‘I am an interpreter of…of….interpretations…’

It’s been a busy few weeks. My semester 1 exams have been and gone, and some interesting opportunities have presented themselves regarding work experience in journalism.

Firstly, Jessica Fuhl who is Wessex Scene’s News Editor and runs her own blog over at http://jessicafuhl.wordpress.com successfully became Southampton University’s Campus Editor for The National Student. As part of her role she has recruited several campus reporters, one of them being me. The National Student has been running since 2002, and aims to accumulate news from nationwide university campuses. My role as a campus reporter is a great way for me to learn and practice how to report news without injecting personal opinion or my written ‘voice’. The emphasis is mostly on facts, and it’s a good way of making sure I don’t just write opinion pieces.

Secondly, I applied to write regular science articles for The Graduate Times, which aims to provide unique takes on current affairs written by university graduates. Obviously I am not yet a graduate, so I was especially happy that they liked my articles enough to take me on board. So far I have written a piece on some news regarding new research into Greenland’s ice sheet, and I am hoping to produce plenty of articles for them that take something of a wider look at a variety of scientific issues.

Finally, perhaps the best bit of news is that I am now the new (and perhaps first) Opinion Editor for the Soton Tab! The Soton Tab is Southampton’s only student tabloid site, and while it has only been created recently (by techno-wizard and ex-Wessex Scene Online Manager, Chris Houghton), it is churning out articles on a regular basis and is receiving impressive levels of site hits for such a new venture. I’m yet to discover exactly what my role will entail, but I presume a major part of it will be to modify articles submitted for publication under the opinions section of the site to ensure they’re not libellous, defamatory, or particularly offensive. This position is a fantastic way for me to get my teeth stuck into a more uncompromising area of journalism, where the writer’s voice can most definitely be incorporated.

You're so vogue James!

Also, for those of you who didn’t get the chance to see the recent Horizon episode: ‘Science Under Attack’, I recommend you watch it before it expires on BBC iPlayer. Although some aspects of the programme were quite biased, and the BBC weren’t particularly representative of the climate change denier faction, the presenter, Nobel Prize-winning and President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, did a good job in my opinion of making haughty Telegraph blogger James Delingpole look like more of an ass than he already is.

Delingpole was the subject of great attention from the media in the build-up to the airing of the episode, mainly because of an interview with Nurse where he becomes tongue-tied over arguing against a simple analogy on the scientific meaning of the word ‘consensus’. Following the interview Delingpole apparently complained to the BBC that he had been ‘intellectually raped’, which he currently denies (of course). There was a small cohort of similarly like-minded ‘Tory-graph’ (hoho!) readers that leapt from their Chesterfield wingbacks to Delingpole’s defence, but I would hope that even if he was perhaps at the mercy of a little selective editing, he nevertheless showed himself up to be a token figure of what is wrong with the science vs. media debate that so effects issues like climate change.

That token figure represents the fact that scientists are too often defending matters of science against people that usually have no background in science and as we now know, sometimes (or perhaps often) don’t bother to read the peer reviewed papers. Before my exams I had an argument with an inflammatory student journalist at Wessex Scene, who wrote a scathing article on Times journalist Eleanor Mills’ so-called ‘misrepresentation’ of some new research into pornography’s effect on society. I drew it out of him that he hadn’t actually read the paper himself, and then challenged his authority to criticise someone else’s take on the paper with that in mind, but he repeatedly said that reading the original peer-reviewed research was of no interest to him.

What strikes me is that for some reason there seems to be a lack of journalists holding scientists to account in most academic fields apart from the field of climate science. Presumably, Delingpole and other deniers feel that even though they hold no qualification in the incredibly complex field of climatology, their criticisms are justified because…..they can….witness…the weather…??…. Remember we are talking about British weather, where sleet, snow, rain, sunshine and wind can all occur within a few hours of each other. Fantastic.

