A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

My First Thirteen Months

Posted by apgaylard on October 5, 2008


What do I remember?

I’ve just come back from holiday and it’s dawned on me that I’ve been blogging for just over a year now; so I thought I’d indulge myself with a bit of a retrospective.

What got me going?  I had been lurking, and then commenting on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.  I had got drawn into the site via his weekly column in the Guardian.  I found that the use of basic scientific principles to expose nonsense in the media really got me thinking about science more generally again.  It also started to remind me how much of the physics I’d studied for my degree I had forgotten as my career had drifted into a narrow branch of engineering. 

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Living with uncertainty

Posted by apgaylard on June 11, 2008

Dice in blackI’ve been following a debate between various bloggers and Dr John Briffa about MMR and autism.  The good doctor seems to take the position that we are not in a position to know for sure that the MMR vaccine is safe, i.e. doesn’t cause autism.  This raises interesting questions about uncertainty, proof and evidence.

Of course, in science, there is generally room for doubt.  Particularly when we are dealing with complex interventions in complex systems (like vaccinating people), we are never in a position where we can be absolutely sure.  However, life needs to go on: we have to make the best decisions we can.

This raises important questions: how can we live with this kind of uncertainty?  How can we make the decisions that we need to when there are no guarantees? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Memory of Water: Replies and Answers

Posted by apgaylard on January 17, 2008

While all answers are replies, not all replies are answers.”

Ta’Lon, Babylon 5: Point of No Return, script by J. Michael Straczynski.

The Memory of Water issue of the journal Homeopathy has provoked a number of critical responses, which the journal has now published.  Those authors whose work has been criticised have, quite rightly, responded.  So far, this is healthy: this is how science works.

However, most of the responses could be described by the observation: “not all replies are answers.”  Let’s take the replies to my two letters, for example.

The first is from Lionel Milgrom, the second is by Vybíral and Voráček.

The dangerous swan song of the straw man

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Posted in Logical Fallacies, Philosophy, The Memory of Water | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Homeopathy: science or religion?

Posted by apgaylard on January 11, 2008

It was pointed out to me recently that the homeopathy looks more like a religious community than a scientific one.  Yet many homeopaths and their apologists say that they represent a new scientific or medical paradigm; implicit in this claim is that their community is scientific.

Examining this question gives me the chance to talk about my philosophical muse of the moment, T S Kuhn, and show that he sets the bar too high for homeopathy to claim to be a scientific community.

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

A House Divided

Posted by apgaylard on December 26, 2007

 “…Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand“.

Matthew 12:25 (King James Version)

This piece of ancient wisdom has made its way into common usage.  It nicely expresses the observation that for any group to endure, let alone progress, unity is required.

This theme runs through the analysis by Thomas Kuhn of scientific communities and the progressive nature of science.  In particular Kuhn took the view that different schools were “far rarer” in the sciences than in other fields; and were always in a competition that is “usually quickly ended” [p.177 – all page numbers in sqaure brackets refer to Thomas S Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, 3rd Ed., 1996 ].

A review of the schools still present in homeopathy will enable us to dismiss on purely Kuhnian grounds the idea that homeopathy has paradigms, or any claim to be mature, or a legitimate competitor to modern scientific medicine.

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Homeopathy and the Paradigm Problem

Posted by apgaylard on December 14, 2007

Once Thomas Kuhn applied the term ‘paradigm’ to science in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” it quickly entered into common usage.  It’s often used as a way of describing the conservative nature of science; or the incompatibility of a new idea with orthodox science (new paradigm).  It’s also used to describe the way science can radically change over a short period of time (paradigm shift).

It struck a chord with groups who had been, by and large, excluded from being classified as part of “science”: psychoanalysts, sociologists and even economists.  If a discipline could lay claim to “…being dominated by a paradigm that generated sui generis puzzles and criteria for assessing solutions to them…” then it would seem, according to Kuhn’s philosophy, that it could really be a mature science.  Because of the outstanding successes of the natural sciences this categorisation would, by association, increase their status and access to public funds.  Even if a discipline were riven by inter-Nicene feuding between competing schools it could claim to be an emerging science in its pre-paradigm state; a reasonable candidate for research funding from the public purse no doubt.

