Monday, 26 January 2015

Who invented the scientific method? A response to a minor Monckton point.

This might sound pedantic but stay with me and you will see the larger picture.

Here is a quote from Lord Monckton's celebrated (cough) response to Naomi Oreskes piece in Nature about scientific consensus:
The celebrated mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of science Abu Ali Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen, is justly celebrated as the founder of the scientific method.
If you don't believe me, here is the pdf.  Treat with extreme caution.
A modern image of Al-Haytham

Here is a quote from the SPPI website:
Al-Haytham, unlike Naomi Oreskes, did not consider that consensus had any role in science.
Well, of course not, because at Al-Haytham's point in history the idea of even a group of scientists was non-existent.  There would be scholars and academics sending one another ideas and findings but scientists were so thin on the ground that there probably were fewer than 100 contemporaneous with Al-Haytham.  But that's by the by. 

Recently I came across a site on the history and philosophy of science written by someone who has more expertise than I, more knowledge that Monckton and a better seeker after the truth than His Lordship (or his factotum, Scrotum).  It is called The Renaissance Mathematicus and I have found it fascinating.  I found it even more so when I came across a post called Nobody Invented The Scientific Method.

I suggest you go over there and read the full post but one thing that pricked my ears up was this:
Aristotle, Archimedes, Ibn al-Haytham, Galileo, Bacon (both Roger and Francis), Descartes and Newton are just some of the more prominent historical figures who invented the scientific method. Makes for kind of a crowded field doesn’t it?
There's that chap, al-Haytham, that Monckton mentions.  The one he insists upon whenever talking about the scientific method.  But he's in with a bunch.  How are we going to pick?  They are in chronological order so that might help.  But there has always been a question in my mind, and having read reasonably widely on this subject over twenty or so years, there is something that the Renaissance Mathematicus and I can agree upon and it is in the very next paragraph:
The real problems start when one tries to define what exactly “The” scientific method actually is. In reality there isn’t any such animal. There are a related family of methods and practices that have been used over the centuries to produce, test and question scientific hypotheses and theories, not one single golden method. 
It is the major problem in the philosophy of science, in my view.  Lots of philosophers have tried to identify what science is.  Karl Popper thought he had the answer but he didn't.  His falsification is not the entire answer and for a long time he was wrong on evolution.  You might wish to know that Monckton, in his SPPI nonsense, likes Popper (well, he would because Popper is something of a libertarian, though that might be stretching things somewhat):
Karl Popper formalized the scientific method as an iterative algorithm starting with a general problem. To address it, a scientist proposes a falsifiable hypothesis. During the error-elimination phase that follows, others demonstrate it, disprove it or, more often do neither, whereupon it gains some credibility not because a consensus of experts endorses it but because it has survived falsification.
I am not sure I agree with Monckton here but this is not the point.  There are plenty of bits of science that have no hypotheses.  Lots of natural history is hypothesis free. 

Anyway, back to Al-Haytham.  If there is no one thing which we can say is the scientific method, there can be no one who invented it.  But why does Al-Haytham have any claim in the first place?

The Renaissance Mathematicus has an answer.  His answer is somewhat negative. 
This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) 
Now it takes a bit of searching and reading on the Internet to find the other side of the hagiographic coin that Monckton seems to have taken.  There are plenty of, mostly cloned, pieces that push Al-Haytham's claim to be the father of the scientific method.  I posit that Monckton doesn't have the historical or scientific understanding that enables him to be sceptical of the claims for Al-Haytham to be anything on the scientific method, other than that he had a quotable quote:
“The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them," the first scientist wrote, "but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration and not the sayings of human beings whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. he should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” 
 Curiously, if Monckton had followed this, he might not have fallen into the lazy interpretation of the idea of scientific method and might have learned a whole lot more.

But Monckton doesn't do that.  He is very rigid about rules.  The number of times he whines about the behaviour of scientists, their supposedly transgressions of academic behaviour and so on, is immense.  I won't bother cataloguing any.  They are not hard to find.  Monckton has a childish belief that science should be done one way and one way only.  He clings to this Platonic ideal and when it doesn't come up to his standard, he cries foul. 