Google’s Ngram Viewer and sCAMs

December 16th saw Google release an impressive tool called ‘Google Books Ngram Viewer’ that searches a database of more than 5 million scanned books for words of your choice. The database contains books published between 1800 and the present day, which constitutes about 4% of all the books ever published.

Ngram Viewer allows users to search for words, which are then displayed on a graph according to how many times they appear in the database’s books. Google’s brilliant little minions have also cleverly normalised the data by the number of books published each year, to account for a greater rate of publishing in recent times. Users can customise the time parameters of the search, meaning trends over specific periods can be seen. As the majority of modern books in Google’s database are copyrighted, they can’t be made available for free online. Ngram Viewer ingeniously sidesteps this problem by allowing the words inside the books to be available, thereby enabling incredible sets of metadata to be constructed. Researchers in the fields of social sciences, the humanities, and linguistics, have extolled the virtues of the database and have hailed its ability to further research and human knowledge as the key in the creation of a new era of ‘culturomics’.

Google’s new toy has already been the source of much research and much discussion on the internet. Many people have been extensively blogging on the subject and have made some interesting discoveries. For example, Harvard researchers recently looked for trends amongst celebrity names to track their paths of fame. They discovered that over time celebrities have been becoming famous more rapidly and at younger ages, and their decline from fame is faster too.

A few days ago, social psychologist Robert Kurzban wrote an article on Psychology Today, speculating that Ngram Viewer could distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, or in other words between genuine scientific theories (click on that link to see how science uses the word ‘theory’ completely differently to the general population) and intellectual fashions. Kurzban reasoned that Ngram graph lines for intellectual fashions would rise until the science behind them was disproved, at which point they would peak and then decline as they ‘fall out of favour’. Alternatively, graph lines for genuine scientific theories should climb steadily as they are tested, authenticated, re-tested, re-authenticated, and then taught.

I decided to briefly see if Kurzban’s theory held up if I looked at sCAMs (‘so-called alternative medicines’) vs. traditional, evidence-based medicine. I chose 6 sCAMs and 6 fields of study from evidence-based research. I searched within a time period of 180 years, from 1830 to 2010. The 6 sCAMs were:

I chose the 6 fields of study from a list of the most commonly practised areas of research in evidence-based medicine. The 6 fields of study were:

  • cardiology
  • oncology
  • neurology
  • endocrinology
  • immunology
  • urology

Firstly I fed in the 6 sCAM words and was presented with this graph:

Apart from reiki, all of the sCAMs have a peak in word frequency around the year 2003. This (rather crudely) suggests that science had disproved the theories of these alternative medicines at this point, and the post-2003 decline of their respective lines is due to the practices losing popularity.

Next I looked at the 6 evidence-based fields:

What I was of course hoping to see was Kurzban’s hypothesis ringing true, but unfortunately that’s not what I was presented with. Instead you can see that the peaks for each field of study all occur before 2000, none of them climb steadily as predicted, and apart from immunology and oncology, all decline sharply past their respective peaks. Under Kurzban’s theory, these evidence-based practices seem to be more fad than fiction!

However, when using Ngram Viewer, you can adjust a setting called ‘smoothing’. The smoothing setting takes an average of the raw count, plus a chosen number of values (years) on either side. The default smoothing setting is 3, meaning the data point displayed for the year 1980 for example, is actually an average of 7 values – 3 on either side (1977, 78, 79, 1981, 82, 83) plus the original 1980 value in the centre. When I manipulated the smoothing value of the evidence-based graph to 40, I got the following:

You can see that the graph is totally different from the one produced from the same data set but with a smoothing value of 3. The graph now fits in with Kurzban’s hypothesis that ‘hard’ theories will have Ngram lines that steadily climb and climb.

