Tag Archives: media

Vaccination ‘Hesitance’ Put Bluntly

Question: Do you know anyone who’s had smallpox? How about polio? No?Polio Vaccine

Well no wonder there’s a sudden surge of doubt about vaccination – not because we’ve realise how well it works, but because we’ve forgotten what life was like before vaccines.

I am a parent. I can understand the idea of injecting my child with something that turns out to be harmful would be hard to bear. First do no harm, they say. Can we be sure there is no harm?

Sounds a like a fair question… but… isn’t. It’s not that simple.

Having a vaccine may seem like a dangerous intervention, and surely no action is better than a risky one?

Well if you believe that, you are not alone, but are making a cognitive error, the error to assume inaction is a virtue. As Haile Selassie said “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

In order to help those stuck in this cognitive trap, I would ask them to consider this thought experiment.


Rather than choosing to go to a doctor for a vaccine, say the famous ‘MMR’ triple-jab, or choosing to stay at home, let’s imagine the choice was one of two medications, one the MMR, with its supposed* risk of autism, but which gives immunity to measles, mumps and rubella – and the other is a compound with no known benefits, but a known risk of causing measles, mumps and rubella. And of course the added possibility of causing an epidemic at the same time.

(*) Let’s add to the mix the fact that there is zero evidence of any link between MMR and autism, and also point out that failing to immunise your kids is reckless cruelty not only to them, but also to all those who cannot be vaccinated for ‘real’ reasons, such as being too poor, too young or too sick.

To those still on the fence, this last bit is for you.

Do you not realise that what seems like concerned parenting has actually cost real people their lives? For what?

Yes, drugs go wrong. Yes, corporations are often tempted to hide bad news. Yes, the human body is complex and we do not understand every last detail.

But if you think that those pressures overwhelm the ‘good’ in mankind that has led life expectancy to climb gloriously every single decade this last century, then you are missing all the good news.

smallpoxNo small part of the doubling in life expectancy was due to vaccines.

Please don’t take me with you back to 1900. Rather look at this picture of what smallpox does and thank your lucky stars she’s not your child.

The speed of evolution – revisited…

I have been keeping my eye on the evidence that ‘life experience’ can be passed on in your genes.DNA

It has been proposed many times as a mechanism of evolution, and indeed was considered likely before the concept of ‘selection’ was understood. It’s attractive because saying that ‘survival’ is the one and only way to adding value to the genes seems, well, wasteful.

Surely, you’d think that a fear of snakes based purely on the idea that people who were not afraid of snakes were ‘taken out’ of the gene pool by snakes, is less efficient than a mechanism that captures experience – that snake killed my dog, I should avoid snakes, and so should my kids…

However, once DNA was understood and shown to be dense with what seemed to be all information that could ever be needed, dissent waned to an all time low. The mechanisms of DNA were pretty clear – your DNA was set at birth and while it might mutate a little randomly, had no way to ‘learn’ from your life before being combined with a partner’s to create offspring. The case seemed pretty settled.

There remained niggles though. I worried about the speed of evolution as we have so very much to learn and so little time to evolve! So I looked for ways evolution could amp up its power. It seemed to me that nature, so darn clever at self-optimisation would make improvements to our design based on non-fatal experience, or indeed passive observation.

Others similarly concerned continued, often in the face of deep scepticism, to study what is called epigenetics, the science of heritance not coded by DNA – and thus having the potential to be edited during our lives.

I first heard about it around 10 years ago when media reported that the actual DNA sequence was not the only way info could be stored in cells – in theory the histones present can affect how the DNA ‘works’ (how genes are ‘expressed’) and their presence could thus change the characteristics of any lifeform coded therein. The type and number of histones may be few (relative to the number of base pairs in DNA) however, the many locations and orientations they can take create a fair number of possible combinations and permutations.

When I heard about this theory, I was put into a state of high curiosity. On the one hand, it was a little blasphemous, but on the other hand tantalising. If nature could find a way to combine the power of selection with the potential benefits of life experience, we could get much faster and more effective evolution.

My curiosity was soon rewarded with another possible mechanism for smuggling info to the next generation. DNA methylation – the idea is that DNA can host little ‘attachments’ in certain places. These may be temporary, and reversible, but they have now been clearly shown to alter how the DNA expresses itself.