I actually began to write a different post.  I was thinking about explaining why fake skeptics are fake.  Monckton's love of rules is one way (just think his inability to accept that he is not, no matter how one looks at it, a member of the House of Lords, especially when the keeper of the rule book has said he isn't).  Fake skeptics (let's call them deniers) seem to think they are the referees in a game that is called science.  They are not.  The scientific method, whatever it is, changes, evolves and mutates as new techniques arise.  Is theoretical physics science?  Is string theory science?   Is astrology science?  Popper tried to deal with this demarcation dispute and didn't succeed. 

Just as art is indefinable yet we recognise it when we see it, so is science to a large extent.  It is not an algorithm or a single way of doing things.  It is a way of thinking.  It is scepticism with limits.  Those limits are defined by the evidence available.  The fake skeptic, the denier, do not see those limits.  Instead, they try to break them, bend them and twist them to fit the result they have predetermined.  And when that doesn't work, they cry foul.

Monckton doesn't understand the scientific method.  Now there's no surprise.  Now if Monckton wants to see what real scholarship can achieve, he could do better than read what I have been reading.

Sort of conflict of interest:  the author of the site quoted on Al-Haytham went to the rival school to the one I attended. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

How deniers debate - Number 1: Lord Monckton

See update at end

Over at Thought Fragments there is a bit of a ding dong involving the eminent climate science denier, Lord Christopher Monckton, and a cast of several who are not buying his paper, published in the detritivore realm of Science Bulletin, a pretty much unknown journal from China (impact factor 1.36). 

Since Monckton has emerged from the woodwork to defend (sic) his paper, it gives us a very good opportunity to examine the way that Monckton responds to critics.  So let's have a look.

After AndThenThere'sPhysics makes a comment, CB says this:
"Lord" Christopher Monckton is known to suffer from Graves' disease, which can cause dementia in some patients.
Examples are below...
The good Lord then weighs in with:
Don't be childish
This is his latest catchphrase.  We know this because he repeats it ad nauseam, until he comes up with some variations, of which more later.  Here's an example:
Don't be childish. NASA has had to row back on its press release about the supposed "warmest year", admitting that there is only a 38% chance of that. And what is quite clear is that, even if that 38% chance is true, the rate of global warming is half of what the IPCC had predicted in 1990, and a third of what James Hansen predicted in 1988. 
You will note that the second sentence, the one after the catchphrase, is just not true.  But it is the story being used by deniers to muddy the waters over what was, by just about every measure, the hottest year of the instrumental record.

For a while, however, the enticement of this new catchphrase is ignored.  Instead, when asked for a citation, Monckton uses the boring old catchphrase beloved of deniers (lest they might let the cat out of the bag):
Do your own homework.
 Of course, that's the way science and, indeed, all of academia works.  Not.  Since Monckton makes an assertion, it is his duty to support it with evidence, not the questioner's.  Monckton knows this, but giving too much away, like evidence, is not how denial works.  It can't, because denial is a card con  trick and we know that those depend on sleight of hand.

It is now that Monckton chooses to unveil a second debating trick.  It looks as if he is redirecting the debate back to the main point, the science of his tatty paper, but in reality it is nothing of the kind.  It is another means to distract the eye and avoid having to make substantial points.  Witness:
Let us stick to the science. My passport says I'm a Lord - or, specifically, a Viscount.
Well, having checked the UK passport application form, you could put any title on it.  I might suggest I am a Time Lord next time I renew.  I wonder if it would get through?  But we know Monckton is a Viscount.  It is by the by.
Fiat lux