I wondered if I could produce the same effect with the sCAM graph and sure enough, with a smoothing value of just 9, the same effects were seen. Under Kurzban’s hypothesis and according to this new graph, the sCAMs were now as concrete as the evidence-based areas!:

It is clear that the smoothing effect can make trends more apparent, but if overused, data can seemingly be manipulated to either quash or prove a particular hypothesis. I would be interested to see the smoothing values used in research already published – I wonder if a) their Ngram graphs all have a common smoothing value and b) if their Ngram graphs have smoothing values that are representative of the raw data . Whilst my experimental procedure is incredibly crude and I am sure that researchers have already accounted for this ‘smoothing effect’, it is possible that the comparison of 2 data sets under the same hypothesis, for example, could produce graphs where both have the same trend or both have opposing trends. Although it is considered somewhat bad practice, in the early stages of university we were often told when conducting an experiment to see what the collected data says first and then construct a hypothesis around it. I have since been informed that this method is frowned upon in higher level scientific academia (although if I am wrong please say so), and under this notion Ngram Viewer may give potential for more ‘sloppy’ experimental procedure to occur.

It’s amazing that Google has liberated this mass of information and presented it in a user-friendly and widely available format, allowing people to either conduct some serious research or just have a bit of creative fun. Google has 3 times as many digitised books as the amount used in Ngram Viewer, and there are plans to develop the database to include both the rest of the scanned books and the content from magazines, websites, letters, and more. Even more exciting is the potential to gauge context, so positive, negative, or neutral views of cultural terms and trends can be better understood. Metadata has been instrumental in some amazing discoveries, and I’m sure Ngram Viewer will be equally, if not more instrumental in some similarly inspiring breakthroughs. I am fully confident that the professionals will eventually account for all of its flaws (that is if they haven’t already), however, whilst tools like this are fantastic at getting science noticed and people involved, I think that the ‘wow-factor’ ideally shouldn’t detract from the continuation of rigorous scientific methods.

Like the sCAMs, Google Ngram Viewer should be complementary, not an alternative.

Arbrecology – a bad seed

In the same vein as electronic gem therapy, homeopathy, miracle mineral solution, sun-gazing, ear candling and more, a new medical scam has popped up on the internet, and is calling itself ‘Arbrecology‘. Brought to my attention by 16 year old scientific skeptic Rhys Morgan of MMS fame, it is yet another blow to internet based science bloggers who have in recent times been doing their utmost to dispel alternative medicine quackery in all its forms.

Twaddle though it may seem, the story of arbrecology is as follows. Legendary Welsh madman, Myrddin Wyllt (primary inspiration for the creation of Arthurian wizard Merlin) recorded the ‘Liber Arborum’ (The Book of Trees) sometime in the 5th or 6th century. The Liber Arborum contained the formalised and prescribed method of an ancient healing method (arbrecology) that encompassed the insertion of seeds into the skin to cure illness. Clever Myrddin foretold his own death and as a result gave the book to a druidic circle for safekeeping, but those bloody druids couldn’t look after anything and the book was subsequently lost during the made up ‘War of the Druids’. As good fortune would have it, a copy of the book was made in Latin before the original was lost, and a small line of druids continued to practice the healing method in secret (they were insane).

So, to cut a long and bullshit story short, Leonardo da Vinci (seriously) gave up on trying to translate a copy of the Latin book and as such, the fame-whore that was legitimate medicinal practice stole the limelight that arbrecology was due. In 2007, a batshit-insane energy healer called Krystal M. Betula had been having a series of dreams about a ‘great power’ hidden in a Welsh university’s ancient records collection (the Latin for Betula is ‘Fagus’, who happens to coincidentally be a celtic/druid god of beech trees by the way). Through an amazing stroke of luck, and the help of a law-breaking librarian (pah!), Krystal inadvertently unearthed a complete Latin transcript of the Liber Arborum. She copied it and circulated it amongst her mental friends across the country, who are now reintroducing the ‘ancient’ practice to the benefit of…..everyone?

