesn’t stop them…
I am sure you can think of other suspicious trend-based predictions, like those for peak-oil or global warming. They could do with some improvements, so get to it!
Religion has been described as a virus. This is not because it’s ‘bad for you’ necessarily, but rather due to the way it spreads.
It’s not hard to see the parallel: like viruses (and bacteria), religions exist within a population and spread from person to person.
But what about atheism? Is it a viral idea (meme) too?
I will argue that it isn’t. Perhaps it’s more like a cancer, a ‘mutation’ that kills off religious infections.
Cancers are sneaky, because they can occur spontaneously, almost by chance, and are therefore a very statistical phenomenon: your chance of getting cancer is affected by a), your exposure (to carcinogens causing mutation events), and b), your predisposition (genes affecting your ability to cope with the these mutations).
Your chance of becoming an atheist is likewise affected by a), your exposure (to information about how the world works) and b), your predisposition (intelligence, or ability to apply logic to the information).
I.e. atheism differs from religion in the same way that carcinogens differ from viruses.
Can we develop this idea? I think so.
Let’s look at how you ‘get’ atheism…
Picture it: you’ve been brought up in a good god-fearing, church-going family. You went to Sunday school, you know which of Cain and Abel was the baddy and you can explain to people about how there is good evidence for The Flood. You also have a healthy fear of sex and the other sins.
But you go to school and you learn about plate tectonics and see how well South America slots into Africa, and then you learn how European bees are not quite the same as African ones, just like Toyota Corollas aren’t, and one day, while looking at the grille of your step-mother’s 1.3GL, and daydreaming about the A-team, a thought strikes you, like a shot of cancer-causing sunshine on that patch of skin on the back of your right shoulder, that cars evolve differently in different counties and maybe that explains all the animals and perhaps God didn’t make a women out of Adam’s rib after all, cos’ that never did make much sense, because a rib is a pretty silly thing to make a women out of anyway.
Catching a dose of Christianity on the other hand, does not come from inside, as the result of reasoning, it comes from outside, from other people.
Most often you will be born into a house absolutely soaked in the infection, you will be infected soon enough, prayers will be said at mealtimes, the church is so big and grand, and the hymns are so catchy, and then they wheel out Christmas and baby Jesus (or baby ‘cheeses’ as my son says)…
But even if you’re not so lucky, there’s hope. You can drop in at a church any time (though Sundays are best I’m told) and the chances are, even if you are down on your luck, short of friends, and even if you aren’t very nice, the sweet people there are quite likely to help you. That feeling of family, of unquestioning acceptance – brings a special warmth to the cockles of the heart.
Once you’re in the door, religion, having evolved pretty niftily, can now play you like a violin. Your emotions, developed to help promote clan solidarity, are hi-jacked and kick in nicely. Did you know, that if you really listen to what these folks say, and really try to feel God’s love, you will indeed feel something! Now that’s a clever infection…
If you visit one, you will find a caring & honest person. They will look at your problem holistically, and explain how western medicine has been corrupted by money & big pharma, and has been blinkered so successfully it cannot see the big picture. They may explain perhaps that “just like the universe, the body acts as a living open self-organizing system susceptible to entropy yes, but also chaos and new order,” (I quote the tenacious Marty from a homeopathy blog). So hence modern science, which is really about pigeon-holing everything, is not really up to the job of working with the real system.
Now, there are many critics. What exactly is their issue? What on earth do they have against this clearly beneficent endeavour?
Anti-homeopathy rants are two-a-penny on the blogs, and they are very interesting to analyse. They argue that science cannot quantify/comprehend/explain the effect of homeopathy, and therefore, clearly, homeopathy is all poppycock. Fine, no point in engaging with them, they are ‘stuck in their own paradigm’.
But much more interesting is the question: what motivates of these nay-sayers?
Well, the blogosphere has its theories. One that crops up often is the suggestion that significant opponents must be aiming to hold back the good news from the public so they stay trapped in the western way, taking expensive drugs that never clear up their problems completely and therefore leave them financially trapped, but ignorantly grateful. Good for the capitalist systems that run our world, no?
Does this add up? Could all those who denigrate homeopathy really have something to gain from its demise? Another suggestion is that these folks have invested too much in the western system of understanding the universe, which has gone down a blind alley, and they are desperately holding on…
What a lot of bollocks.
The reason people keep popping up who despair at homeopathy is because a certain fraction of the population just happen to grow up with the ability (and desire) to only ever believe things that they fully understand.
Some of those people go on to study science, and they go on to see the marvellous wonder of nature, all the more wondrous because it make sense. It adds up. It is logical.
Science can predict solar eclipses, it can make your satnav work, it can even allow you to talk to someone in New Zealand (they are nice folks, after all).