On the face of it, the evidence that DNA expression is environment dependent is rather strong, but the idea that the environment around the DNA coil actually contains consistent and persistent intelligence picked up during our lives is much harder to prove.

And so teams have been beavering away trying to get to the bottom of this, and this week one such group has fresh news for us. A Nature Neuroscience paper has tested the theory in a rather clever way.

lab miceThey started by teaching some mice a new fact (that a certain smell would be associated with trauma) and then later, tested their kids. Lo and behold the kids whose parents had been taught fared significantly better in the test than untrained, unrelated mice.

This may sound a little trivial, but you must remember that the current ‘popular’ understanding of genes is that they only gain intelligence by surviving – or more precisely they shed stupidity by dying. However, here we are seeing information pass between generations without the need for anyone to die.

Furthermore, because of the carefully selected lesson taught to these mice, the researchers were actually able to see that a specific part of the DNA, while not different in design was nevertheless more active.

Now, I do not know enough about DNA to double-check this claim, but you can rest assured others will – because that’s what journals are for – and in this case the implications are huge.


Like what, you ask?

Well, off the top of my head, it means that much of what we do between birth and reproduction will affect all our descendents – this undermines the idea that one’s body is one’s own to do with as one pleases.

It also indicates that there is potential for us to deliberately control the expression of our DNA, allowing us to do some genetic engineering without actually changing the DNA sequence.

More importantly, and more controversially, it would mean natural selection would not need to explain all the marvellous diversity we see around us on its own.

It remains to be seen what proportion of our ‘design’ is coded for outside the DNA, or indeed how much this mechanism can improve or speed up evolution, however I for one hope it works out to be right and that mother nature has indeed figured out how to seriously boost the power of selection.

L’Aquila Earthquake: Science collides with the law…

Today we heard that a group of seismologists have been jailed over the advice they gave prior to the 2009 quake in L’Aquila in Italy which killed over 300 people.

Is this good and right?

Well let’s start by imagining you lived in l’Aquila and a series of tremors had the town worried. A group of experts comes to town, and after a long meeting, come out and declare the risk is miminal. So rather than evacuating, you go home, rest assured, only to lose your family two days later.

I would want blood. I would want to lash out. My family could have been saved!


So at first glance this judgement may seem like a last sad ripple from a tragic event, however, it isn’t. Upon further reflection, this judgement has serious implications for the relationship between science and the law.

I have always been troubled by how a guilty verdict means ‘you did it’ even if you didn’t, turning ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ into no doubt at all. I have previously blogged about pragmatism in law, and how you cannot be 80% guilty and thus serve 80% of a sentence.

With such pressures on the law to come to a clear conclusion, it was only a matter of time before a court was asked to decide on whether scientific advice was correct…


So today, when a court decided that scientists were ‘too reassuring’ to the public, my alarm bells were set ringing and still haven’t stopped.

Armed with the hindsight that an earthquake in fact did occur, it is natural that the families of the victims are appalled by the advice they got. However, in this case it is critical to also put yourself into the shoes of the scientist – in the days before the quake.

They must have honestly doubted a quake would happen. If you had expected a quake you would surely have said so!

In their statements they confirmed a quake was possible but unlikely. So what we have to ask is this: based on the data they had, was that conclusion faulty?

To answer that you only need to ask – do all tremors lead to quakes? Well no, most don’t. So the quake was by no means likely, let alone inevitable. They were not covering up. None in the group was suppressed or censored. I can only conclude that they, after years of chasing  tremors, had come to discount the value of tremors as indicators.


And today, a judge decided that their advice was not only wrong, but criminally wrong.

The problem here is that science is not a PR exercise. If scientists put spin on data, they lose credibility. If they cry wolf, they lose credibility. The only safe way to do science is to stick to the facts. The facts did not indicate an imminent earthquake. The judge does not seem to realise: scientists cannot, and do not claim to be able to, predict earthquakes.

Perhaps the judge should read Taleb’s treatise on rare events, and he’d seen that just because something is unlikely (as the scientists said) does not protect us from the possibility it may still happen.


So what we have seen today is this: scientists, giving their edified analysis, have been thrown in jail. The mob are satisfied, but you should be distinctly worried.


See also: Letter from the AAAS to the Italian president

Global Warming Canaries, Anyone? A short intro to why most scientists are worried about climate change…

The current state of arctic sea ice (see graph below) sends a chill down my spine.