Arbrecological methods involve handing over £25 to permit a trained professional arbrecologist *giggle* to make a small incision in your skin and insert a seed that is specific to both your illness and personality. The process is tailor made to allow for the fact that your personality may better represent a conifer seed instead of a willow one or a mehh muhh bleeehhh bluuuuhh… Anyway once the seed is implanted, it develops into ‘micro plants’ that then feed on harmful toxins in your body.

How do they do this I hear you demand? Well…..this is where the bollocks magic happens. Apparently ‘the sympathetic powers of the growing seed build up a quantum differential field which will remove dangerous toxins’. Over time, once healed, the body then absorbs the micro plants and you’re fighting fit again.

Overtly more absurd and laughable is the homeopathic method, which is undertaken through the application of ‘sympathetic congruence’:

“The experienced practitioner carefully grips an appropriate seed in his right hand and a specially cleansed and neutralised solution in his other hand and after some ancient incantations, he proceeds to vigorously shake them in unison, mimicing [sic] the succussions employed by the ‘common’ homeopath. During this process, the healing power of the seeds resonate through the body of the experienced abrecologist and are imprinted on the solution in his other hand.”

Additionally worrying is the claim that ‘arbrecoprophylactics’ are for sale. The official website professes that ‘one immunisation with one of our influenza arbrecoprophylactics [will protect you] for life from ALL strains of influenza, including the deadly swine flu’. Of course, inserting foreign objects into people for money and making impressive claims about the entire process makes a very strong case for medical malpractice (and innuendo).

Xenografts (the transplantation of living matter from one species to another) raise a huge number of legal and ethical issues, which I hope would be strictly dealt with when dealing with another ridiculous alternative medicine that peddles overpriced and dangerous nonsense to both gullible people with a lack of knowledge of how the human body and science in general operates, and more desperate people possibly seeking a last resort. It is perhaps a little more understandable that some clients fall for alternative medicine scams when they aren’t particularly well acquainted with the flaws of the internet and see testimonials like this on quack product pages:

“All I can say is wow! For years I was chronically tired and run down. My digestive system was a mess. I was diagnosed with having Candida albicans by a chiropractor, but he wasn’t successful despite many manipulations. I tried a multitude of natural therapies, including Golden Seal, Echinacea and Phellostatin, but nothing seemed to work for me. I even tried Nystatin in desperation but this just made me feel worse, of course – it’s allopathic. I stumbled across Arbrecology almost by accident. After the initial consultation, a larch tree seed was implanted. After just two weeks, I began to feel better. My energy levels increased 100%, my skin has never looked better. I can even eat carbs without getting that ‘bloated’ feeling.”

Rhys Morgan spoke to me about this latest scam :

“Arbrecology reads like a spoof website. Some of the claims they make are so outlandish that I can’t tell if it’s a hoax or not. Then again, after seeing homeopathy and MMS, it plants seeds of doubt in my mind. I hope for patient’s sakes it is. Arbrecology has the chance to cause some serious harm”.

There is some debate online as to whether Arbrecology is all an elaborate prank. If the doubters are proved correct, then the pranksters have succeeded in showing how easy it is to create a legitimate looking website that can exploit a misunderstanding of science, and manipulate certain types of people into believing and subscribing to pseudoscience. Time will tell, but if the Arbrecology website soon starts accepting online payment for its ‘services’, itt would suggest the scientific skeptics have yet another bubble to burst.

Why the personification of Wikileaks may do more harm than good

By now, unless you live under a very large and very heavy rock, you’ll have no doubt heard of Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and its steady drip feeding of sensitive diplomatic cables to the world.

The rare sight of unity between international governments along with the American political spectrum has been witnessed. Angry herd mentality reached breaking point on several appalling occasions: 2012 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee called for the execution of Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence analyst suspected of being the source of the leaks (skip to 3:30 for the action)….

