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Relatively Science

A look at the history, present and future of science along with anything else that takes my fancy

Updated: 2018-01-13T16:58:14.603+13:00


Making Adult Stem Cells pluripotent


Recent advances in the field of induced pluripotent stem cells have got to the point where we can using various methods convert adult stem cells back to a state where they are pluripotent. I am not going to go into the details of these methods or much of the repercussions of this as these can be found much better at other sources - such as here and here and here.

Essentially I wanted to play devil's advocate here for a second with one thought that came to my mind. Now don't get me wrong I am all for stem cell research, and in fact I do not have an issue with the use of embryonic stem cells under reasonable conditions - especially in the case of those that are spare or to be wasted from IVF treatments.

The interesting thought I had in regards to this issue is, how do we know that these adult stem cells have been made to be pluripotent?

One way is to let the cells develop and multiply and see what happens. Although this is not exactly what is done in the study (actually the nucleus of the stem cells was put into a blastocyst) it is for all intents and purposes the same effect. Well... they develop in to an embryo of course.

Which brings us back to the beginning of that what we have done is use adult cells to create embryonic cells, which not only defeats the purpose of not using embryonic cells but is basically cloning.

Does this really solve the image problem that stem cells have?

Thoughts on the experience of publishing papers


As a ionospheric/near-earth-space physicist by training, I have published a few papers (mostly as co-author but one as a first author) in the geophysics journals that service this field. But recently I have also had a very different experience being a co-author on a paper that resulted from some work I have been doing in psychology.

The psychology paper, which is a really good study which shows interesting and possibly profound results (on which I will write more when it actually hits the dead-tree and/or pixel press), has just been accept after numerous submissions (and even more rewrites) to various journals.

This contrasts hugely with my experience in publishing in the geophysics journals, where although the reviewers have sometimes wanted substantial changes, I have not had a paper of mine rejected, and very few of those of my supervisors (none that I can immediately recall) have been rejected. That might imply that the journals we usually publish in such as the American Geophysical Union run Geophysical Research Letters (2008 Journal Citation Reports (JCR) impact factor of 2.959) and the more specific Journal of Geophysical Research A: Space Physics (2008 JCR impact factor of 3.147 - though this is for all 7 parts of which Space is only one) accept almost everything for publication (as an illustration in the last 5 weeks there have been 49 papers published electronically in JGR-Space), but I don't think that is the case.

I suppose with Psychology being such are large field, as is Physics, that the more general journals will get huge amounts of submission and to be the best you only want to accept the best so there will obviously be more rejections in these types of journals rather than the more sub-field specific journals I have been used to.

As a counter point to the impact factors of the geophysics journals above I guess it is only fair to compare these to the journals the psychology study was submitted to: Nature (would have been nice but we did not expect to get accepted) JCR impact factor of 31.434, Cognition 3.481 (there may have been one or two more but I can't be sure) and Experimental Brain Research (where it is being eventually published) 2.195.

I would be interested in hearing any other stories of experience publishing in various fields, so don't hold back.

Can we be Chemical-free?


In the good tradition of any scientific article with a question as a title the answer to the question posed in this title is no.

The reason for bringing this up is that in the Lifestyle section, published Friday, under the banner of Body and Soul, of the Otago Daily Times (ODT) was an article about a mother in Wanaka who was starting a cosmetics business from her kitchen.

Susan Helmore is not a chemist, a herbalist or a computer whizz - although she says she's fast becoming a "geek".

She makes lists, has an indexed bright-ideas book, Google is her "friend" - and there's peanut butter on her lap top.

Her passion is chemical-free skin-care and cleaning products.

I am all for people having good ideas and making a business and a living of their own abilities. But this is clearly not a good idea. Why I hear you asking, well let me explain.

The problem rests on the word chemical. Everything in the universe is a chemical, whether it be an element, a molecule or a compound. So water is a chemical, oxygen is a chemical, as is sodium lauryl sulfate (one of the main ingredients in most soaps and body washes). So for something to be chemical free it has to have nothing at all in it - in other words it is a vacuum.

This is a fallacy that comes up quite often from people who claim to be using "natural" solutions that are chemical free, both in the terms of cosmetics and cleaning products like here but also things like organic farming, which also claims to be a chemical free process.

Yes some people have allergies and will react badly to some chemicals, but that does not mean that chemicals are bad, and the are certainly not avoidable. Diagnoses like MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) are rarer than even people who believe they have them think.