This early trend has continued.  Now homeopaths and their apologists make similar claims.  They seek to enhance their status, image and access to public funds by claiming to be part of a ‘new paradigm’ for medicine.

Some are even so bold as to contend that their paradigm is a ready replacement for, or at least an amendment to, the prevailing pharmacological medical paradigm.

We shall see that Kuhn’s ideas moved on; unlike the reading of Kuhn by some who invoke his authority.  Therefore it is important to understand how his ideas developed.

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A “New Paradigm”?

Posted by apgaylard on December 8, 2007

Homeopaths and their apologists seem to like the philosophy of science posited by Thomas S Kuhn, or at least they say they do.

It’s easy to understand the temptation.  Kuhn’s analysis includes some sociological factors, undermining the claim of many scientists that theory choice is driven by logic and experiment alone.  His talk of ‘paradigms‘, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘revolution‘ speaks to homeopaths who wish to see a revolution where their views supplant current scientific orthodoxy. Also, some see in Kuhn’s relativism a way of arguing against any special status for science, and scientific theories, compared to any other sort of knowledge.  After all Kuhn did not hold with the notion of science converging towards a natural “truth“.

Finally, some seem to see in Kuhn’s treatise the possibility of a homeopathic homeland where they can be insulated from the criticisms of science; whilst still keeping a hand in the taxpayers’ pocket!

Against this philosophical backdrop a new blog has emerged: Newparadigmmedicine.  As a response to perceived difficulties with the current debate about homeopathy this blog has made the following suggestion:

“… After listening to the tone, content, and quality of assertions made from the podium of this blog during this past week I believe that without some further structure and focus the conversation will only become fatuous rant and rave.

In the spirit of inquiry I am proposing that those who are interested in the concepts of paradigms and change within science both basic and applied read the seminal work of Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. More of an extended essay than a comprehensive book this work provides a basic language and conceptual framework which we can accept, modify, or reject. With a common language, conceptual premises, and hypotheses perhaps we can have edifying dialogue. …”

A Shared Focus

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Posted in homeopathy, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Questionable Dowsing – Setting The Record Straight

Posted by apgaylard on October 15, 2007

Well, I complained about the outrageous presentation of myth as fact that was the BBC Radio 4Questions, Questions” piece on dowsing.  Yesterday I had a very polite reply.

“… Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Questions, Questions’. I note your concerns over the feature on dowsing; specifically, that you considered that there was an absence of factual evidence. I further note your criticisms of contributors and contributions made.

Audience response such as yours is welcomed by the BBC because it regularly informs the review and improvement of the programming and services that we offer. Please be assured that I have included your comments in the daily audience log. This internal document is made available to production teams and senior management.

Thank you for taking the time to contact BBC Information … “

Now I don’t think it is acceptable to only note in private an error broadcast to the public.  It is particularly unacceptable when the programme was billed as “factual”.

Unfortunately the e-mail did not contain a valid return address, so I cannot debate the point any further without escalating the complaint to the next level.  So that is what I have done.  It may be fighting a small and pedantic fight, but I believe it’s a worthwhile one.

I have reproduced my letter below and will write about what happens next.

 cectic.com.  All contents are copyright © 2007, Rudis Muiznieks.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

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Posted in dowsing, Logical Fallacies, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Homeopathy and the memory of water: Milgrom and the philosophy of science

Posted by apgaylard on October 12, 2007

The journal Homeopathy has published a special issue on the memory of water.  The contents have been discussed quite widely (see Philip Ball‘s contributions, for example).  An important aspect of this has been the journal club set up by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science.  This has enabled a lot of well informed analysis from people who may not have been able to access the original papers otherwise.  I would like to record my thanks to Ben for arranging this opportunity to get access to these papers and providing a forum for discussion.  Thanks are also due to Peter Fisher (Editor) and the publishers, Elsevier, for giving their permission for the journal club.  It is brave to be open to criticism and an indispensable aspect of scientific discourse.  It stands in stark contrast to recent actions taken by the Society of Homeopaths.

