Tag Archives: science

Learning how to read

Most of us are taught early on how to extract basic meaning from these little symbols on the page. We learn the fundamental mechanics of reading. Studying literature, we’ll likely also learn a few things about how language gets things done – tone and mood and characterisation and whatnot. If you also study history as a young human  you’ll learn something about biases, and assessing sources for reliability. That’s as much as most of us get.

Many, perhaps most adults don’t read that widely, focusing on a genre or two, an area of interest, or maybe just a few authors. Moving between genres, authors, styles and subjects can actually be hard to the point of off-putting, and not everyone picks up on their own how to approach that.

I’ve always ranged widely with the fiction. Thanks to the kind of work I do, I’ve ended up reading all kinds of things alongside that. Technical content, legal content, political content… it all has its own forms, language and assumptions and engaging with anything unfamiliar also requires you to learn how it works. The first few encounters with anything unknown can be confusing and off-putting. A great deal of writing is intentionally or unconsciously manipulative and seeing how that works depends on understanding how a community uses language in the first place. The differences between persuasive writing from scientists and persuasive writing from pseudo-scientists are considerable, for example.

Much as I love literature, I wish I’d had a lot more time at school being shown how to read more diverse kinds of writing. How to read a newspaper article and pick out what’s opinion and what is hard fact. How to read a house of commons white paper, a legal contract, a scientific paper and so forth. In my experience what makes this even harder is that often the biggest issue is what’s missing, and you need to know quite a lot to have any clue what to be looking for on that score.

Reading, like so many things we do, is considered basic and widely available. The actual skills required are many, and complicated and we’re not actually taught them. If you haven’t done science beyond A level the odds are you’ve never read a scientific paper. If you’ve not tried to work in politics, you’ve probably never read the kinds of documents that are created when policies are being developed. These are barriers to participation and understanding.

You can be incredibly skilled and informed reading in one area and have no idea how to approach another kind of writing. 

These last few years have really shown us how problematic it is when people don’t know how to scrutinise different kinds of writing and how well we need to be able to read if we are to effectively inform ourselves.

Notes on the pandemic

I’ve not talked much about covid since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m into science not conspiracy theories, and from the beginning I’ve been watching for the best information I could get in the hopes of both staying safe and not spreading infection to others. I consider myself fortunate to be double-jabbed even though I had strong adverse reactions both times.

I wear a mask as much as I can when indoors with unfamiliar people. I’m claustrophobic, I get panic attacks anyway and I find I have a small window of time before the mask becomes panic inducing. Longer distance journeys in a mask mean hours of fighting the panic. I can however usually get in and out of a shop before it all kicks off. Most of my strategy has been to stay away from crowded indoor spaces, to meet friends outside or in private spaces, and to ventilate spaces. When I’ve done events involving people, I’ve been home for days afterwards so as to be unlikely to pose a risk. So far, so good.

In the beginning I was deeply afraid of both the virus and the lockdown. I followed the rules, and I found them really hard. I did not do so out of blind obedience to the government, but out of a desire not to make anyone I care about sick. I have considerable rage where the government is concerned. By winter last year there was plenty of evidence that the virus doesn’t spread much outdoors. We should have been supported and encouraged in moving our lives outside as far as possible. The benefits to people’s livelihoods, and mental health, would have been huge. Instead we spent last winter being told we could only meet outside in pairs if we weren’t in our households.

I’m also furious about the lack of investment in education. Countless uninformed and half-arsed theories circulate out there. Where has been the counter message to explain what vaccines are and how they work? So much of the misunderstanding, and wilful misunderstanding comes from not getting how science works in the first place. Cautious language is normal for science. Theories change as more data comes in – that’s not science failing, it’s science working and yet this is being used to undermine confidence in the research being done. Nothing is a hundred percent. Masks, vaccines, ventilation, social distancing – nothing is one hundred percent guaranteed, but that doesn’t make it useless. 

I grieve the deeper divisions in an already divided country. I grieve the way even more people are being pushed deeper into poverty. I grieve the loss of freedom and the loss of life – we’re an island, if our government had reacted swiftly the suffering could have been greatly reduced. I grieve the culture of selfishness that seems to be growing and festering here. I rail against the double standards where regular people have been harassed by the police when they weren’t even breaking rules, and those in power have dramatically flouted the rules and got away with it. We deserved better and we should feel some moral obligation to do better.

Stealing the surface of science

“Our trials show that when people make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level with the support of … applications they can access optimal states of wholeness.” (text from an actual website trying to sell a magical machine.)