….Huckabee was backed up by Fox News (sigh) national security analyst Kathleen McFarland, who called for more serious charges against Manning, and his execution if found guilty (skip to 1:10)….

….right-wing Canadian political activist Tom Flanagan effectively issued a fatwa against Julian Assange:

….Bill O’Reilly said that those who leak to the ‘despicable’ website are traitors, and should be ‘executed, or put in prison for life’:

… and everyone’s favourite Caribou hunter, Sarah Palin, waded in on her Facebook page, questioning why Assange hadn’t been hunted down like the Taliban, to which Wikileaks had this reply:

The enigmatic front man of Wikileaks; Julian Assange, has recently become of equal interest to the western media as the cables themselves. What I question is whether the need to personify the Wikileaks organisation is a step in the right direction. Wikileaks has been hailed as something that could become as important as the Freedom of Information Act and it represents another leap forward in liberal transparency. The question still remains of course whether that improvement in transparency is worth the damaging effects it has on other liberal rights such as privacy and diplomacy, on both a personal and a governmental scale (could governments really operate in the modern world facing 100% transparency?). However, it is inevitable that all of the sensitive cables will be released, regardless of what may happen to Assange and Wikileaks, and in that sense those rights have already lost their invulnerability. Wikileaks has been compared to the emancipation of the free word in the 16th century with the widespread use of the Gutenberg printing press, whilst the government cohorts are a modern-day Catholic Church trying to shut the whole thing down. Personally, I think that while Wikileaks is nothing revolutionary in journalistic terms, it is the fact that it’s based on the internet, with no fixed base and no subsequent obligation to comply with the expected and familiar parameters of journalism, that scares the proverbial out of the government cohort. The affected governments also hate the possibility that an open channel for whistle-blowers has been created and that it may never be closed.

By Assange declaring himself the face of Wikileaks, he has opened his private life up to intense scrutiny and has made himself the target of many a politician. My worry is that of the vast volume of personal attacks he is currently receiving, how much of it is warranted and how much of it is ad hominem? If the public view of Assange changes from a web-based Che Guevara figure to one of a dangerous internet terrorist, rapist, and molester, will that damage the credibility of Wikileaks? That certainly seems what some of the political elite are trying to achieve, and I think that a proportion of the public will fall for it.

However, there is an upside to all of the attention Assange is getting. Whilst becoming the face of Wikileaks has brought massive amounts of criticism to his personal life, it has simultaneously promoted him to a position where he gets the majority of credit (perhaps unjustly deserved given the other brave and diligent people working within the organisation). This credit along with the press attention as a whole, enhances his ability to promote certain material which is clearly beneficial to Wikileaks’ cause and aids in the fight against the pervasive censorship that some US senators are trying to achieve.

Perhaps we needed a fresh new system of journalism outside of the politically and financially entrenched global media – should governments be allowed to feel confident that their dirty laundry can be kept hidden at the back of the wardrobe? Don’t the American people have a right to know what their government says and does with their tax money and in their name? Now they’ve had that dirty laundry aired, and they don’t like it. Maybe now the US government knows what the full-body scanners feel like.

Wessex Scene | Climate change skeptics article published

I haven’t written very much in the last few weeks, but as of tomorrow afternoon I will be free of plant biology assignments and can get going again!

The 3rd issue of the Wessex Scene was published yesterday, containing my climate change skepticism article. You can view the article on the Wessex Scene website here, (it’s exactly the same as the one further down this page).

I think I now have enough articles published in various places to warrant getting a portfolio….exciting times!

Also, for those who are also fans of Christopher Hitchens, he was interviewed by Paxman on Newsnight last night – for those unfamiliar with Hitchens, I recommend you YouTube ‘Hitchslap’ to give yourself an introduction!

Stem cell stroke trial – another step in the right direction?

A few weeks ago I blogged about some news in the stem cell world, specifically that biotech company Geron had been given the go-ahead by the US FDA to start stage 1 clinical human trials for the injection of stem cells directly into the spinal cord as a treatment for paralysis.