Even the stuff that sounds like hocus pocus – such as Quantum tunnelling, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quarks, photonic crystals or wave/particle duality – is quite understandable. Yes it may take years of nerdy concentration, but these theories, while complex, are consummately understandable.
Energy is an interesting example. It’s hard to pin down, even scientists can’t give a good account for what it is. A few hundred years back there were plenty of theories, but the application of logic has sorted the wheat from the chaff, and now, although science struggles to define it, they know where it is, how to measure it, how it flows, and even how to use it. But people confuse these proper energy flows (electricity, nerves) with things like acupuncture meridians and leylines and the like. People who think for themselves can quickly spot when things like energy are being used logically, and when it is being used nonsensically.
Now these people, these thinkers, will, if unlucky enough, come across homeopathy. Attractive at first: lots of proponents, lots of jargon, and above all hugely promising. At first things go well. Any really smart student of a new subject will experience the frisson of the unknown, the new, and with good intention will go with the flow, like a foreigner trying to a pick up a new language.
However, as time passes, while usually, with other subjects like language, or quantum physics, it all slowly starts moving into place, homeopathy simply stays at arm’s length. It still ‘sounds’ good, as do other ‘sensible’ subjects, but it never reduces to complete sense – the complete sense where every cause is linked to every effect via an unbroken chain of explainable steps.
So these people, these thinkers-for-themselves, these take-nobody’s-word-for-nothing types, eventually realise it is all a sham.
But sadly, they can also see exactly how others, more trusting, may take it in, hook, line and sinker, so much so they really believe it, feel it & trust it.
They do so because it works.
Yes, that’s what I said. The proof is in the pudding. Those who try it, report that it works.
So what does that smug group of logical smarti-pants have to say about that? Well, they will happily explain that the benefits are real, but are rather due to:
The theory of evolution is greater than it looks. It is not just clever. It is not just useful. Its biggest value is as a nail in the coffin of some very destructive ideas. Not just the idea that Europeans are superior to Africans, or the idea that humans are superior to animals, but the idea that we all have some divine purpose – and therewith, the whole idea of good and evil.
The fascinating story of how the the tide of evidence has led to the unravelling of religious explanations for the world is, however, not what I wish to ponder here. No, I would like to ponder an area of evolutionary theory that still holds some uncertainty, some mystery.
Relax, I am not trying to ‘break’ or disprove evolution. I am fairly confident it it largely right, but I still think there are questions about it speed.
Anyone who has read on the subject understands the pure cunning of natural selection. Basically put, any replicating ‘creature’, that produces slight mutations in its offspring, will produce some offspring that are better than itself – better at competing for resource, better at surviving. Of course many mutations (indeed perhaps most mutations) may produce ‘worse’ offspring, but if the better offspring survive proportionally more, there will be a generational improvement.
This is the same phenomena that allows us to breed better race-horses, beef-cattle or strawberries.
Now, we can see the effects of selection very quickly in a petri dish of bugs, or perhaps in viruses in the human population, but the evolution of large mammals is a slow affair, not easily observed, and it took the discovery of ‘missing links’ to confirm the theory that we had indeed evolved from primate stock.
I personally have not read widely on evolution, I have simply spent lots of time thinking about it, and also spent some brain cells on pedantic calculations and computer simulations.
What comes up, again and again in the simulations is the question of speed.
Yes, speed. How fast do we evolve, and have we had enough time to do it?
There are two ways to tackle the question of evolutionary speed. One the one hand, you could say: we have only had, say, 5 billion years, to evolve from the basic elements, so we must have evolved fast enough. The calculations must simply be made to fit the data.
Some (not me) have however said, hang on, calculations show that we haven’t had the time to evolve, so the theory must have some massive fault.
The latter argument betrays a misunderstanding of evolution. They assume that as evolutionists claim evolution is ‘true’ and ‘right’, that their models must be right. But if their models suggest we needed 100 billion years to evolve that will prove that evolution is too slow and some other agency is required to square the circle.
However, just because evolution is fairly certain to be right, that doesn’t mean the models are simple, and I hope to give some insight into the challenge that I came across in my own amatuer attempts at the challenge.
Factors that throttle evolutionary change…
Let’s look at the things that effect the speed of evolution.
The first one is obvious – the more generations you get through each year/millennium, the greater potential for evolutionary change.
Mutation strength is more interesting. You could have multiple errors in a DNA sequence, the more errors the stronger the mutation. However, some errors in the DNA may have no particular effect, while other errors could be catastrophic, so that matters too. To keep things simple, lets just focus on the ‘strength’ of the inter-generational change.