Substances like detergents and soaps need to contain certain classes of chemicals such as surfactants so that they can react with both the water and the grease, or else they will not work. So what ever the source of the chemicals be them synthetic or "natural" they still must perform the same job in the same way, and so will in all likelihood have the same interactions with the body.

Remote Sensing of the Ionosphere: Part 1


Now that the hectic period of writing up my thesis is over, resulting in somewhat of a blogcation, I thought that it was high time I shared some of the research that went into my thesis.The ionosphere is a region of plasma in the upper atmosphere, it extends from about 50 km on the lower end to more than 1000 km at the top. Mostly the plasma is created by radiation from the sun, which breaks up (dissociates) the atoms, i.e. ionises them, into electrons and positive ions. A small part of the ionisation is created by cosmic rays, and particularly at the lower altitudes where the neutral atmospheric density is higher the electrons can collide with the neutral atmosphere to form negative ions.The ionisation density depends both on the rate of input from the sun or other sources (dissociation rate) and on the rate at which the ionisation decays by recombining to form neutral atoms (recombination rate).Now the ionosphere is not really a layer in the atmosphere like the troposphere and the stratosphere which are defined by temperature, but rather is a region in which the plasma is overlayed over the top of these temperature variation defined layers. So the ionospheric altitudes are the same as those covered by the mesosphere and the thermosphere.Different frequencies of solar radiation interact with different molecules or atoms in differing regions of the atmosphere to create several layers within the ionosphere. The peak density of ionisation is in the F layer, above 200 km in altitude, which is due to extreme UV solar radiation ionising atomic oxygen (O). Below this there is the E layer, around 90-120 km in altitude, due to soft X-rays and UV ionising molecular oxygen (O2). Below this is the D region, not a true layer like the E and F, but more of a bump in the slope of the electron density profile. The D region is 50-90 km in altitude and is mostly due to Lyman-α ionising nitric oxide (NO).Since most of the ionosphere is due to the sun, we see variation between day and night and between the seasons as well as over different latitude ranges. In the image you can see the difference between a summer ionosphere and a winter ionosphere, with the electron densities displayed for Corsica (summer, solid line) and Dunedin (winter, dashed line) in late July.By having all these electrons (and ions) up in the atmosphere, the physical properties of the atmosphere are altered. In particular the electrons are very good at doing what they do in copper wires, conducting electricity. This presence of conducting layers in the atmosphere reflects radio waves, forming a "leaky" or partial mirror. In fact the first direct evidence for the existence of the ionosphere came in mid-December 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi informed the world he had received radio signals at Newfoundland, Canada, sent across the Atlantic from a station he had built in Cornwall, England.Differing frequencies reflect off differing electron densities (and hence conductivities) at differing altitudes in the ionosphere. My work was focused on VLF (Very Low Frequency, 3-30 kHz) radio waves which reflect of the D-region. Higher altitude regions can be studied using higher frequency radio waves.VLF radiation, as well as some other frequencies, reflects not only off the ionosphere but also off the surface of the Earth (very well off sea water, not so well off land, and very poorly off ice, depending on the conductivities of these surfaces). The result of this is that the radiation can travel long distances (>10000 km for powerful transmitters) reflecting between the Earth and the ionosphere, like it was travelling in a waveguide.This allows us to observe radio waves at a receiver and infer the condition of the ionosphere between the transmitter and the receiver. Changes in the received signal are caused by changes in the ionosphere (or extremely rarely the ground), and by comparing the observed changes to expected changes from computational modelling, you can get a indication of what processes [...]

Degrees of Science Communication


A few years back the University of Otago started a Master's course in Science Communication, and the fruits of that are starting to come to bear. This weekend six films by Science and Natural History Filmmaking students will be shown at Dunedin's Regent Theatre. According to the Centre's website the films will constitute a part of the student's thesis.

I think that this is a great idea, and you can specialize in the above film-making, creative non-fiction writing or a general popularizing of science. I think that more people should be taking an interest in that... but then again I am a science blogger and now part of the Science Media Centre's set up so maybe I am biased.

That is not to say that I can't have concerns about some of the outputs of this venture, an article online at the Otago Daily Times highlights one of the videos being screen about the 1080 poison debate, and I think it illustrates just how easy it can be to miss the point of communicating the science.