So what it says is that the ice is melting furiously, and looks like it’s not yet slowing down even though the days have started to draw in.

However, any scientist will tell you that no single data point can be used as evidence of global warming, there are simply too many fluctuations for anything to be concluded over anything but the longest timescales. We cannot simply look at the mean temperature for a hot year and say, there you go, global warming!

Now, the issue is, there are well-known cycles over pretty much all timescales – this pretty much undermines all serious attempts at prediction.

So, what to do? Well all is not lost; there are still some clever little leading indicators we can look at to give us that sobering wake up call.

#1:  CO2

Firstly, we know CO2 concentration is up, no doubt or argument, this can be seen in the famous Hawaii data above, complete with the seasonal ‘breathing’ by global plant-life. The argument is about whether the greenhouse models that say this will result in warming will turn out right. I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t even have to wonder if the CO2 levels weren’t going up, would I?

#2: A Record Breaking Rate of Record Breaking

Secondly, rather looking at averages or ‘new records’, we can look at the frequency of records. So rather than saying, “we just had the hottest summer ever in some parts of the US, there’s the proof” we can look at how often records are set all over the world – hottest, coldest, wettest, dryest and so on. This approach creates a filter; if it shows there are more records being broken on the hot side than the cold side, could this be an indicator? I hope not, because there are.

Again, it could be part of a long-term cycle that could bottom out any time now. But on the other hand, if it was going the other way, I wouldn’t have to hope, would I?

#3: Sea Ice

Now the sea ice. The sea ice is another proxy for temperature. The reason it’s interesting to climatologists is because it is a natural way to ‘sum-up’ the total warmth for the year and longer; if ice is reducing over several years, it means that there has been a net surplus of warmth.

CryoSat – The European Space Agency’s Sea Ice Monitoring satellite launched in 2010 – (Image credit ESA)

Today we are seeing a new record set for minimal northern sea ice. And not only is there less area of ice, but it is thinner than previously realized and some models now suggest we could be ice-free in late summer in my lifetime.

Now if that does not strike you cold, then I didn’t make myself clear. This is not some political posturing, not some ‘big-business’ spin, nor greeny fear mongering. It’s a cold clean fact you can interpret for yourself, and it could not be clearer.

So is it time to panic?

Well it can still be argued the melting is part of a cycle, it could of course reverse and hey, no biggy. After all, what does it matter how much ice there is?

Well, yet again, I hate to rely on the ‘hope’ that it’s a cycle. Because if it continues, the next effect will be felt much closer to home…

Sea Level

Sea level is the ultimate proxy for warming. Indeed, sea level change can be so serious, maybe it is the problem rather than the symptom. If the ice on Greenland and Antarctica melt, the rise in sea level would displace hundreds of millions of people and change the landscape so dramatically it’s a fair bet wars and famine will follow. Now that is serious.

So have we seen sea level rise? Well, yes. Here’s the plot:

Now, it looks pretty conclusive but hold the boat. Some say’s it’s proof of warming but not everyone agrees. It’s true it could again be a cycle. Also, the sea level rise is fairly gradual; what people are really arguing about is whether we should expect it to speed up. If temperature goes up a few degrees it could go up 5 or 10 times faster. The speed is the issue. Humanity can cope if the level goes up slowly enough, sure, countries like Tuvalu will be in big trouble either way, but countries like Bangladesh and cities like New York and London will only be in real trouble if the rate increases.

Actual Canaries

Canaries taken into mines in order to detect poisonous gases; the idea being they would suffer the gas faster than the people and if the canary dropped, it was time to vacate. Do we have systems that are hypersensitive to climate change?

Yes! There are many delicately balanced ecosystems that can can pushed over a tipping point with the lightest of touch. Is there an increase in the rate of species loss, or an increase in desertification? Yes!

We can also look at how far north certain plants can survive, how high up mountains trees can live or how early the first buds of spring arrive.

Again, these indicators fail to give solace. Everywhere we look we see changes, bleached coral, absent butterflies, retreating glaciers.

The conservative approach is to ascribe these changes to the usual cut and thrust of life on earth; some take solace from the fact that humankind has survived because we are the supreme adapters and that the loss of species is exactly how the stronger ones are selected.