Here is the meat:
In summary, Monckton of Brenchley et al. present a paper in which every element sourced from the pre-existing literature is explicitly acknowledged and close to 60 references are, therefore, cited. It is self-evident that our model is distinct in several respects from that of Budyko. And, as far as we have been able to discover, no model identical to ours exists anywhere. Indeed, some of the equations we derived and presented in the paper have never appeared anywhere before, as far as we can discover.
One of the chief values of our paper is its discussion of the appropriate values or intervals for the key parameters. Another value is in its condensing the process for determining climate sensitivity into the shortest possible compass capable of giving tolerably robust results.
To make a snide suggestion that we had done what had already been done before, but without acknowledgement, is accordingly inappropriate. But it would perhaps be best if anyone who wished to verify the position rather than relying on a tendentious blog were to download the paper for himself from Just click on the Current Issue link and then find our paper: Why models run hot: results from an irreducibly simple climate model. 
"To make a snide suggestion...", that's not scientific and that comes from someone who accused academic John Abraham of acting in an academically non-professional manner.   Just read George Monbiot to realise how "bonkers" Monckton's response was.  And how over the top.  And how typical.  And how often used by deniers of other stripes.  Abraham responded to Monckton's over the top 99 page rant in a thoroughly modest manner.  Abraham's crime, in Monckton's view, was to have questioned him and checked some facts.  Well, lots of facts.  And found Monckton wanting.  This was all a few years ago, but Monckton is not the sort of leopard that willingly changes his spots.

AndThenThere'sPhysics cuts to the chase:
And, as far as we have been able to discover, no model identical to ours
exists anywhere. Indeed, some of the equations we derived and presented
in the paper have never appeared anywhere before, as far as we can
You do realise that if you change the letters in the equations, it doesn't become a new model?
And how does the good Lord respond.  You guessed it, with his new favourite catchphrase:
 Don't be childish. If you have a scientific point to make, make it.
But of course, there is a scientific point here.  A new equation is not new because you have written it differently to the way it has been written before (if it is, then look at this P = QxF where P = force, Q = mass and F = acceleration).   But Monckton doesn't respond to that point.  He just resorts to childish insult.

To whit.  Fragmeister12 says:
So far as I can tell, plenty of scientific points have been made. You usually answer them with don't be childish. Then you make a point about not having a scientific point. I don't have a scientific point to make, just an observation of how you operate. Your rhetorical flourishes might sound good in the common room of the Upper Sixth at Harrow. Here they just look, well, childish.
 And Monckton responds:
If you have a grown-up scientific point to make about the paper, please make it. Otherwise, why bother to post here. Go and get a life!
Rich, as I am sure you will agree.
Monckton pointing at something childish

Anyway, during the too and fro, Monckton replies to himself and unintentionally (perhaps) gives us both a confession and a belly laugh:
Then behave like a grown-up scientist. Don't opine till you've seen the evidence
I couldn't agree more.

A bit later he says this:
Science is childlike curiosity and adult rationality. 
 Yes, and it needs both halves to work.  Which is Monckton forgetting?  (Spoiler alert: both.)

It couldn't be too long before the spectre of irrational conspiracy ideation raised its head, could it?  Of course not.
Totalitarian science made it appear that the climate would change far more than it has. The growing discrepancy between prediction and observation shows that the adoption of a climate-Communist or thermo-Fascist official line on climate science was a grave and expensive mistake.
I think at this point we can be sure that Monckton has lost the thread, the plot and the debate.  He is having a tantrum and we know where those lead.  In his case, once teddy has exited the pram, it is nanny telling him to go to bed with no tea. Bless.

Having claimed that his paper is being downloaded by the barrowload, Fragmeister12 asks:
"Meanwhile, thousands of scientists have downloaded our paper and I expect that most of them are looking at the scientific arguments in it with a clear and unprejudiced eye."
Will you still be saying they used an unprejudiced eye if they agree with the post upon which we comment and say that you are wrong? Or will you call them climate communists and thermofascists?
Monckton got straight to the point:
Don't be infantile. If you have a scientific point to make, write a rebuttal to our paper and send it to the Science Bulletin for peer review.
No, of course he didn't.  He resorted to insults and, shock horror, a plea that the debate returned to the point.  That would be the point he didn't really want to talk about earlier.

As you should know by now, this nonsense is circular and Monckton is such an experienced practitioner that he can keep it going forever.  I wonder if he knows what he is doing or, like a five year old lying about eating a sweet, he is just programmed to keep wasting everyone's time, most of all his own.

But, something amazing happened.  Eventually Monckton seems to have had enough.  Really.  He takes his bat and ball home with him and stops responding.  Instead, he sends his clerk, a man called James Rowlatt:
His Lordship is engaged on other business. It would perhaps be better if the commenter were to read the paper to which His Lordship has referred to him. It is no longer than the usual scientific paper and, no doubt, the commenter will find the plain statement by Mr Hansen to which His Lordship has referred. - James Rowlatt, Clerk to His Lordship 
This brings Anders to something approaching boiling point:
James Rowlatt, Clerk to His LordshipIs this serious? Has his Lordship seriously sent his Clerk to respond to my comment? That's absolutely hilarious, if so. Maybe His Lordship should get off his high horse and point out where in this very short paper I can find what he is referring to. When His Lordship is not longer engaged on other business, of course. Yours in waiting patiently.

 So now we know what Monckton does when he finally gets skewered.  He goes for a crap, or a lie down, or out for a curry or anything but engage with the science.  And he sends his paid troll to do his business.  If Monckton wasn't for real, we might have to make him up.

Oh, somebody already did.

Update: James Rowlatt shares an emollient writing style with his boss. They could be mistaken for one another. But sending your batman into bat for you is like sending Baldrick in to cover for Lord Blackadder. Shameful.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Needless exploitation of a tragic case - but what will Lynne McTaggart do?

I, for one, would like to see how Lynne McTaggart tackles this case.  A young Canadian girl suffering leukaemia, was taken off chemotherapy and "treated" by a quack in Florida.  She is now dead.  Her parents are not blaming the cancer but others do. 
Orac - but you knew that already

Read what Jerry Coyne and Orac have to say.  After all, you probably won't get to read Lynne McTaggart and friends take on it. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Lynne McTaggart - a classless act

I have written about Lynne McTaggart before.  For example, here, here and here.  In fact, the last one is amongst my greatest hits, at least in terms of page views.  I suspect one or two people were searching for natural medicine and would have been rather disappointed to read that you can have it if you want it, just that some of it won't actually do anything you want it to do. 
Lynne McTaggart, the look on her face is surprise at the thought she might be wrong

So now it is time to write about her again.  Actually, I won't demolish her insensible blog entry, as WWDDTYDTY has already done a very nice job of pointing out what a tiresome hypocrite Lynne McTaggart is. I just want to make some general points.

McTaggart claims once to have been an investigative journalist.  Perhaps she was but there's precious little I can find to support that.  She would, presumably, have learnt that an investigative journalist needs to be even more certain that they are reporting the truth, supported by documentation, evidence, testimony.  That she misrepresents and distorts suggests the truth means that her days as an investigative journalist are well behind her, if they ever existed.  (If she wants to read a real investigative journalist, she could try Brian Deer.  Here is a link to a piece where he uncovers unscientific practices, the sort of hit that McTaggart can only envy.0

What Doctors Don't Tell You is a bit of a louse on the scalp of the medical profession.  Creates a bit of an itch but you can live with it, so long as it doesn't start breeding.  In 2012, it did just that, erupting from the newsletter by subscription it was and finding itself on the shelves of supermarkets and W H Smith.  A rather ad hoc campaign began to point out the poor advice and anti-science material that it published, asking the supermarkets to reconsider.  That most have done so, and that most now don't stock the trashy rag, suggests one of two things.

Either someone in the buying department has a bit of science knowledge, or the thing doesn't sell very well.  Based on a minute sample, the fact that copies were regularly hanging around on the shelves of my local Smith's suggest that the latter might be the case.  Commercial entities make commercial decisions.  If Tesco thought for one minute that WDDTY was a going concern, they would have kept stocking it.  It wasn't in my local mega-Tesco yesterday and hasn't been for a while.

One of the things that happened early in the ad hoc campaign was that McTaggart demonstrated a very prickly side.  In fact, it might be described as paranoid.  She comes across as a bit of a spoilt brat, crying when told she's wrong and threatening to take her ball home with her.  She whines about free speech without, I suspect, having the slightest intention to abide by her spirited use of the phrase.