Sure it is good to get subjects such as this out in to the public (not that this one is not already out there) but the goal must be first and foremost to tell the science's story. So below is a rant that I left as a comment on the article that I think deserves wider audience and discussion.

I find the paragraph about balance interesting coming from students of a science communication course.

Mr Holmes said while many films had been made on 1080, they were mostly one-sided, so their aim was to make a "balanced" account of the issue by presenting both sides of the argument alongside the science.

As they say they present both sides of the debate along side the science. But the key point is not the politicization of the issue or the various points of view but the facts, which are the science.

And while the students do mention this, It's a very emotive subject and some facts get lost in the argument, it does not seem from the article as if this is what they have achieved.

Sure giving the balance adds to the drama and emotion but it detracts from the aim of what they are trying to achieve. The point of their course is to teach them to communicate the science.

I appreciate the need to have a "hook" upon which to attach the science and to have a narrative that brings the viewer along. But science is not about balance, it is a one sided process that involves the facts.

Personally I do not have all the information to make a decision on this situation, although I do have my opinions, and if the intent of this film is to communicate the science and to hence give the information that is needed to make a decision then give the rhetoric of either side (or both sides for that matter) is not going to help that process along.

The goal of science communication should not be to start debates but to provide the public access to the information that settles the debate. The communication is not, as Mr Ting seems to think, about getting the two sides of the debate to talk together but to get the correct information out to where it can be accessed by all, removing the need for a debate.

Ares Boldly Goes


Ethan at Starts With a Bang has a great post up about just how spectacular NASA's first new rocket in over 30 years is. Videos of the test launch, which took place on 28 October 2009, has been circulating on Youtube:

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But why spend all this money on sending humans into space, it is dangerous, and relatively pointless, and robots can do so well without us there. Well firstly there is at present a limit to what robots can do either on there own or with our help, problems such as they are generally designed with a specific purpose, where as a human in the same situation is much more versatile.

But the most important reason is that on this pale blue dot of ours there is a limited amount of resources and indeed time. At some point or another in the next 4 or so billion years that it has remaining, the Earth will no longer be able to support us and we will need to be somewhere else if our species is to survive. To that end we need to now begin the efforts of seeding the stars with populations of Humans (and for that matter cattle and grains etc. you know things that we will need to survive).

So by all means use the robots to find out where we can go and how we can get there and what we will find when we get there, but remember that the Earth is the cradle of humanity and one cannot stay in the cradle forever.

Local skeptics meetups


One of the trends in modern skepticism groups that has been developing across the world is to get together and have a few drinks of choice. The Skeptics in the Pub concept has recently made it to New Zealand and groups have been meeting up in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and now Dunedin.

I for one think that these are a great idea, a great way to keep in touch with old friends and meet new ones, as well as learning something new (which we should all do every day)

My local Dunedin chapter is only a few days old and is light on people so if you are keen click the link and sign up. Of course if you are far away from New Zealand's premier centre of learning go to the main national page (or the links above) where you can find the groups in the bigger cities or even start your own in your town.



With spring coming to the southern hemisphere, the blossom and the daffodils are out and the weather is definitely warmer (OK some of the time). But there is a also something bad that also happens, as the sun rises over the polar horizon, and the polar vortex (winds that rotate about the pole) begins to shut down for the summer there is a large patch of stratosphere which has been enclosed in the polar vortex that has an appreciably lower Ozone content. This Ozone "hole" breaks up with the shut down of the polar vortex and regions of lower Ozone content spread out over parts of the southern hemisphere as the two regions diffuse into one an other.

What this means for us that live closer to the South Pole than the equator is that around the time of the southern vernal equinox we tend to get a period of very low ozone over head. So in honour of this and the dangers it can present, I have a series of posts on Ozone.

Firstly, some basics. The Ozone hole is not a region of no Ozone (which is the reason for the scare quotes in the above paragraph) but merely a region of lesser density of Ozone. The hole is defined as a region of Ozone less than 220 Dobson units (DU). This level was chosen as the reference since ozone levels had never been seen lower than this before 1979.
Ozone itself is a relatively unstable allotrope of oxygen (O3). It forms when UV radiation from the Sun breaks the bond between the atoms in the O2 molecule, some of the liberated oxygen atoms then bond with other O2 molecules making O3. This same interaction with UV radiation also breaks down the O3 and it is these two together that are responsible for the UV protection we get from the Ozone layer. Ozone is unstable and quite reactive, especially with molecules containing nitrogen, hydrogen, chlorine, or bromine.

