Monday, 29 April 2013

“For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.

Since I have had a recent go at English graduates, prizes (well, a metaphorical pat on the head) will be awarded for the person or persons who can identify all the quotes that I place, strategically or otherwise, within this post.

“Why then should witless man so much misweene
That nothing is but that which he hath seene?” 


 The word "misweene" has rather gone out of use.  I haven't heard it in, let me see, ever.  That's a shame because in the context of what has been exercising my mind recently this is a very useful word, and the couplet is a very useful couplet.  The online dictionary defines misweene as "to ween amiss; to misjudge; to distrust; to be mistaken"  I should be cautious because no doubt some Elizabethan poetry expert will pop up in the comments and let me know that I have chosen the wrong one but for the sake of my little sermon, the last shall be first.  "To be mistaken".

To translate into modern prose: Why do the ill informed get it wrong that nothing is true unless they have seen it?  All right, you might object that I haven't got that right either, but the point here is that Edmund Spenser is basically saying that those without much learning are subject to the Dunning Kruger Effect.  If you haven't heard it before, and obviously Spenser would not have used the term, basically it is the idea that people think they are better than they actually are.  Or, as Wikipedia has it:


"Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill."

I had to laugh the other day when I saw it applied to someone who was supporting the idea that humans have caused, or at least contributed to, global warming, by someone whose basic argument technique was to make fun of someone's name and then make a rather insulting comment.  Very playground, I must say.  Very primary school.

I chuckled for a very good reason.  The global warming denialist had made the point that they never opened the links given by the pro-warming side because, well, you know, they didn't conform to what was already their solidly held belief, viz. that it is all one worldwide government conspiracy (as if you can herd the Chinese or the Russian governments in the same way that you can so easily herd cats and come up with pretty solid global agreement).  The pro-warmist was using sensible links to verified evidence and, well, that made her someone who believed she was better than she actually was.  Oh, well.  At least I now have an example to explain the meaning of the word irony.


“Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice.” 

It is common for those people that are conveniently called deniers to throw the mud of "there is no evidence" for whatever you are proposing.  This usually stems from a profound ignorance.  The ignorance has two stems.  The first of these is that they are genuinely not in possession of the information because they don't know where to find it, or cannot understand it when they do find it.  I sometimes feel a bit battered when I come across some scientific research that I am not competent to understand straight away.  I felt like that a bit when confronted with my mother's necrotising fasciitis when she was admitted as a dire emergency to an intensive care unit five years ago.  It was all rather bewildering and there was lots of information on Google but understanding it was hard work.  It took effort and I am better able to cope than most because, luckily, I chose a scientific career path all those years ago and didn't let it slip when I graduated.  I can easily see that those with GCSE science, or equivalent, might have no real chance of understanding some of the evidence, the nuances of scientific thinking, the probabilities and statistics...
Buy this book (no, I don't get paid to say this)

But there is also the second stem, and this is one that is inevitably fed by the media of all persuasions.  Science is, as Ben Goldacre argued in Bad Science, badly served by large parts of the media, especially the newspapers and magazines that purvey science in small gobbets, usually health related.  It was these same news outlets that stirred the antivax pot over the nonexistent link between MMR and autism.  They might not hold Andrew Wakefield in such high esteem any longer, but they still peddle some atrocious health news.  Worse, there is a monthly magazine called What Doctors Don't Tell You which fails to omit the most important thing that doctors won't tell you but perhaps should: the magazine is a science free zone.

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” 

 For everyone who thinks there is no evidence, not one scrap, that vaccines work, the above quote is good news.  You can still have the injection, still suffer feeling a small prick in the arm, and being prevented from catching some nasty infection whether you believe in it or not.  And you can do the same for your children, who certainly won't know if it works or not.  That's rather fortunate because I relied on Newtonian physics and the kinetic theory to get me home from work tonight.  And I am relying on some quantum effects to type this.  And there are countless other examples of scientific ideas that underpin uor understanding of the everyday world and that help us to live an easier life, regardless of what naysayers might think.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

Back to the Dunning Kruger Effect.  This isn't too far removed.  When first of all you convince yourself that something is true or false, you tend to look for evidence that confirms it.  You might twist things to fit the theory or reject other bits of evidence because they don't confirm what you believe.  That might work in the world of deciding which album is the greatest of all time but it sure as anything doesn't work in the world of science.  First of all, science goes to great lengths to try to eliminate the self-confirmation bias.  It has anonymous peer reviewing which, as I am sure all deniers know, is designed to ensure that interesting science gets published and rubbish science doesn't.  It is not there to confirm the status quo.  Scientists have a low boredom threshold in my experience and they like looking for questions to answer.  They don't want to repeat the same old experiment for fifty years.