So when she put up a piece about free speech it was surely not long before her enthusiasm for freedom was backed up by her greater enthusiasm for eliminating dissent.  Such a class act, I'm sure you will agree.  I archived her blog piece several times so we can see the sort of comment she was deleting.  But first, let's see one comment by the lady herself so we can judge whether she is a reliable witness in her own defence:
We're not talking about people who disagree with us - we're talking about a small, organized group of people who have actively engaged in activities that attempt to ruin my reputation and deprive us of livelihood. By their actions, they are suppressing journalism that challenges the corporate medical Establishment - exactly what the laws about free speech were designed to protect. Suppression of press critical of the Establishment is never free speech. They are welcome to their opinions - but by taking the actions they've taken, they are actively engaged in suppressing free speech. One of the people we regularly delete is a ringleader. They have no interest in honest debate. They simply want to suppress my magazine. So this is cyber terrorism by any other name and doesn't belong in my community.
Is she kidding?  No, I think she thinks she's telling the truth.  So let's examine some of those words, shall we?

 We're not talking about people who disagree with us
Yes, she is.  Of course she is.  She deleted every single dissenting comment, so far as I can see, leaving one supportive comment hanging on that made the above comment look stupid.  So that got deleted too.
we're talking about a small, organized group of people who have actively engaged in activities that attempt to ruin my reputation and deprive us of livelihood.
No, the barely organised group of people are engaged in fact checking her statements and pointing out mistakes.  By writing to the supermarkets, they did not ask for her to be banned but for her magazine not to be stocked.  Tesco, Sainsbury and others don't have to take every magazine on offer.  In fact, they don't.  As for McTaggart's reputation, amongst most people she doesn't have one.  Amongst the medical and scientific professions it is mostly trash anyway.  Amongst the woo brigade, she is a goddess.  But when someone prints and promotes something that is untrue (vitamin C cures cancer anyone?), they can expect to be challenged.  That McTaggart chooses not to engage in any way that I can detect with these criticisms but prefers to delete them, thereby sticking her head firmly in the sand, she enables the plummeting reputation to fall further.
By their actions, they are suppressing journalism that challenges the corporate medical Establishment - exactly what the laws about free speech were designed to protect.
This would be funny were it true.  What McTaggart and her tawdry magazine do is barely journalism.  The advertorial articles are laughable.  Some of the opinion is ranting rubbish.  And if she were really to find something out worth publishing, like Brian Deer, there are plenty of options available to her.  That she doesn't shouts very loudly that her journalism barely challenges the so-called corporate medical Establishment, a phrase that tells you more than enough about her state of mind.
Suppression of press critical of the Establishment is never free speech.
Quite, but free speech does not imply freedom from criticism, fact checking and so on.  If what McTaggart had to sell was such a challenge to the establishment, she might have joined with the AllTrials campaign but she didn't.  One suspects she isn't really interested in that sort of truth.  And free speech can and does attack those that publish falsehoods, whether deliberately or accidently.  It is hard to believe that McTaggart is unaware that she is somewhat flexible with the truth, with the way that she uses published material and with the fact that often she is promoting the "research" of people with huge conflicts of interest.
They are welcome to their opinions - but by taking the actions they've taken, they are actively engaged in suppressing free speech.
Apparently I am welcome to my opinions but I have actively engaged in suppressing free speech.  They say patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.  I am beginning to think it is free speech.  McTaggart welcomes my opinion but deletes it.  Well, it is her site and this is mine.  She is welcome to come here and explain herself.  Which she won't do, of course, because she runs scared that someone, anyone, will unmask her.  Is she so unsure of her own work that dissent must be shut down.  She did so on Facebook and has now done so on her blog.  She is a hypocrite.  I can't believe she doesn't know it.
 One of the people we regularly delete is a ringleader.
 Shock, horror, probe.
They have no interest in honest debate.
It is hard, I'd say impossible, to have an honest debate with McTaggart.  She doesn't appear to want one.  She could have one quite easily but she evades and shrills and whines and deletes but she doesn't engage.  I fear a debate might be one sided. 
So this is cyber terrorism by any other name and doesn't belong in my community.
Cyber terrorism.  Hyperbole.  A few emails, a few blogs, a few DoNotFollow links hardly constitutes cyber terrorism.  This is hardly hacking Sony, is it?