That is enough for today, next in this series we will look at how the Ozone hole has formed and what we have done about it.

The Advertorial


This has to be what I would call one of the worst in terms of despicable advertising practices. Literally it is designing your advert such that it resembles an article in the newspaper/magazine, and usually the only way to tell is there is the word advertisement in very small text at the top. This is making it seem like the newspaper condones and supports the issues the author is raising, giving his/her position more authority than an opinion piece would.

And strangely enough those that practice this deceptive form of advertising seem to be those that are already attempting to deceive people (or themselves) in other ways about the quality of their product or service, such as alternative medicine (alt med) providers.

Now this might seem a tad harsh on alt med people, but then if the alt med had been shown to work, then it would not be alternative medicine but rather simply medicine.

One recurring example of this practice is seen in a local free weekly (one of many my locale seems to have) I get in my mailbox The Star (digital online version can be found here). Almost every week without fail either on page 3 or 5 (usually at the bottom right) there is an advertorial by a local chiropractor - laying down how we should manipulate our spines to prevent swine flu or some such (perhaps I will scan some in point you to the online version find them on the chiropractor's website and deconstruct them at some point in the near future - it seems just to richer source of fodder to ignore).

Taking the example of this particular chiropractor, on his website under "health news", which is where he says to look for the archive of his ad, he clearly states (emphasis mine):
Here are some of the latest developments in the world of healthcare, with chiropractic commentary from Dr Tat Loo. Tat also contributes occasional feature articles and commentary for the weekly Dunedin based paper The Star which we will be included on this page.
This is exactly the sort of deception which is being practiced in these advertorials trying to pass off ads and opinion as "feature articles".

Any way enough for now... enjoy your weekend, I think I will spend some time looking at the relevant acts and laws regarding false advertising.

Don't Panic


The advice given on the outside of the book that gave Douglas Adam's "trilogy" its title (I mean of course the "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy") is always a useful thing to keep in mind, especially in the days of media sensationalism.

Today's worrying threat is a Tsunami, and like I said above I don't want you to panic, and that is for a couple of reasons, the first one is - you may have missed it already (The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii's updated timings for the arrival of a tsunami in New Zealand are: East Cape at 9.44am, Gisborne 10am, North Cape 10.12am, Napier 10.40am, Wellington 10.50am, Auckland (east coast) 11.12am, Auckland (west) 11.39am, Lyttelton 11.55am New Plymouth 12.17pm, Nelson 12.23 pm and Dunedin 12.31pm) and the second being as is clearly highlighted in the NZPA bulletin that the ODT website is carrying the wave is very unlikely to cause much damage - being mostly less than 1m in height when it comes ashore. That said - DON'T GO TO THE BEACH TO WATCH IT.
"It is very important that the public should keep away from beaches and shorelines."

Mr Swinney said that people who live in coastal areas should continue listening to More FM, Classic Hits or Newstalk ZB radio stations for further instructions.

So often we scientists and skeptics find a lot of fault in journalism for pushing sensationalism or not getting the facts even remotely correct. But it is nice to see that in a serious situation all hands are on deck and working together. So keep a weather ear out for any further warnings and follow any civil defense instructions especially if asked to head to higher ground.

The earthquake that caused the tsunami was an 8.3 on the Richter Scale and was centred 205 km south of Apia in Samoa at around 6.50 am this morning (NZDT). It sounds like parts of Samoa were very badly shaken and that there has been some loss of life, so our thoughts go out to those who have lost loved ones, and to those who have lost homes and lively hoods.

Something wicked this way comes


And I mean wicked in the colloquial sense with positive connotations (although I admit that is probably just showing my age) rather than the sense in which Shakespeare intended.

Coming very soon (next week) to some internets near you is a venture put out by New Zealand's Science Media Centre, they have collected some of New Zealand's leading established science bloggers, as well as other scientists who will be starting up some new blogs and created All up there are about 26 blogs to be found there.

The Science Media Centre was set in 2008 up by the Royal Society of New Zealand, at the behest of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, to facilitate links between the media and science so that the media has easy access to relevant scientific information. It is based on similar centres in the UK and Australia.

Yes is designed to be similar to the already famous science blog community Seed Magazines's Scienceblogs, but if there is an idea out there that works why reinvent the wheel.