Yes, we are great at adapting, however, to kill any complacency that may create, consider the following: for humans just ‘surviving’ is not the goal, that’s easy, we also need to minimize suffering and death, a much tougher aim. We’ve also just recently reduced our adaptability significantly by creating ‘countries’. Countries may seem innocuous, but they come with borders – and mean we can no longer migrate with the climate. Trade across border also needs to be of roughly the same value in both directions.  While some countries will actually see productivity benefits from global warming, most will not, and without the freedom to move, famine will result. Trade imbalances mean inequality will become extreme. The poorest will suffer the most.

So for now changes are happening, and advances in agricultural technology are easily coping; however, because ecosystems are often a fine balance between strong opposing forces, changes may be fast should one of the ropes snap.


Looking at the long history of the earth we have seen much hotter and much colder scenes. We have seen much higher and much lower sea levels. We are being wishful to assume we will stay as we have for the last 10,000 years. It may last, or it may change. Natural cycles could ruin us. And mankind is probably fraying the ropes by messing with CO2 levels.

Can we predict if we are about to fall off of our stable plateau? No, probably not. But is it possible? Heck yeah.


If you liked this, you may like these earlier posts on the subject of global warming:

  1. What does the earth’s history tell us about climate? And how can we find out if our house will be one that sinks should sea levels rise? Find out here!
  2. Can we  change the planet’s dangerous behavior? Read my call for a study in mass behavior.

Photo of the day: “escalier au ciel”

No photoshop, honest! I did tap down the exposure two f-stops by metering on the bottom of the stairs and then shifting up before releasing the shutter. This is one of those times where digital photography loses the magic of the delay, the wondering, did I get the exposure right?

These stairs may be familiar to tourists to Paris… yes they are the first flight of stairs to go up the Eiffel Tower 😉


Energy Drink Misinformation

Zero calorie ‘energy’ drinks piss me off. Why?

A zero calorie energy drink is a flat-out contradiction. 

Think about it. What is a calorie? If you don’t know, look it up. Yes, exactly, it is a measure of… energy content! WTF?

What I want to know is this: how come we let big business redefine our language to their own greedy ends? I mean the people who make low-calorie energy drinks know they have no energy in them, so why are they called energy drinks?

I think its because energy is a misunderstood concept and they are taking advantage of this.

Understanding what energy is (and more importantly isn’t) will allow people to more accurately decide things correctly – like whether it’s a good idea to try hike 100 miles across a desert armed only with zero calorie energy drinks.

So for background, please take a look at my article on energy designed for people with too little time to read a whole book, or even a pamplet.

Now, the specific issue here is that people are confusing energy sources with stimulants. Sure, the sugary versions do actually supply some energy, but no more than a can of Coke – but these guys are not charging those absurd prices for sugar – those prices, and claims, are for the drugs. Compounds like caffeine affect our nervous system and interfere with our built-in protection systems, systems that make us feel tired after effort, mechanisms that force us to get the sleep we need in order to rest our muscles and reboot our brains.

The issue here is that the word stimulant is not as easy to sell as ‘energy’, and the English language does allow us to mix up feeling ‘energetic’ with feeling alert and ready for action.  The nerdy scientific truth issue here is that tired people actually still actually have plenty of energy (especially if they are prosperous about the middle) it is just their inclination to use that energy that changes.

So next time you feel tired but need to keep going, by all means get a ‘so-called’ energy drink but remember it is mainly just a drug. The next time you hit a wall 20 miles into a marathon, remember to get some real energy.




So is messing with you body’s tiredness systems bad? Not necessarily! We must also resist overreacting and committing another crime – resorting to the naturalistic fallacy that messing with nature is fundamentally a bad idea. I quite like it when medical science messes with natural things like smallpox and malaria for example. Stimulants are not all bad, keeping alert can keep us safe when driving, and used in moderation can actually help us focus through tedious study or exams.

Parenting: is giving unfair advantage fair when it comes to our kids?

Is equality worth fighting for? Should everyone have the same opportunities in life?

Of course!

Then why is it that so many of us bust our butts to fight for the complete opposite?

Of course, as the title suggests, I am talking about parenting. It seems that while we are happy to claim equality as a goal we work so fervently to create advantage for our kids? When it comes to our little angels, we suddenly forget our high-minded ideals, and act with a favoritism that would be illegal if it were based on colour, religion race or creed.