There’s a lot of this sort of thing out there. There’s a sort of illusion of science that the author of the above text is trying to conjure. Trials, quantum, applications, optimal states – it’s a language that is supposed to sound sciencey, to validate something that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual science.

I note a lot of the same approaches come up around conspiracy theories, and anti-vaxx material. Often the sources are trying to debunk actual science while trying to present their pseudo-science as more scientific than actual science done by scientists. It’s a process that depends on an audience who dislike authority and don’t know much about how science works. Thus you can end up with people persuaded that vaccines are unsafe because they are made by Big Pharma, and that horse de-wormer cures covid, which it doesn’t. Also, horse de-wormers are made by Big Pharma.

It’s difficult to know what to do in face of all of this. When you’re dealing with people who feel they can make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level… but who could not explain what ‘quantum’ actually means, rational argument is a non-starter. We’re not speaking the same language here, and the language itself is intrinsic to the whole process. 

If I read something that claims to be science, there are key words and concepts I’m looking for. I want to know what the actual data was, how the tests were organised, what kinds of numbers of people/other things were involved. I want to be offered the raw data and the methodology used to get to that data. I will be more reassured if the conclusions include some thoughts about how or where the conclusions might be flawed or in need of further research. The language of uncertainty is the language of science. I’m looking for evidence, probability, possible interpretations of the data. If I read about truth, proof, and any kind of absolute I know I’m dealing with a fraud. 

The trouble is that certainty is more persuasive, especially if you don’t habitually speak the language of uncertainty. The person who tells you that they have Proof that a thing is Real and you have been Lied To is more emotionally convincing than the person who tells you that you have 67% less chance of suffering serious side effects and that the long term implications are unclear. We like certainty and we like to feel in control. Unfortunately, being certain and wrong makes you a very long way from being in control. 

I wonder how much odds it would make if we spent more time in school learning about risk and personal outcomes in relation to probability, research stats and so forth. We’re not usually taught science and maths in ways that help us understand how, and when to take the numbers seriously in a personal way. Leaving it to chance whether a person can extrapolate from data or tell snake-oil from science doesn’t seem like a good idea, to me.

Scientific Analysis of Bees – Illustrated Booklet – a review

Scientific Analysis of Bees - Illustrated Booklet-Doctor Geof

This is a small, brilliant, illustrated book and I hurt myself laughing over it.

Dr Geof is a steampunk genius, a lovely human being, a maker of comics, and a bit of a bee fancier. In this book he sets out to prove that bees are better than anything else, using science, and also maths.

Aside from being adorable, it’s also a rather splendid bit of satire, poking fun at some aspects of science, how we use numbers to quantify things, and how easy it is to be persuasive with numbers. Fake news and conspiracy theories will show you diagrams, graphs and figures, but unless you know how those figures were reached in the first place, they aren’t worth much. Sometimes it’s just a case of picking the right numbers to get the result you were looking for.  And so it is with bees versus pirates, and bees versus windows…

You can find this small act of total loveliness over here – https://doctorgeofshop.co.uk/products/scientific-analysis-of-bees-mini-comic

Do your own research!

There’s nothing like someone telling you to do your own research to flag up that they don’t understand science. Or research. Or the internet. Research is something that takes time, evidence and scrutiny. It might be fairer to say ‘educate yourself’ if you’re trying to challenge someone – that’s often the response of weary activists faced with people who want stuff explaining to them. ‘Educate yourself’ is a good idea. ‘Do your own research’ is usually the expression of someone who is buying into drivel.

It is true that historically, people doing the cutting edge thinking were often reviled by their peers. You can find it in many different disciplines. However, there has been some learning from all of this – which is why we have peer review, why results are tested, why we question assumptions as much as we can. It is not the case that being a lone maverick, rejected by the wider community means that you must be right.

It doesn’t help that conspiracies certainly do exist – and in our recent history that’s meant covering up the harmful impact of sugar, smoking, and fossil fuels amongst other things. It is always worth asking who benefits, and where the money goes. Science, research and thinking all exist within a market economy and so much depends on what you can sell, and for how much, and who thinks it might be worth funding.

If you want to educate yourself, here are some things I can recommend.  Be wary of anyone making very confident claims about ‘facts’ – this is not the language of science and research. More cautious sites are more plausible. ‘The evidence suggests’ is the tone to look for. Ideally, any site offering you conclusions about research will offer links to the studies it refers to. They might be beyond your reading capacity, but often will have a summery that a non-expert (like me) can make some sense of.