The blog community site goes live next week (I think the September 30) and amongst the great content that will be there is going to be yours truly. My blog along with those of several other established bloggers will be syndicated to the site so you will be still be able to find all my intellectual ramblings here or you can go there and see what else is on offer in addition to me.

You should be able to find my content at

Relatively Science Humour week: Day 5


Well it is Friday already, the weeks are just zipping by which is not good for my deadlines and stress levels, but good laugh while waiting for the computer to run its programs is always useful and for today we have a couple of clips from the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb - first up a classic take on the religious seeing messages/images in food, followed by a homeopathic A&E.

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Relatively Science Humour week: Day 4


For today we have comedian Dara O'Briain setting the record straight about the public understanding of science, with a good knock on some alternate medicine too

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Relatively Science Humour week: Day 3


For some totally irreverant and skeptic humour, there is this aussie bloke who is quite funny and well worth a listen to. Tim Minchin is his name and his shows usually involve his scruffy haired, bare foot appearance and a grand piano. The juxtaposition of these and what he has to say only adds to humour. So it is well worth a poke around on youtube or his site, but for now I have two of my favourites.

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Relatively Science Humour week: Day 2


For you today I have found a very funny man Brian Marlow who markets himself as a science comedian, there are some great samples on his home page and mostly they include a good honest laugh at the funnier side of science - I especially love the twister clip (it is about mid way down the page with several other embedded audio clips). Below the fold for you today we have him on the subject of Alfred Nobel, Thomas Edison, and the speed of light. (object) (embed)

Laughter is the best medicine


While the title of this post is not necessarily true, a little laughter does go a long way towards reducing stress and making life a bit more enjoyable. And since I have been reading Richard Wiseman's Quirkology and thoroughly enjoying it especially the section on his search for the world's funniest joke, I thought that I would share some humor with you the readers.

If you would prefer something a little more intellectual go check out the latest skeptic's circle at Beyond the Short Coat either before or after enjoying a little laugh

My plan is over the next week to include a post a day with humour in it - it will be a sort of Relatively Science humor week. And as that title sounds most of the humour will be relatively science related - but first up below the fold is comic genius Bill Cosby talking about kids and brain damage
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Come back tomorrow and all week for more.

Is swine flu really all that bad?


Now I am not denying the fact that there is a nasty novel variant of type A H1N1 influenza out there. And that it has an interesting and rather nasty set of symptoms to it. But a good comparison to be looking at is how it compares to the seasonal flu statistics from previous years.

And this is exactly what happens in part of this article in the Otago Daily Times (ODT - my local paper). Mostly the article was about how with the University semester starting last week and many students coming back into town there has been a surge in the number of cases suspected, especially at the University's student health centre. It reports that there are (have been?) 2443 confirmed cases nationwide (as of Tuesday), which was up 80 from the day before, with 26 in intensive care and 11 deaths.

The comparison comes at the end of the article, where it states that the total number of influenza-related deaths (for all subtypes) so far this season (April - end of June) was 109, and this compares to 479 deaths for the last year for which the Ministry of Health had released figures, 2006. So with seasonal flu being a winter months phenomenon then we expect that most of the cases occur between April and maybe October (the winter months for us in the southern hemisphere - ok here I have included most of autumn and the start of spring).

What this suggests, at least at first glance is that this has been a quiet year so far for seasonal flu although this years numbers do not include the coldest month of July. And further more that swine flu has not been a major factor in influenza deaths so far.

So while there may be lots of cases (especially suspected cases - if the anecdotes I hear from friends and family are to be believed), this flu certainly here in NZ does not seem to be much to worry about. Especially in comparison to previous flu pandemics such as 1918. This of course could be some what due to the reaction of bodies like WHO and the local health authorities and their publicity/education campaigns about how to prevent the spread of the disease.

Though it is interesting to note that the North American region is having a lot of cases out of flu season. I guess we will all have to wait and see what happens.

A funny thing happened on the way back from the Moon


40 years ago tomorrow Micheal Collins in the Command Module Columbia snapped this pic of the ascent stage of the Lunar Module Eagle as they returned from the surface of the moon.
And in the couple of years following this 10 more men walked on the surface of our planet's orbital buddy, following in the historic footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin (40 years ago today- so I will wish Tranquility Base happy 40th birthday).

Unfortunately to this day some people do not believe, for various reasons, that we never set foot on the moon (for example see here).

But one of the results of this walking/driving on our natural satelite is that we left an awful mess behind us. Descent stages of the lunar landers, flags, rovers, scientific equipment, footprints, the list goes on. One of the denier arguments goes along the lines of well if this stuff is there why can't we see it. The answer to which is that it is too small.

That is until now. Recent photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which entered orbit around the moon in the last few weeks has a camera with enough resolution to quite clearly see that which we left behind. Many more details can be found here on the NASA site. These photos are awesome, I mean just look at this:
(image) You can even make out the path the astronauts took to set up the scientific experiments that they left behind. And the good news is that these photos were not taken at the final mapping orbit of the satellite and hence are not at the fullest resolution that the onboard camera will be able to see. So keep a look out there will be more and better photos of these sites as the LRO mission continues.

Thanks to Starts With A Bang and Astronomy Picture of the Day for the links

Update: oops got my dates wrong again - for some reason the 19th always sticks in my head but the lunar landing happened on the 20th.

Cosmic Rays, Clouds and Climate


For some reason I am still not sure of I ended up this afternoon on the wordpress homepage and one of the featured blogs was last year's weblog award winner for best science blog What's Up With That (WUWT).If you have never come across this blog before, and I have only ever heard about it in passing, they are of some what of a climate change denialist point of view (which as Phil mentions in that last link just shows that all the webbies are is a popularity contest rather than an evidence based award). The post that was front and centre on the blog was this one about the relationship between cosmic rays and cloud formation. What really caught my attention was the juxtaposition between the "headline": Message in the CLOUD for Warmists: The end is near?, and the graph that followed the first paragraph.Now the paragraph (and actually the graph) talk about the correlation between cosmic rays (using various isotopes as a proxy) and temperature. Much of the rest of the post is a quite interesting description of the CERN experiments and hypothesis that links the galactic cosmic rays (GCR) and cloud formation, and while that is all interesting it is irrelevant to what I wanted to say, even if this turns out to be correct.Now if you look closely at the graph you can see that it covers the last almost 800 years and the proxies for the GCR (10Be and 14C which are the blue and black lines) correlate very well with the red line (Siberian Temperature). They track each other quite well through the dark ages and into the medieval warm period and even through the maunder minimum (little ice age) right up until the middle of the 19th century. Now once we get to the late 19th century we see that the temperature continues to rise and the other lines level off a bit - you can still see that there is a slight influence with the dip in temperature around early to mid 20th century but the lines in general are no longer closely correlated.Oops! Maybe if you are going to make an argument you should make sure that your strongest piece of evidence does not plainly and in clear sight contradict your argument.What does that all mean, firstly well it looks remarkably like the temperature and sunspot cycle length plot I showed previously and as I stated in that post what we can see is an excellent correlation spoiled since the industrial revolution. I left a comment on the WUWT blog that outlined the above lack of modern correlation and stated that what has happened since the industrial revolution that we know may have caused this warming, well we have been putting out a lot of CO2.Other commenters on the WUWT blog mention that CO2 is a very minor atmospheric constituent and that H2O is a better green house gas and much more prevalent. Well this is also true, however H2O has some rather interesting behaviors it saturates quite easily in the atmosphere and everyone that does not live in desert (or at least a drought) gets to experience this - RAIN! Also if you have ever been to the tropics, you may have noticed that the rain can be quite heavy when it is warm this is because increasing the temperature allows the atmosphere to hold more water. If water vapor itself was enough to trigger the sort of greenhouse effect that we are seeing then we would have long ago passed the point of now return, but fortunately the saturation of water in the atmosphere (what we call 100% relative humidity) seems to prevent this from happening - although this is not to say that when the temperature does get warm that there will be more water in the atmosphe[...]

Bad experiment design


Here in New Zealand we tend to import big important current affairs shows such as 20/20 and 60 Minutes, of course we put our own host upfront and show a couple of local stories as well as the interesting ones, mostly from the US, that seem to come with the program.Well on Monday, during 60 Minutes they had a discussion (and this was one of the local stories) about food coloring and children's behaviour (the video clip of the story at the link). They talked with the experts and afflicted parents about how food coloring is bad and is being phased out in places and why are we not doing it etc. This in and of itself is reasonable and studies have shown that coloring can lead to hyperactivity in (some) childrenBut the really bad part of this was when they set up an experiment to show just what effect that the colorings have. They got some parents to lend their children (the kids all looked to be around 6-10 maybe) to the demonstration and put them in two groups. One group would have a healthy color free afternoon tea and the other group would have an afternoon tea full of colorings. They tested the children by getting them to do a drawing and some writing both before and after the food, and the children with the color free food had very little change in their drawing/writing while those in the color group there was a marked decrease in competency. However the best illustration (as far as the producers and the anti-color people were concerned) was that the kids in the color group were just bouncing off the walls and in one case bouncing balls of the presenter and interviewee (a child psychologist I think).On the face of it this sounds like a great demonstration that showed up exactly the concerns that exist about the colorings. The problem was in the controlling of the coloring/non-coloring foods. The coloring group got all the foods that you can give to kids with heaps of the bad colorings in them, things like candy, cordial drinks and coke and that sort of thing. The non-colorings group had lots of fresh fruit and water.If you have not spotted why this does not show colorings in a bad light then maybe go back and compare those snacks again. The colorings group not only got colorings that the non-colorings group did not get but they also got lots of high sugar food (especially refined sugars) and caffeine that the control group did not get, for those of you at home these are known as confounding factors.So what did the demonstration show, that a combination of lots of sugar, caffeine and coloring leads to kids bouncing off the walls. Last time I checked with my two little boys (and their friends) that amount of sugar alone will set kids off, as I witnessed at my elder boy's 4th birthday party last weekend.How could they have done this better, well clearly the control group should have had the same amount and type of sugars, that way you would have been able to see the effect of the colorings, rather than what I suspect was mainly the effect of the sugar that these kids got to stuff themselves with. An example of a way that this could have been done was to use cordial drinks alone as the difference between the groups as many brands put out a color-free variety as well as the usual colored ones.Unfortunately, my wife tells me that some of the other mothers at the playcentre my children go to, did not manage to see this fault in the demonstration and my wife was not able to convince them of why it did not show what they said it showed.That all said, there does appear to be someth[...]

The Power of Probability


I wanted to take a quick detour into probability today, for various reason which I don't really want to divulge.

But in particular I wanted to look at the cumulative probability of multiple independent events. Such as always rolling a 6, or always drawing a red card from a full deck.

It is fairly simple to see that if you want to roll a 6 there is a 1 in 6 or 0.16666... probability of this happening. The same goes for always drawing a red card where the probability is 1 in 2 or 0.5 (or 50%).

But once you start to choose multiple times then you see the the probabilities start to get smaller quite quickly. So the probability of rolling 2 6s, or drawing 2 red cards
  • P(2 6s) = 0.1666 x 0.1666 = 0.16662 = 0.0278 = 1/36 = 2.78%
  • P(2 red) = 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.52 = 0.25 = 25%
And then the probability of three
  • P(3 6s) = 0.16663 = 1/216 = 0.46%
  • P(3 red) = 0.53 = 0.125 = 12.5%
You can see that the dice roll is now quite unlikely less than half a percent and even the high probability drawing a red card from a full deck (which is the same as flipping a coin and getting a head - not sure why I didn't use this as my example) is down to 1/8.

What about if we say drawing 10 cards that are all red, from a full deck
  • P(10 red) = 0.510 = 0.0977%
Which as you can see is really unlikely. So over 99.9% of the time you will not get 10 red cards drawn in a row (or 10 heads on a coin toss).

Of course our examples here uses the same event happening over and over again, but the same math applies when considering events with different probabilities as long as they are independent (which means that one event does not influence any others). As long as the probabilities of the events happening is less than 1 (which would mean that that particular event always happened) then the chances of a series of events happening is more and more unlikely as more and more events are in the series.

One place where this knowledge can be quite useful is in a court case. If for example there are several pieces of evidence that show that the accused could have done the crime. What the defense will try to do is cast doubt on those pieces of evidence, such as by saying that this bloody handprint could have gotten there in a total innocent way. Of course the whole idea of the defense is to cast reasonable doubt as to the accused's guilt. But the more pieces of evidence that there are against the accused then the lesser the probability of them all being circumstantial and the greater the likely hood of the accused being guilty. Even if there is some doubt about each piece of evidence taken together they point to the accused as being guilty, even if the doubt is large such as 50% like we showed above.

Ayuveda in my paper


The online version of my local paper carried a story today under the guise of its Lifestyle and Health section about a reporters experiences trying out some Ayurvedic "medicine". It seems at least to my equal parts horror or pleasure (horror that they paid to have this and pleasure that it was not a local reporter) that this story has been imported from the LA Times and/or Washington Post. Skimming over it immediately prompted me to leave a lengthy comment on the site which I will post below for your reading pleasure.