Some more news came from the stem cell camp earlier this week with the announcement that doctors from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow have injected stem cells directly into the brain of a stroke afflicted patient in another world-first clinical trial.

Around 2 million stem cells were injected into an area of the brain called the ‘putamen’ which is involved in the regulation of locomotion and learning. The team, led by Professor Keith Muir, are hoping that the newly injected stem cells will release a cocktail of chemicals into the damaged area that will stimulate growth of new cells and blood vessels, whilst simultaneously reducing inflammation and scar tissue.

The test subject is a former lorry driver currently in his 60s, who was severely disabled 18 months ago by a stroke that now results in him requiring round-the-clock care from his wife. He will be monitored over a 2 year period to assess whether the procedure has any negative effects, and whether there is any sign of the treatment’s effectiveness. Up to 12 more patients will be treated this year in the continuation of the stage 1 trial. Progressive doses of 5, 10, and 20 million cells will be used in men over 60 who have seen little to no improvement in their conditions over the last several years.

According to statistics from the British Heart Foundation, over 53,000 people died due to stroke in 2007. It is the third biggest killer after coronary heart disease and cancer, and has a greater impact on future disability than any other chronic disease.

Despite stem cell research still very much being in the ‘research’ field of science, it is promising news that these therapies are being developed into workable treatments.

Opponents to stem cell therapies oppose the fact that many treatments use stem cells derived from 5-day old embryos, which are killed in the harvesting process. At the point of destruction, these embryos contain approximately 150 individual cells. The main argument against stem cell therapy  is that at the point of conception, a fertilised egg contains a soul that is equitable to any other soul on the planet (including millions of people suffering from medical conditions that could almost certainly be helped by the development of such therapies).

Recent advances in stem cell research have shown that almost every cell in the human body has the potential for growth into a fully developed human being. There is not the slightest reason to believe that these 150-celled blastocysts are aware of their own destruction, or even that they can suffer in any way, since they lack both a nervous system and a brain. As author and neuroscientist Sam Harris points out in the video below, by the measure of a cell’s potential, whenever someone scratches their nose they are committing a cellular holocaust and thereby destroying thousands of souls. This brings a certain dilemma to light – do rights accorded to single cells outweigh those accorded to fully formed, medically afflicted individuals? This is not a rational approach to ethics.

Demo-lition 10.11.10

For those that have been living under a rock (or in Swindon) for the last few weeks, today sees the march of tens of thousands of students across Central London in protest of the government’s proposals to cut funding to higher education, raise fees, and remove equality of availability to education for the majority of British students who would have once hoped to gain a university place.

In a double hit, students from poorer backgrounds are now facing cuts to their education maintenance allowance (EMA) that will make it harder for them to gain the required A-levels for a university education that they now can’t afford.

I will be graduating from my 3 year BSc owing approximately £21,000 to the government, and in the region of £9,000 to my parents. I can count myself lucky however, as future graduates could be facing debts in the region of £50,000 for their 3 years of study.

Not only are the costs of higher education reducing ‘social mobility’, but courses offered in the arts and humanities are likely to only be taken by students that can afford the ‘luxury’, as most pre-university students will be considering the option of reading more practical courses.

The government’s move is needless and stupid, especially in a time of economic downturn. Most EU countries are of the opinion that if there is some future stability to be gained in their economies, it partly lies in the production of higher quality graduates. How will we compete when we reduce our current 0.9% spend on higher education (comparatively low to other nations) to an effective 0%?

Mostly however, it’s disappointing to think that important fields of knowledge in the arts and humanities sectors are being sacrificed to produce what appears to be a graduate commodity that will only be better at earning money for the big corporations. I just hope Vodafone don’t make a single penny from any of these future earners.

As Thomas Edison once said: “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”.

Now we know a little bit less.