 So let's look at some comments that disappeared to see if what McTaggart wrote is anything close to reality (for those without the time to stick with this, I know it's been quite long, her relationship with reality is fleeting and weak)
Guy, Jan 18: Actually, Lynne, nothing would make us happier than for you to abandon the misleading content and become a reputable publisher of factual information. Your problem here is not that we want to ruin your reputation or deprive you of a livelihood, but that your "reputation" and livelihood depend on claims, often commercial claims, that are false or misleading.

Your coverage of vaccines is a case in point. You consistently promote misleading, often outright false, claims about vaccines, and promote fraudulent alternatives. The result of this kind of activity is that people die. Actually die, not die of something unrelated some time later, as with the VAERS reports.

Fragmeister, Jan 18: Lynne, I have found, in recent days, that those with most to say about freedom of speech are those with much to be concerned about. By all means ban those you disagree with, but that always looks like running away from criticism, especially valid and evidenced criticism. That is reinforced when, as I have, the references you give in your magazine are checked. At risk of coming across as a tone troll, when you threaten to take your ball home because you don't like being questioned or criticised, you look rather like a spoilt child.

Rather than delete such posts, thereby chucking the free speech thing out with the bath water, perhaps you could defend your position with evidence and argument that can be assessed properly. You would win more fans that way, and a bit more respect from those you have chosen to tar with a rather smeary brush. 
 Guy, Jan 18: Me? No! I'm not fearful or offended. I have legitimate concerns, though - the Wakefield MMR-autism fraud led to a significant reduction in vaccine take-up, with the result that there are outbreaks of measles in the UK again, and this has led in turn to serious harm and even death.

In the same way, anti-vaccination activism in the US and Australia has led to a resurgence of pertussis, again leading to the deaths of babies.

The best evidence indicates that around a quarter of a million people die worldwide every year from cancers caused by vaccine-preventable strains of HPV. WDDTY seems to care only about the 47 people who died of something else after an HPV vaccination.

Anti-vaccination activism is a first world problem: people in developing countries are often aghast at the existence of vaccine refuseniks. They live with the daily threat of disease. Thanks to vaccines, we don't - and thanks to antivaxers that is changing.

Athena, 18 Jan: Thank you for confirming the truth of what I said in my last comment, Lynne, (which you deleted of course, together with several others).

Sheila, why should I go to the trouble of referencing, when anything said in criticism of WDDTY is censored by Lynne who risibly claims to want an 'honest debate' on the issues she raises? In fact she cannot abide the smallest challenge to anything she says; she censors and blocks critics no matter how well-supported their criticisms, thereby demonstrating that debate of any kind is the last thing she wants. Worse, she then stoops to publishing false and defamatory information about her critics - not much love and respect from her, Sizar!  

Annalei, 18 Jan: With respect, I think that you are being unreasonable in your (draconic?) removal of comments as, though I am fairly new to your website, some of your claims do not standd up to research. I was initially inspired by your commitment to revealing treatments on the forefront of medicine, as I suffer from an autoimmune disease which conventional treatment struggles to address. But I am disappointed by the quality of evidence you offer. For example, I have some background in physics as part of my degree and was perturbed by your explanation of quantum physics. It contained some very muddled and some might say misleading ideas. I feel that I and others like myself have the right to point out errors like these to prevent others from being misled, and if comments end up being deleted then I do sympathise with those who are forced to create external campaigns. Indeed - that itself is free speech!

Thanks for your time, hope you consider what I have to say (& don't delete me :( )  
 Athena, 18 Jan: From Lynne's perspective it is far better to publish falsehoods about people and divert from - rather than engage with - the sound arguments they make. She'll evidently say anything to defend the attempted scam on the public that is WDDTY - she doesn't need anyone to ruin her reputation for her, she has managed to do that all by herself. Yes - I do get angry when I see misinformation about health matters being promoted to the public in order to line the promoter's pockets and, thankfully, I'm far from being the only one.

If any of you are open-minded enough to read well-supported criticisms of WDDTY then google is your friend but I won't hold my breath.
 Below are some archives of McTaggart's piece so you can see even more comments getting trashed.




If you can stomach this flummery, you can watch this (beware, there are some, let's call them, falsehoods on Gardasil) continuous stream of wrong.