If the mutations were very small and subtle, this, I would predict, would slow evolution down. However, if the mutations are too large (remember they are random), they are less likely ‘to be compatible with life’. However, I suspect because they are random, they will come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from untraceably small – to very fatal (resulting in early miscarriage).
However, we have seen in the fossil record evidence that evolution speeds up and slows down. The statistics of mutation ought not to change like that, so there must be more to it.
Selection pressure is the next, and even more interesting, factor.
People have questioned why the world doesn’t have living examples of ‘the missing link’. They must have been ‘viable’ in their own right, so why didn’t they survive?
Some thought on the subject (as well as my own simulations) show that this is not surprising. The speciation event (when one species splits into two) is usually the result of a population becoming subjected to a varying selection pressure (usually geographical). If the population is well mixed, its keeps together, but a mountain range or body or water can reduce the interaction enough to allow the different ‘random walks’ to optimise the two populations for their environments. Allowed to proceed for any length of time, you land up with two separate species, with nothing between. Once separated, they cannot ‘rejoin’ even if they mix once more, so the divergence will continue. Some have argued that ‘spurts’ in evolution augment this speciation process.
So why do these spurts happen? This is most likely selection pressure, but how does it work? Well, putting it simply, the more the environment changes, the more the creatures will need to change to survive. In a static environment, creatures will evolve to suit, but following the law of diminishing returns, once happy, would have no driving force to change any more.
However, you could well argue, that while a quickly changing environment allows faster evolution, it is simply taking its foot off the brake, something else is really controlling the maximum speed of evolution.
What do I mean by maximum speed? Well ask how fast would an environment need to change, such that evolution could not keep up – then you have reached its maximum speed.
There is an example that some folks think is an example of an environment that promoted fast evolution. Theorists have suggested that early man was often the victim of famine, and often needed to move around, which resulted in accelerated evolution. The stronger penalty on the weak, the higher reward for strength and wisdom, meant that potentially positive mutations, that may be lost in stable ‘easy’ environments, were more effective in this environment, thus accelerating change.
There is much written about selection, by people much smarter than myself, so I will not elaborate any more on it. I would simply summarise, that in the course of billions of years, some environments would allow fast evolution, while others would stagnate, and the average speed, while hard to quantify, would not be consistently high enough to be the key to the sort of evolutionary speed we need to gain so many evolved features is so few generations.
So at this stage, I would like to point out the most marvellous thing about evolution, which I think can multiply the effects of natural selection.
The two-sex system and its accelerating effect…
As I grew up, I sometimes wondered why we needed two sexes. Why not just allow all creatures to have offspring, add in a little mutation, and hey presto, it should work.
This was the form of my very first simulations (some 17 years ago now!). It showed me fairly rapid evolution and increasing fitness, so all looked good. If you set the bifurcation ratio to 2, give each child a random ‘fitness’ and then set the chance of reproduction be proportional to fitness (a very simple algorithm), the population did get fitter. However, when I compared it with the standard model, where you have two sexes, two differences in macro behaviour showed up.
Firstly, you have to add an extra ‘selection’ criteria. It is not just about surviving to reproductive age, it is now about surviving AND finding a mate. And you can forget about monogamy, so a very fit (for sexual selection) male could fertilise several females, at the expense of less fit males. This effect can (in my model) greatly accelerate change. All you need to do to get fast change, is ensure that partners can identify fitness accurately.
The second interesting effect from having two sexes (and what I found out from my model), is that good genes can spread through the population, which does not happen in the one-sex model. This spread of good genes means that one part of a population could be learning how to deal with sunburn, while another is learning to deal with sickle-cell anemia, and their solutions can be shared by all.
So I would therefore argue that this makes it more likely we had time to go from the first two-sex replicator to the world of wasps, earwigs and herpes.
That begs my next question: how did the first two-sex replicator come about? I think the computer modelling may be beyond me, but I hold out hope for my children!
UPDATE: I have added a follow-up post which addresses the question of ‘epigenetics’, the possibility that the DNA sequence is not the sole databank in our genes.
Yes, it’s true, I’m one of those science nerds who thinks that a good scientific understanding of the world should underpin government. And education, healthcare, the law, etc.
However, I have set myself up for disappointment, because our society doesn’t work like that. It is simply much easier to use anecdotes to sway opinion, to spin data, and to manipulate with a vast arsenal of marketing tricks.
Politicians, salesmen and journalists all know that the full details (of anything), with all ifs and buts included, will not make a catchy headline or slogan, will not catch the eye or tug the heartstring.
Emotions matter more than facts. People vote with their hearts not their heads.
No amount of simple campaigning for ‘better conduct’ by will ever make a damn of difference, as the causesand incentives remain. To move on, what we need is a society that thinks for itself. A skeptical society.