Thanks to the journal club I have been able to have a go at critiquing a number of the papers.  As a result I have submitted a couple of letters to the editor of the journal.  Over the next few posts I’ll make these available on this blog and add some reflections.  I’ll also report on my success, or otherwise, at having my observations published in Homeopathy

Physics remains my main scientific interest and this has coloured my choice of papers.  For me, homeopathy becomes really interesting when it places itself in the domain of real physical effects and mechanisms.  When it does this it must conform to the massively successful description of nature that is contemporary physics.  Am I arguing that physics is complete and flawless?  No.  What I am saying is that physics encapsulates a large, coherent, successful but finite body of knowledge.  By asserting that water can “remember” what has been dissolved in it, even when it is no longer there, Homeopathy has stepped into the domain of what is known and must therefore be judged against it.

The first paper I read makes a wild application of certain aspects of quantum theory to “explain” homeopathy and why it cannot be tested.  All that I will say on that aspect of the paper is that by removing the key experimental observation that quantum physics applies only to processes with very small dimensions, as expressed by Planck’s constant, it has parted company with what I’ll loosely call reality and no longer has the power to explain processes in nature.  [For a detailed analysis of the quantum mechanical content of this paper, and other similar work, the blog by shpalman is excellent.]

The paper awoke memories of undergraduate lectures on the nature and philosophy of science.  As you can see the author asserts that the philosophy of science is to blame for the lack of regard in which homeopathy is held by most scientists.  A philosophical picture is developed to explain this blindness.  His contention is that scientists are so constrained by a prescriptive “method” that they cannot accept the contrarian observations, the black swans of homeopathy.  As my letter points out, the author did this by picking a simplistic (and discredited) philosophical model and defining this as science.  This stands as a fine example of the classic “straw man” fallacy.

Milgrom, L. R., “Conspicuous by its absence: the Memory of Water, macro-entanglement, and the possibility of homeopathy” Homeopathy, Volume 96, Issue 3, July 2007, Pages 209-219.

Straw Men and Black Swans: The Philosophy of Contemporary Science 

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Posted in homeopathy, Logical Fallacies, Philosophy, Pseudoscience, The Memory of Water | Tagged: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Homeopathy and the memory of water: Milgrom and the philosophy of science

Dowsing For Answers

Posted by apgaylard on October 4, 2007

Listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme Questions, Questions today I was interested to hear a discussion on dowsing .  Disappointingly for a “factual” programme the piece was outrageously biased towards dowsing.

The pitch was very much “science doesn’t know how this works”, rather than the truth: science knows how this doesn’t work!

Various dowsers aired their views, with anecdotes masquerading as data.

To answer the question “How can this be explained scientifically?” the audience were subject to pseudo-physics babble from Michael Guest, introduced as the Vice President of the British Society of Dowsers.  To summarise he contended that it was explained by “… the Earths’ magnetism and our reaction to it  …” he elaborated that an underground stream effects the magnetic background.  This can be detected by human beings.  How?  Dowsers’ tensed muscles are relaxed by passing over the “reaction” of the magnetic field to the water.  This causes the rod reaction.

Scientifically this is utter, utter nonsense. I’ll just take one part of this nonsense to task.  Muscle reaction (contraction) is stimulated by electrical impulses transmitted by the nerves.   The only way a magnetic field could cause a muscular reaction is by inducing a similar electrical signal.  Faraday’s Law of Induction tells us that, in the Earth’s steady magnetic field, a voltage (emf) can only be induced by moving a conductor through it and hoping for a changing magnetic flux (dFB/dt); perhaps due to some local anomaly.  IF a conducting rod (not wood!) is used and IF the motion could induce a suitable electric current this could, assuming conduction into appropriate nerves, induce muscle tension (contraction).  The latter IF, as we shall see, is a mammoth IF.