The article mentions that few "western" doctors espouse these types of healing methods due to lack of (or inability to conduct) scientific studies.

However, those in learned circles, or at least with a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and physics as well as a rational brain can clearly see that methods that have no basis in any scientific understanding of the body, such as the "doshas" (which cannot be shown to exist) have no point in being studied in clinical trials until there is a viable method for their mechanisms of action.

This is all very similar to the ideas (the four bodily humours) that science correctly discarded at the end of the middle ages as utter nonsense. Many feature of the Ayurveda and indeed traditional Chinese medicine are based on disproven ideas of how the body works.

And while more and more this sort of non-reality medicine creeps into the western (especial post-modern) philosophies, you find that in their native countries (in this case India - but it also applies to China) the locals are abandoning these methods for ones that actually work by methods other than relaxation and the placebo effects.

The statements about nutrition and the need to balance what you eat are not restricted to Ayurveda, and can be found just as readily in science-based medicine.

And as for food having energies - Yep it does... you might have heard of them they usually go by the name Calories.

Carnival of the Godless


Hello and welcome to this latest edition of the Carnival of the Godless, for those new to carnivals this one is a fortnightly chance to submit your post on Godlessness (and all that entails) to a potentially wider audience, good for promoting your blog and engendering discussion.We have had a very good turnout here for this edition and I will endeavour to bring it to you in a succinct fashion after all you are not here for me (at least not entirely) - although if you want to have a look around feel free to check out some of the post on basic physics, skepticism, atheism/religion or any of the myriad other topics I have discussed here.Now on with the show...To start with Paul Sunstone of Café Philos shares with us a parody:Helping Those With Mormon Interests.Some of you may remember the smut for smut campaign were people could exchange their bible for porn, well Jennifurret of Blag Hag tells us of her campus groups better taste effort Fiction for Fiction.  She then goes on to ask Is "New Atheism" White Supremacist? and discuss sexuality in nature with Natural SexualityFirst time submitter Bryan W/a 'y' from Science. Why not? deconstructs at time magazine article about faith healing in Spirituality is about as good for your health as sugar pills.lukeprog writing at Common Sense Atheism  presents a possible futuristic look back at the end of a religion The Last of the Christians.At Right To Think yunshui compares cheeses and churches, In Cheeses' Name, Amen before looking at some of the hypocrisy of the conquistadors in Is that a beam in your eye, Mr Cortes?.Brent Fisher gives one of his earlier musings on now that he is not religious what is he, in Humanism, a possible model for moral humans In a post at his bog Pleiotropy Bjørn Østman tells how he is both atheist and agnostic, which is something that I completely agree with as it is the truly skeptical point of view on religion.Greta Christina serves us a helping of religion and the difference between possible and plausible with  Why You Shouldn't Jump Out of Windows , and follows by decrying the patronizing attitude that treats atheists, and especially queer atheists, as sad lost sheep in Why Do Queers Leave Religion?Dr. Jim has a low down on some of his exchanges in the letters to the editor of his local paper Lethbridge's 'Militant' Atheist in Chief 'Heralded' again..Postman delivers this letter direct from the almighty, himselfDear Union of Amalgamated Cherubim & Seraphim Local 151... posted at "Gone Fishin': Postcards From God".Living With Mormonsgive some insight in to what goes in inside What do Mormons believe? A look at Fast and Testimony Meetings.Beth Terry at Fake Plastic Fish (Living Life with Less Plastic) tells us her thoughts on  the purpose of life.Metamagician and the Hellfire Club's Russell Blackford speaks aboutJerry Coyne on science organisations and accommodationism,  before going on to Harvard's Islamic chaplain: "great wisdom" in death penalty for apostates and then why we should be worried about Hate speech and the ICCPR.Lying for Jesus seems to be a common occurrence these days and The Atheist Blogger Adrian Hayter gives us Telegraph Caught Lying For Jesus about the misrepresentation of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS).larryniven of Rust Belt Philosophy presents Walking the walk about following Ontological arguments to their natural conclu[...]

Coming Soon


Ok those here for the latest carnival of the godless, which is due on Sunday 3 May, I apologise for the delay (that should only effect those in timezones much ahead of UT).  The carnival will be up in the next couple of hours - family sickness and deadlines at work have meant that I am behind schedule on this

Thanks for you patience and check back in a couple of hours.