This may sound like a trivial point when you first think about it, but hold on two ticks and give it a little think.

How will society ever become equal if every parent is hell-bent on giving their kid every advantage they can?

Would I not try to get my kid into the class with the best teacher, or the school with the best record, or the college with the most prestige?

Would I not work hard to pay for ballet classes and piano lessons and school trips to DC and all the things a kid needs in order to be equipped for the high life? Would I not wish for them to inherit a fortune and thriving family business?

How can I compete in a meritocracy with my only aim being to give my kids an advantage in the next leg of the race?

The meritocracy is no meritocracy if you can inherit advantage, and if you can pass on no advantage to your kids, then what is the point of the fight?

It seems the very concept of a fair system where reward is based on individual effort is unstable as we all strive to pass on generational advantage.

It also seems to me that people’s fortunes do not depend on their own merits as individuals, but rather on the merits of their “node” in the web of society – where opportunities depend on connections. As the sayings go – no man is an island and it’s not what you know, but whom.

These realisations suggests to me that equality or even the idea of the meritocracy are mirages – good to aim at, but don’t go too close as they will recede, or worse still, vanish.

Reality: a hard sell

I can’t help but wonder if doggedly debunking all spewings from the purveyors of woo is somewhat a fool’s errand.

There are a number of pseudo-scientific disciplines whose concepts are inherently highly attractive and contagious to the average Joe, saying things that make him feel good and making him want to pass on the good news. Think of how easy to sell these messages are:

  • organic food – frolicking chickens, steaming compost, happy farmers, healthy food – a return to basics, back to a purer time when humans actually had roots in the earth and cared for it; you too can go organic!
  • complimentary medicine – age-old wisdom, so long suppressed by big pharma is unlocked just for those open-minded enough to look. Are you open-minded! Yes? Here are your keys to healthy prosperity!
  • astrology – our fates, entwined with the universe, form a beautiful unity; enigmatic scholars have acted custodian to its cipher through the ages. Are you a spiritual soul? You too can share time’s secrets!
  • parapsychology – our minds are more powerful than science knows, and we all have potential beyond our wildest dreams! But hold on! Only those willing to break free from the trappings of conventional science will ever see the light…
  • and of course the big kahuna, religion – imagine for a minute the greatest most wonderful thing in all the world, and that is but nothing compared with the joys that await the believer, and for all eternity too!

It is little wonder the bible I had as a kid said “Good News” on the cover.

The issue is that the logical shredding of these pieces is often a sobering dose of reality that fills most people with instant sleepiness:

  • organic food is not always kinder to the planet and claimed health benefits are of the ‘hard to verify’ sort
  • alternative medicine actually does work, but only the level one would expect from getting time, care, attention and the placebo effect
  • the laws of physics do allow marvellous things (x-rays, computers, holograms) but it takes serious study to understand why they don’t allow for the positions of stars and planets to have predictable effects of the day-to-day ongoings in suburbia.
  • the mind is indeed fabulously clever and poorly understood, but those tedious laws of physics, and indeed dry, cold logic, are annoyingly sticky when it comes to clairvoyance, ESP, psychokinesis and precognition.

So YAWN! Boring!! Logic and analysis mean effort, work, thinking things through, totting up totals, cross-checking claims, testing, questioning and doubting. Pretty much the opposite of nice & easy. Accepting we are not all-powerful, we are not immortal and that we will all be forgotten someday is just no fun. These are not messages that will go viral, that will breed missionaries, that would generate a manic fervour. More like manic depression.


So the deck is stacked. Pseudo-scientific ideas persist because they are tenacious memes, and they are almost impossible to kill. They are contagious and sticky, and lovely and easy, and fighting them off requires not just the will, but also the ammunition.

And that is why it worthwhile to continue to fight the good fight – to keep trying to debunk poor thinking – to provide the ammunition to that small number, those that may be on their own, surrounded by superstition, but with that gift in their heart that is that first inkling of doubt.

I will do it for those that think they are alone as I once did.

We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity – people have better access than ever to the tools to arm themselves to achieve a new sort of ideal: to make life choices with full access to all the facts. We are after all free to choose to believe anything, the problem only comes when we are not given the choice. No information, no balance, no choice.