Archive for the ‘Bad Science’ Category

There’s a provincial election in the air here in Ontario, and the stink of religious politics is permeating it. According to ctv.ca, Conservative leader John Tory has suggested that creationism could be taught alongside evolution should private schools be brought into the public system. He then suggested that they might not be treated equally in a science class. While it annoys me to see this nonsense make its way here from south of the border where this asinine debate has been raging for years, Tory’s words betray the same fundamental misunderstanding of how science works as seen in proponents of creationism (and its dolled-up evil twin, intelligent design):

“It’s still called the theory of evolution,” Tory said. “They teach evolution in the Ontario curriculum, but they also could teach the fact to the children that there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs.”

Of course the word ‘theory’ here does not mean what he thinks it means. A theory in science is a broad framework that provides an explanation for a variety of observed phenomena. It is not an idea that has a yet to be verified – a theory is the highest honour that can be given to a scientific principle, and the moniker is only applied to ideas that have considerable experimental scrutiny. There is no such a thing as an absolute truth in science because everything is verified by empirical evidence, and therefore, in principle, a single contradictory observation suffices to disprove a theory (in practice the process of rejecting a full theory is more complicated and generally involves a paradigm shift). If Tory wants to claim that creationism is a scientific theory capable of explaining the same broad range of phenomena that evolution can explain, I invite him to demonstrate how creationism is scientific and how it explains everything that evolution also does. Then we may speculate on whether it is appropriate to include in school curricula.

Now playing: The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic
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Ned Wright, an actual cosmologist, has dissected a recent ‘discovery’ that the universe is older and larger than initially thought on this page:


Quoth the cosmologist:

…the claim in the OSU press release that “the universe could be […] 15 percent older” is incorrect. If the Hubble constant is lower, then CMB anisotropy data require that OmegaM, the ratio of the matter density to the critical density, be higher, so the vacuum energy is lower, and the change in the age of the universe is considerably smaller…the Universe would not be 15% older but perhaps 7% older.

The claim that the Universe would be 15% larger is partially incorrect. Even though relatively nearby galaxies would be 15% further away the actual size of the Universe would go from infinite (flat) to finite (closed) but very big, which is a smaller Universe. The distance to distant quasars at redshift z=6 would increase by only 4%, and the distance to the last scattering surface changes less than 0.5% because this is what is fixed by the CMB.

Thank you, Ned.

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I see that yet another Canadian cow is now suspected of having BSE. This comes after a Manitoba cow was proven to have the disease last week. Allow me now to get on my soapbox an explain why I refuse to eat any beef at all.

After the BSE crisis in Britain, any country that was importing British beef, feed, or any beef or feed from any country that imported British beef or feed, or any beef or feed from any country that imported beef or feed from any country that imported British beef or feed, etc, should have immediately begun testing all cattle regardless of whether or not they were destined for human consumption for BSE (the point being that it needs to be treated as a worldwide problem, which means it can’t be solved simply by restricting some imports). This is because we know almost nothing about how likely it is to be transmitted to anyone who eats beef, how likely it is develop into full vCJD in anyone who becomes infected, or if anyone possesses any kind of resistance or susceptibility to it. Indeed, it has recently come out that the real toll from the human variant of the disease may not be known for many years, in spite of the fact that cases in Britain have somewhat petered out recently.

Knowing all this, there has never been a concerted effort made in either Canada or the US to systematically test all cows for the disease (in fact the USDA recently announced they were cutting the number of cows to be tested). We all know why, of course: the risk that such testing would reveal significant numbers of infected cows (say, 100) is too great, and that would kill public confidence in the beef industry. The same thing would happen to the industry here that happened in Britain. I would think that if they can find a half-dozen or so cows that have BSE without looking very hard, it’s likely there are at least few more that do have the disease that are never caught. How many of those will enter the human food chain? That’s another question we don’t know the answer to, but it’s one that should be easier to answer with more testing.
So why would anyone in their right continue eating beef knowing all this? While I do believe the risk is small, I am not inclined take on that risk unless researchers get a solid handle on the questions posed earlier. Of course, if I will become infected, it will likely be from beef I ate when I was much younger, so any avoidance of beef now will likely do me no good. That being said, I am sufficiently ticked off about the way the issue has been handled by the industry and by Health Canada that I refuse to eat beef any longer. The fact that the beef industry may suffer is of no consequence to me; my boycott is not so much for health reasons as it is because I’m unhappy with the way the problem has been addressed (to the extent that onecan consider the problem ‘addressed’). If they play games with my health like this, they no longer have me as a customer.