It’s also worth checking out ‘experts’ by sticking their names in search engines. An actual expert will likely have a publishing record, and a bunch of people who agree and disagree with them, and you can quickly get a sense of how they are perceived. It is easy to announce that you are a professor at a leading university – I could tell you that I am. I’d be lying, and you could easily find that out, but only if you looked. If my argument was the one you wanted to hear, you might not feel like you had to check out my credentials.

We’re likely to be more persuaded by theories that fit our existing beliefs, and likely to reject ideas that don’t sit well in all of that. Pushing past that is hard. If you want to be on top of an issue, it might not mean you have to listen to all sides of the ‘argument’ especially if some of that is coming from unqualified people, based on misinterpretation or wilfully misleading. There aren’t always two real sides to a thing. Asserting that there should be a debate is not proof that there should be a debate. It is possible to be open minded, and able to change your mind, without having to be swayed by every ill-formed opinion. If you find you need to form an opinion on something important, don’t ‘do your research’, educate yourself about what’s going on.

Cause, correlation, cancer and obesity

Last week, the charity Cancer UK started a campaign to tell people that obesity causes cancer – more on their website – https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/obesity-weight-and-cancer There’s a very good piece here pointing out that ‘cause’ and ‘correlation are not the same thing. https://medium.com/@laura_86024/an-open-letter-to-cancer-research-uk-19ecaa71b263

Humans are easily persuaded to see correlation as cause and effect – this is the basis of all superstitious thinking. We’re prone to seeing patterns even when no patterns exist. That there is a correlation between obesity and cancer is really important and needs investigating. Correlation means there is a good chance of underlying issues causing both. Unless you can identify a mechanism that means one thing results in another, it is not helpful to suggest there’s a causal link. So, what other options are there?

Stress. Some of us may store fat as a stress response – good article here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428710/ So adding to the stress of larger people by telling them their size is going to cause cancer may… wait for it… increase stress levels.

Alcohol has a lot of calories in it and is strongly linked to cancer risk in a mechanical way. Alcohol consumption could easily, for some people, be an underlying cause of both obesity and cancer risk.

Every article I’ve read about cancer avoidance has advocated having a good diet high in fruit and veg, and getting plenty of exercise. Poverty diets don’t deliver this, and a poor diet leaving you with low energy is not conducive to staying active. What if poverty causes cancer?

If you show up to the doctor with a health problem, and you are also a larger person, the odds are you will be diagnosed with fat. If you lose weight and don’t get better – as has happened to a number of people I know – you may then get your symptoms taken seriously. Being diagnosed as fat increases your risk of having the early signs of other conditions ignored. It’s not going to cause cancer, but it does mean you are at higher risk from any illness if you don’t get your symptoms properly investigated.

We’ve recently discovered, after years of being told that weight is the cause of diabetes, that there’s an impact from air pollution, too. Pollution is recognised as causing lung cancer, but according to the World Health Organisation website, there are questions to ask about the impact on other cancer risks. If you breathe it in, some of it is probably getting into the rest of your body. If pollutants can give you lung cancer it seems fair to ask what risk they pose for other cancers. Here’s a piece exploring whether air pollution might contribute to obesity – http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/pollution-making-us-fat and another study about what happens when pollutants accumulate in your body fat – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150227084315.htm – studies are ongoing as to the health implications.

If you make obesity and cancer the responsibility of the individual, you don’t look at collective responsibility for pollution and poverty. It is easier to blame and shame an individual who is at risk, than it is to invest time and money helping them. It is painfully easy to persuade people that being fat is a personal failing and that shaming fat people is the best way to help them. There’s plenty of research out there that demonstrates blaming people for their body shape does not lead to productive, health-improving changes in behaviour.

It’s shit science. Correlation is not causality. There may well be a great many people for whom conventional weight loss tactics don’t work, and many underlying causes that link obesity and cancer that will be ignored if we insist on simply focusing on weight.

Ask for evidence

I’m picking up the themes Molly Scott Cato has suggested on her blog for resisting fascism – this week it’s about evidence.

Asking for evidence is always a good idea, even when we’re not fending off toxic far-right ideas. When we have evidence, we have consensus reality. When we have evidence, we can discuss the evidence and how it might be interpreted, and if you really want to challenge mainstream thinking in some way, this is the far better route to take.

You can have different opinions and interpretations. You can even have different data sets drawn from different studies in different times and places. It is ok to argue over this. It’s good and healthy to ask questions at this point. What you can’t have, are different facts that are really opinions being called facts and offered with the implicit demand that no one asks what’s going on.

The right to ask for and question evidence is key to making free speech work. It’s key to making democracy work. When you are expected to accept whatever you are told, unquestioningly, it’s a pretty good indicator that you are living under a tyrant.