For balance on Gardasil, read Orac.

But for the truth, I wouldn't both reading anything by Lynne McTaggart.  Nothing.  At some point in the future, I might wade through some of her quantum rubbish.  For the moment, I have more important work to do. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Neil Catto - Pseudoscience In Action

I am not sure whether I should thank Sou but I will.  I am ambivalent because, settling down to the first hour of the fourth Aussie/India test's final day, I check Sou's excellent blog and found a post on a science denier called Neil Catto at WUWT and did her usual excellent job with it.  An anonymous commenter opened up the pseudoscience can of worms by finding out more on the inestimable Neil Catto.  He is, let's put it this way, eccentric in science terms at least.
Neil Catto - could be mentioned in the same breath as Darwin

Perhaps I should go further.  He promotes a version of science that can easily be described as not consensus.  He runs a company called Weather Research (I am assuming that Catto is the "brains" behind this company) which, it would seem, doesn't do that much research on weather.  It claims to have done some research on the links between weather and buying patterns, which would seem straightforward.  It also claims to have done some research on genes.  If you don't believe me, head over to its website.

Well, if you did and you have come back, let me take you on a tour of what are likely to be unsubstantiated claims.
Through 14 years of rigorous research we have discovered an innate weather-coping mechanism which is common to every living organism.
An innate weather coping mechanism?  I should warn you that the definition Catto claims for weather is not this:
 the state of the atmosphere at a particular place and time as regards heat, cloudiness, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc
but this:
Every living organism has been, and is, stimulated by air (gases), heat, light and water. In simple terms we can consider air (gases), heat, light and water as being WEATHER. Without any one of these elements, apart from a few extremeophiles, no life could exist.  
 It's a bit, sort of, unscientific.  It's more than that.  It is plain rubbish.  No one thinks the weather is air, heat, light and water.  It is a quality of those things.  And I can think of quite a few organisms that exist without light, D audaxviator might shake Catto's beliefs, found 2.8km down in a gold mine in South Africa.  Catto, it would seem, doesn't do much research in biology after all.  Especially since he claims that his amazing discovery is "common to every living organism".  Has he checked?  All of them?  Including the ones that haven't been discovered yet?  That might be tricky.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is that it makes huge claims, mostly (perhaps always) unsupported by evidence.  I would love to know where the evidence is for Catto's claims.  Pub Med doesn't seem to include anything he has published on his wonder genetics discoveries.  You'd have thought the medical journals would want to know about genes that confer amazing benefits in terms of health and well-being:
Findings from our research have significant impacts on HUMAN GLOBAL HEALTH issues providing new understanding and solutions:
  • weather-coping mechanism (protection/survival mechanism)
  • master-switching (on/off) mechanism
  • homeostasis
  • bio-rhythms
  • diseases - genetic mutations
  • natural immune response - repair
  • mitosis/growth/apoptosis
  • body/brain (CSF)/barrier
  • unconscious - desire for food, drink and comfort
  • conscious - thought, learning, emotion & memory
  • ageing (age related diseases)
  • weathergenes associated with - drug development
  • weathergenes associated with - plant source (Chinese/herbal medicine)
  • weathergenes associated with - gene therapy (direct intervention)
  • weathergenes associated with - genetic modification
 That's rather a lot, and when you add to it the "226 primary, and 540 secondary weathergenes" that the company claims, you wonder why we haven't heard of all this before.  This man, his research and his company should be the wonders of the world, having Nobel Prizes and knighthoods conferred on him forthwith, if not sooner.

There's just one problem.  It sounds like bunk and it almost certainly is.  Having met a dodgy definition of weather, what on Earth is a weathergene?
Weathergenes are a specific set of genetic products encoded as genes which express the fundamental weather-coping mechanism.
 Err?  What?  The "fundamental weather-coping mechanism" which probably doesn't exist has 776 genes associated with it in spite of the fact that:
The first form of life on Earth was likely to have been a very simple (bio)-chemical structure. As such the mechanism must also have been very simple.
 776 is quite a chunk of the 20-25,000 genes in the human genome.  That's a lot of genes for something very simple but it could be true.  But what is a primary gene and what is a secondary gene?  And more than that, the definition of weathergenes doesn't make any sense.  They are genetic products (whatever that means?  Presumably proteins or RNA molecules) that are encoded as genes (in which case they are genes and as such made of DNA).  So, trying to translate, a weathergene is a gene.  Why not leave it at that?