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A researcher from McGill University has been denied funding to study the detrimental effects of intelligent design gaining influence in Canada. The funding agency said the application failed to provide "adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct."

read more | digg story

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Not only is this Arkansas science teacher prohibited from saying the “e-word” in class, but he can only say that 300 million year old rocks are “very, very old”.

More nonsense. I’ll say it again: this is going to compromise these students’ education and these attitudes are going to cost the US its world dominance in science and technology.

read more | digg story

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In every poll, a majority of Americans believe that the Biblical creation story is the literal truth about how humans came into existence. And according to the Harris poll, 55% of Americans think that evolution, creationism and intelligent design should all be taught in science classes.

read more | digg story

The flaming (but accurate) title notwithstanding, this is indicative of a serious proplem in America: the continued denigration of science, which apparently is not limited to the Bush administration’s actions. As I’ve written before, this type of attitude is soon going to cost the United States its place as the world’s leading nation for technological and scientific innovation, because these attitudes filter down through school administrations and affect how high school students view science. This view of how science should be treated will end up creating a generation of people who cannot think critically about scientific issues, because they have, at best, been conditioned to believe that all points of view deserve equal time, even in scientific disciplines where the point is to filter out the wrong theories and retain the right theories, and, at worst, been conditioned to believe that science is altogether false (whatever ‘false’ means in a scientific context).

Case in point: one of the polls mentioned above (I think the Zogby one) found that 88% of 18 to 29 year olds felt that ID and evolution should be given equal time in classrooms. The number is high enough to cause me to question the survey’s methodology, but any substantial number indicates that too many people take the idea of equal time seriously: there is no reason why any point of view necessarily deserves to be treated on an equal footing. If ID were a real science and had evidence to back it up, then it would warrant consideration as being a legitimate theory and might be taught alongside evolution (ID’s primary motivation notwithstanding). But it isn’t a real science, has no evidence, and is not a legitimate theory. (It is in fact designed to obfuscate the motives for its own introduction into classrooms.)

I recall a case from a few years ago in which a reporter for the LA Times was reprimanded for covering a story about abortion and an argument that having an abortion could increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer (the details might be off, though) and not giving ‘equal coverage’ to those that felt this was legitimate objection to abortion. Where do you draw the line between being objective and not reporting on garbage? This particular hypothesis (it does not qualify as a theory in the scientific sense of the term) has no evidence to back it up. Why should this reporter have given it equal time? That’s exactly the problem that faces American school districts: give everything equal time, even the garbage, and turn the US into a nation of idiots, or teach real science, make sure this generation knows how to think, and leave ID where it belongs: at church, as a matter strictly of faith, or, preferably, in the trash heap.

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A Canadian university has ruled against Wi-Fi on the campus because administrators are worried about possible hazards to student health. Lakehead is located at the head of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and president Fred Gilbert wonâ��t allow Wi-Fi, “until he’s satisfied EMF (electric and magnetic fields) exposure doesn’t pose a..

read more | digg story

There seems to be some indication that this is actually true (see the comments on digg) so I feel really sorry for the students at Lakehead, what with their school being run by clowns and kooks. Actually Fred Gilbert seems to be rather very much the wrong person to head a university and not just a harmless kook, as it appears he tends not to pay attention to Lakehead’s students and has a reputation for arrogance (disclaimer: digg comments should be taken with the same grain of salt that a report from p2pnet should).

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