I am suspicious as soon as people start talking about facts without also talking about evidence. Real science doesn’t give us that many facts. It gives us theories, probabilities, best information based on the data to date. If someone is cautious with their facts, or tries to explain where they come from, I am more likely to trust them. The more strongly asserted a ‘fact’ is the more likely I am to think it’s a lie.

Truth is often complicated, nuanced, and conditional on various factors. Often there is no hard and certain truth – as with weather forecasts. There is only likelihood. What is true in one situation won’t always hold up in another – whether we’re talking about human behaviour, or the behaviour of atoms. Change one variable and the whole thing can be radically different.

However, as humans we’ve bought into the idea that truth should be simple. We are more persuaded by clear statements than by caveats and clauses. It may be to do with how we’ve evolved, or a few thousand years of monotheism having given us ‘one true way’ thinking, but that’s what most of us default to. We want our truth plain and simple, and so too often we will take a plain and simple lie in preference to a complicated truth.

In the short term, the simple lie may be comforting, but it takes us further from any kind of truth, further from what helps us.

If you mistrust experts – as seems common in the current environment – don’t ignore them. Ask for their evidence. See if they offer evidence. Trust your own ability to look at evidence and think about it. The person who will show you their evidence and share the process of their thinking is far more likely to have your interests at heart than the person who expects you to take everything on trust.

Science and Meditation

This morning on Radio 4 there was a news item on scientific recognition that meditation really does have some effects. I would have thought this was a no-brainer, but then, in certain circles, nothing is real unless you’ve poked it in a methodical way.

Meditation is nothing more than an organised and deliberate form of thinking. If you change the way you think, you have the scope to change your behaviour and your emotional experiences. This is the understanding that underpins cognitive behavioural therapy, currently used to help tackle depression and anxiety. Thoughts and feelings do not belong to separate systems, and they both belong to and are influenced by what happens to your body. In essence, it all comes down to the same chemistry.

When we think, pathways form in our brains. The more we do something, the easier it becomes to think it, and the faster it translates into action. This is obvious when you try and learn a script, or an instrument. Practice is partly in the mind. Thinking something through contributes to practice even if it’s a physical activity. If you never imagine killing your neighbour with an ice pick, the odds of you doing just that are pretty slim. If you imagine, every day, killing your neighbour with an ice pick the odds of you doing it are going to be somewhat higher. The same probabilities apply to pretty much everything else as well.

Meditation can be used for all manner of things, but at the heart of it lies the intention to slow down and become calm. Deep breathing, resting the body, thinking calming thoughts and imagining soothing things are frequent habits in meditation. They form the basis from which more complex meditation can follow. This develops the habit of being able to deliberately become calm. Introducing a few minutes of deliberate calm into every day helps break the hold of stress and anxiety in life. It also gives a tool that can be drawn on in times of need. Even when there isn’t time to meditate, the habit of drawing breath, and settling into a calm mindset can be very handy in a crisis. The more in the habit we are of becoming calm, the more readily our mind can run down that particular track. It’s simply a skill to master.

We know that stress and anxiety have effects on the body – raised pulse and blood pressure, trouble sleeping, tight chest, difficulty eating and digesting, shoulder pain, headaches to name but a few. Creating calm helps to tackle these. The pains and trials of stress and anxiety induced illness are real. There can be a tendency to write off such problems as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’ but the mind is real, feelings are real, and our emotional lives matter and need taking seriously. Depression is a crippling illness and it can be born from ongoing distress.

In terms of quality of life, our emotions are one of the things that influence us most. Emotions are not always rational, and don’t seem scientific, or terribly measureable, but that doesn’t make them less real, or less important. The view that sees emotions as irrational silliness can also be rather too quick to assume we have no control over them. Working with our own emotions, we can come to understand them, to see what prompts them, to work out what is justified, what needs expressing, and what we have been feeding in the darkness to our own detriment. Taking time to meditate can be a way of accessing our own emotional lives and developing a calm space from which to have a relationship with ourselves.

By consciously shaping our own thought forms, we can take control of ourselves. At the same time we create spaces for the unconscious to breathe. Rather than crushing and repressing the unconscious self with its dream logic and animal impulses all jumbled together, we can embrace it. There is a deep realness that comes from being more at peace with the unconscious mind.
How we feel shapes the ways in which we think. If we aren’t in good relationship with our own emotions, the rational, logical thoughts we are so sure we have, may be no more than illusions based on misconceptions. About the most irrational thing we can do is cling to the idea that intellect and emotion are separate, incompatible and that one is better than the other. We need both.