I forget.  In the world of pseudoscience, a word cannot be allowed to have its well established meaning left alone.  Instead, a word's meaning must be contorted in order to make it sound more amazing, giving it more attractiveness and therefore entice the flies that normally buzz around this kind of manure.  So, in calling a garden implement and garden implement, a weathergene is a gene that codes for part of the spurious or not weather coping mechanism.

Now before I go on, there are genes that code for various adaptations that enable organisms to survive extreme weather conditions (or perhaps we should call that climate).  Those fish that survive in very cold waters off Antarctica are but one example.  If you want more, read The Making Of The Fittest by Sean Carroll.  It is an excellent book on the intricacies of genes and DNA.  I don't think Catto has read it.  If he did, he didn't understand much beyond the word "the" in the title.
One reason I think Catto hasn't really found all this stuff comes in passages like this from the Weatherology website:
We have discovered a simple protein with remarkable properties. It changes its structure in two very distinct ways when stimulated by different weather conditions.
In light cycle mode* the protein expresses (shown within the chemical structure) an enzyme (e1), when activated by >photons, which then expresses a hormone (h1). This is a weak structure.
In dark cycle mode* the protein expresses a different enzyme (e2), when activated by <photons, expresses a different hormone (h2) and another compound (c1). This is a strong structure.
When light cycle returns (increased UV radiation) the strong bond is broken and the protein reverts to the weaker structure thus creating a bio-rhythm, a master switch on/off mechanism.
It's science, Jim, but not as we know it.  "The protein expresses an enzyme".  What?  "Which expresses a hormone"  From wiki: "Hormones have diverse chemical structures that include eicosanoids, steroids, amino acid derivatives, peptides, and proteins."   So the question for Catto is which kind of hormone?  And strong structure and weak structure.  This doesn't mean anything in the context of molecules really. 

But, and here's the rub, Catto reckons that his mechanism is found, remember, in all organisms.  That's everything that's living (and one could argue that includes viruses).  But, and this is rather a large and fatal but:
This core protein and hence the weather-coping mechanism can be found in mitochondria cells.
Hands up who did High School biology.  Yep, that's most of my readership.  Keep your hand up if you studied biology at a more advanced level.  That's pretty much half of you.  Can you remember what a mitochondria cell is?  Nope.  Didn't think so.  Googling the phrase gave nearly 10 million hits.  But that's because Google looks for the two words in the same article, and it isn't hard to find them.  But the exact phrase? 

A mitochondrion is an organelle - that is part of a cell.
 They are found in virtually all cells because they are the site of respiration, providing a cell with energy in a form that it can utilise.

 Mitochondria probably arose as symbiotic bacteria, living inside a larger cell.  Mitochondria have their own DNA, the remnants of the DNA possessed by their free living ancestors.  Problem for Catto, and this is a fatal problem, is that it is established beyond any doubt that there are only 37 genes in the mitochondria of humans.  That leaves 739 genes that Catto says exists which don't seem to, not in the mitochondria anyway.  But Catto says that is where they are so someone must be wrong.

And I think that the one who is wrong is Catto.

To be honest, I am treating this much more seriously than I ought to.  Anyone with any knowledge of biology will know that Catto/Weatherology are just plain wrong from the get go.  One way to spot that is to remember that words with established definitions in science are not treated with that respect in pseudoscience.  And there are no links to any form of supporting evidence.  We either treat Catto's word as immutable truth or we realise it is entirely rubbish. 

If you want real science, there are tons of excellent books covering genetics.  But only Nick Lane's book Power Sex Suicide, so far as I know, is a pop science introduction to what we really know about mitochondria.
If Neil Catto happens along this way, I implore him to do three things.  Two of those are to read the two books I have indicated on this post.  The other is to learn from them and realise that talking rubbish is not the same as talking science. 

And perhaps I should add, learn to write sense.