Barry Marshall should be a good example here.  He is the Australian doctor who "fought" the establishment when he suggested that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria and could be cured with antibiotics.  His appearance on The Infinite Monkey Cage is here.  He has a salutory lesson for all those who would try to overturn the wisdom of centuries of careful science: go ahead but be prepared tohave every other scientist in the world try to prove you wrong.  Oh, and even if they did laugh at Galileo, it doesn't mean you are right.

So good science tends to chase out bad science and it does so because there is evidence.  Not because someone shouts the loudest but because someone does the hard work and collects the experimental results and analyses them and looks for reasons why they might not be true.  It is to some extent soul destroying because just when you think it is all sorted and everything is correct, someone comes along and finds a flaw.  Remember those faster than light neutrinos.

“If you thought that science was certain - well, that is just an error on your part.” 

Oh, boy, do the deniers love pointing out that just when you say the science is settled, along comes something and the science changes slightly. They are missing the point.  When challenged once to come up with a scientific theory which was settled, it wasn't hard.  The scientifically verifiable idea that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning.  Based, as it is, on a model of the motion of the planets (something that will make the toes curl of the global warming deniers, it is about as settled philosophically as anything is.  Philosophers (even some scientists have heard of Karl Popper) have long known that you cannot prove anything unto infinity in science.  The Sun might do an about turn and ruin my faith in the evidence and the model, but it would be a major upset for Newton if it did.  It won't.  Rest assured.
Karl Popper

But new discoveries are made all the time and although most won't make the front page of the newspaper, or indeed any page, they are filling in the grand jigsaw puzzle that is science and painting more detail into the picture that is our understanding.  Sometimes a new piece of evidence opens a new window on the world (I am starting to get my metaphors in a twist here).  It allows us to see, to understand, just a little more.  Sometimes it won't be understood for a while.  Quantum theory in all its myriad flavours still confuses even though it is the most precisely verified of all scientific theories.  One day we may have gone beyond it, maybe not.

What upsets the deniers is that they think this new knowledge means that the original theory is wrong and should be discarded.  What they don't know is that the underlying science is so robust, so supported on the foundations of secure evidence, that it would be more like knowing over an immense row of dominoes if we were to chuck it out.  Science works on evidence and trying to understand what that tells us. 

“It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom.” 

It would be nice if everyone were rational and open to the pursuasion of the evidence.  I sincerely hope that if I am every wrongfully arrested that some of the close minded irrational deniers are not on my jury.  I might as well change my plea.  Yet these are the same people who sit and watch CSI or NCIS and wonder at the way science and reason are used to solve a murder mystery.  All in 45 minutes too.  
A TV scientist
What I said earlier in this post I think holds all too true.  Most people are in love a little bit with science, but they are overawed by it too, and they don't want to look sometimes because it will challenge their beliefs.  A meme I have seen on some sites has uncovered what seems to be unfortunately true about some parents of autistic children.  They seem to have a Platonic ideal about children.  They should be perfect.  And autism seems to rob those parents of that perfection, and in looking for someone or something to blame, instead of asserting the role of pure unpredictable chance, they alight on a faceless, nameless yet all too human cause: the very people who were trying to help their children in the first place.

My mother spent nearly two weeks in intensive care, then a couple of days out on a normal ward before suffering a relapse.  At 9.50 one Thursday morning I got an urgent call telling me to go to the hospital.  It took nearly three hours before I got there and by then it was too late.  I cannot erase the vision of my dad and brother, sitting in the sunshine on a bench, just sunken with grief, a copy of a bereavement leaflet clutched in my dad's hand.  When the shock subsided, he wanted answers and we drafted a letter to the hospital.  We went through a meeting at which it became all too clear that, actually, my mum had lived well beyond what they had expected.  She had undergone, at age 78 and in poor cardiac shape, a serious, life saving operation and come through it.  Her heart, however, was not strong enough and eventually it gave in.  My brother and I didn't really see the point in questioning the doctors but we supported my dad for whom it was cathartic.  It brought him, as they say, closure.  What mattered was they told him that she really hadn't been expected to come back from the operation alive.

My point is simple.  We all have questions.  We just don't all like the answers we get.  And sometimes we choose to ignore those answers and replace them with ones we do like, even if they are wrong.  Combatting those wrong answers is important.  After all, lives are at stake.  My granddaughter might not catch smallpox but she might get polio (although unlikely) because some ignorant (in at least one sense of the word) bunch of people has a prejudice against the vaccination program.

"Everything has got to be just like you want it to"

Not in my world it isn't.  I might want it to be but it just isn't.  

To counter the antivax comments I might get, please click on this link  or this one.

To counter global warming deniers, try here

All I ask is that you look sensibly at the scientific evidence.  You might (no, will) learn something, and it probably won't be what you thought it would be.

If you think I am suffering from Dunning Kruger, then I humbly apologise.  And I defer to more expert testimony than I might be able to give.

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