What we are being asked to swallow is that this actually happens in the presence of an underground stream.  How realistic is that? Could the effect be strong enough to cause some sort of muscle reaction? 

 Taking some generic data we can make some very charitable estimates.  At its strongest (the poles) the earth’s magnetic field is around 60μT. Using Faraday’s Law of Induction: If a 1m long conductive rod was swept at 90 degrees to the magnetic field at 1 m/s the induced voltage could be no more than 60μV (0.00006 Volts), assuming the dowser completes the electrical circuit and we have a changing magnetic flux (dFB/dt) due to the motion.  (Please note that this is very much a estimate of maximum magnitude.  There are lots of assumptions here, but for the purposes of the argument they are made to increase the size of the estimated voltage). 

The typical action potential required for muscle contraction is 15 mV (0.015 Volts).  The upshot is that the induced voltage is at least 250 times too small to trigger muscle contraction.  So there is no possibility of magnetically induced muscle reaction.  The presence of an underground stream will not induce much of an anomaly, let alone negate the background magnetic field entirely!

Other points to note are this would only work with a conducting rod.  Dowsers often use wood!  The induced voltage is also proportional to both the length of the rod and the speed at which it moves; double the size or speed and the effect is still at least 125 times too small.

Of course, it is worse than this.  Moving a conductor through a uniform, steady magnetic field would not generate the changing flux (dFB/dt) required to induce the voltage.  So, I have assumed that the magnetic anomaly is the same size as the earth’s magnetic field at its strongest.  Finally, the motion required is at 90 degrees to the magnetic field lines.  Only at the poles would this be motion parallel to the ground.

This physical nonsense was accepted without challenge; hardly the stuff of “factual” broadcasting.

Guest then moved on to “… areas we simply don’t understand scientifically”.  What are these? Dowsing for depth information, from a map and at a distance.  We were blithely informed that: “skilled dowsers do it all the time”  No evidence is asked for or offered.  Of course, there is no sound evidence for “standard” dowsing being more than luck or intuition, let alone these more speculative forms.

One sceptical voice was heard.  Terrence Hines, introduced as a New York Psychologist.   It was claimed, on his behalf, that he thought dowsing could never be authenticated because of lack of evidence as to how exactly it works!  No, it has never been authenticated because it does not work. 

Randi states that: By far the most common claim made for the Million Dollar Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is dowsing”.  Yet the million dollar prize is still unclaimed!  If dowsing worked then Randi would have lost his money years ago! (This is borne out by the evidence discussed in wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s description of it as “occultism”)

Hines’ explanation for the movement of the dowsing rods is small unconscious muscle twitches.  (Randi offers the same explanation).

It was also said of Hines that he: “… Refuses to accept anecdotal reports, claiming they are unreliable.”  The implication of this is that he is being unfair, instead of absolutely right.  To have a factual programme inferring that anecdotes are data is very irresponsible.

We were then introduced to Tony Faulkner, apparently an electrical engineer, who was claimed to have conducted controlled experiments to try “… to substantiate why the dowsing he had seen could have worked.”  More nonsense.  That is the path to self-deception.  Good science is about trying to falsify your hypothesis, not confirm it. 

His defence: “… people who are trained in a western way find it hard to accept …” When “western” is used as a pejorative against the scientific method, then we have a sure sign that we are in the presence of quackery.

The show did mention that sceptics point out that if you dig virtually anywhere in the UK, at random, you will hit water eventually.  It’s a shame that the programme makers did not think the implications of this one through.

Instead we closed on the delusional conclusion from the journalist “responsible”: “… In my own brief experience I and many like me have seen the rods work.”

In the words of Homer Simpson: D’Oh!

[Edit.  I came across this and this on dowsing for explosives]

Posted in dowsing, Pseudoscience | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »