Science

I think we might have spotted what the problem is

Sir David King writes:

Today, the rest of the world pours more than $2 trillion a year into the Gulf states, which is $6m per day.

That\’s $6 billion a day of course (well, it is if all we\’re going to worry about is those pesky orders of magnitude).

That the Government\’s former Chief Scientific Advisor is innumerate might explain some of the predicament we find ourselves in.

I like this

I am all for online debates, and all for stroppy females — one of the happiest moments of the Blair years was seeing the Women’s Institute give him the bird, and the naked panic on the old fraud’s face.

And this:

In the grip of extreme parenthood you may, of course, care about other people’s children — and indeed grandparents, maiden aunts and gay brothers-in-law — and offer lip service and a few sponsored walks to assist suffering humanity at home and abroad. But, slice it how you like, your own family remains your top priority. So even if it makes moral and economic sense for government to dock your child benefit because you’re earning 60k, close your Sure Start centre because others need it more, and refuse you IVF to produce a sibling for your child, then you will howl in majestic, mother-wolf rage. You guard the cave. It’s what you do.

There\’s nothing very new about this of course. Haldane\’s* laying down his life for two brothers or 8 cousins is an expression of much the same point.

We aren\’t all members of a happy clappy society which regards all as equal. We really do work from self to direct family to tribe to the extended society. Which is why attempts to make us consider that wider society over our own more immediate concerns so often fail.

*Haldane\’s best comment is of course:

When asked \”What has the study of biology taught you about the Creator, Dr. Haldane?\”, he replied

\”I\’m not sure, but He seems to be inordinately fond of beetles.\”

So, anyone got a subscription to Science Direct?

This report leads to this paper.

I\’m really rather hoping that the actual paper doesn\’t say anything quite as stupid as is being reported:

Their new research argues that estimates of conventional reserves should be downgraded from 1,150bn to 1,350bn barrels to between 850bn and 900bn barrels and claims that demand may outstrip supply as early as 2014.

Demand outstripping supply? What?

\”We\’re not operating under that basis. This is objective analysis. We\’re not sitting on any oil fields. It\’s critically important that reserves have been overstated, and if you take this into account, we\’re talking supply not meeting demand in 2014-2015.\”

In a market there is no such thing as demand outstripping supply. There is only a mismatch between supply and demand \”at a price\”. So I do hope that the report itself doesn\’t contain such silliness.

The abstract isn\’t all that much better:

While there is certainly vast amounts of fossil fuel resources left in the ground, the volume of oil that can be commercially exploited at prices the global economy has become accustomed to is limited and will soon decline. The result is that oil may soon shift from a demand-led market to a supply constrained market.

So, anyone got access to that actual paper so that I can have a shufti?

Update: Wow, that was quick. Good, I now have the article, thank you much to JJ.

Doesn\’t matter really

Dr Frank Drake said the phasing out of analogue transmissions from television, radio and radar was making our planet electronically invisible from outer space.

While old style signals used to spread out millions of miles into outer space, even reaching some distant stars, digital transmissions are much weaker and therefore are less easy to detect by extra-terrestrial life forms.

We\’ve still sent out that bolus of signals so anyone interested can still find us by the \”I Love Lucy\” reruns.

And yes, of course, scatty redheads are of interest even in black and white.

Great research paper of the day

Conclusions Listening to Nellie the Elephant significantly increased the proportion of lay people delivering compression rates at close to 100 per minute. Unfortunately it also increased the proportion of compressions delivered at an inadequate depth. As current resuscitation guidelines give equal emphasis to correct rate and depth, listening to Nellie the Elephant as a learning aid during CPR training should be discontinued.

On skin colour in Asians

There\’s a bit of a disconnect here. Yes, we know that (especially from the sub-Continent but also in other parts of Asia) the lighter the skin the better looking the woman is considered. Thus the proliferation of lightening creams.

We also know why:

Perhaps it was once a sign of social class: only poor people needed to toil in the sun, so a dark, weatherbeaten face testified to a lowly station. Perhaps the belief hardened during India’s long, violent history, in which power and wealth were associated with fair-skinned marauders such as the Aryans.

Indeed, there are those who argue that (and there\’s sufficient DNA evidence to make their argument stand up, if not to entirely prove it) that the caste system is part and parcel of that ensuring that the light skinned Aryans continue to rule to roost over the darker indigenes, right down the generations.

That first explanation worked in almost all European societies up until the 1950s-1960s of course, when it went into sudden reverse and it was the tan that became the mark of a higher social class (class isn\’t quite right there: status or wealth perhaps). As everyone now worked indoors it was those who could afford to jet away to the winter sun who were displaying status by having a tan, not those with the milky white skin of never having had to work in the fields.

And thus we now have the opposite of those lightening creams: the fake tan and the tanning salon and, yes, they are hugely used by those in exactly the same socio-economic positions as those using the lightening creams.

The disconnect comes in the rest of Anjana Ahuja\’s piece. She has correctly answered the question of why these creams are used. And then spends the rest of the piece asking why these creams are used?

Eh?

Regional variations in life span

No, I know, this isn\’t all of the story but it is at least part of it.

The places where people live long lives seem to be those places which people go to when they retire. Thus it isn\’t that thy are places which make people live long lives: it\’s that those living long lives go there.

The mayor, John Burden  –  a lifelong resident  –  said: \’I would like to say our longevity is because we have good Christian people. But we have clean air and good local produce with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables available.

\’I don\’t think it\’s anything to do with being born here. I can walk through the town these days and hardly see anyone I grew up with.\’

Quite.

Darwin and large families

Only a little side note really:

Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, of whom seven survived to adulthood. Although only three provided Darwin with grandchildren,

You can see why people had large families…..if only 30% of your children provide you with grandchildren then you need a pretty good number just to keep the genes being passed on….

Sir David King: moronic twat

The Iraq war was just the first of this century\’s "resource wars", in which powerful countries use force to secure valuable commodities for themselves, according to the UK government\’s former chief scientific adviser.

Sir David King predicted that with human population growing, natural resources dwindling and seas rising because of climate change, the squeeze on the planet would lead to more conflict.

"I\’m going to suggest that future historians might look back on our particular recent past and see the Iraq war as the first of the conflicts of this kind – the first of the resource wars," he told an audience of 400 in London as he delivered the British Humanist Association\’s Darwin Day lecture.

So let\’s think about this a little.

Joe Stiglitz tells us that the Iraq war will, in total, cost the US $3 trillion.

Oil\’s currently $45 a barrel or so.

So that money would buy, umm, 66 billion barrels.

Iraq has some 112 billion barrels of proven reserves.

Hmm, so, maybe?

Well, no. This still ignores two very basic facts. The first is that everyone is still paying Iraq for each and every barrel of oil. It\’s a bit silly to go paying for things twice over, isn\’t it?

The second is the response to those who say that it\’s all about access.

This ignores the meaning of the word fungible.

This is, I\’m afraid, the sort of moronic twattery that you get when scientists stray off the rather norrow confines of their specialist subject.

Quite

Science provides natural explanations for your existence – a map which tells us where you are and what you are. If you don’t think such explanations are important, existence is probably wasted on you.

Erm, no

Or maybe yes.

The Formula AE car will use a solar-powered battery to get it moving but will then use the airflow passing over the vehicle to power a turbine.

It will be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds and is expected to cost around £100,000 when it hits the market.

Four strategically placed air intakes, which will be built discretely into the car\’s bodywork, will channel the airflowover the car\’s body towards the turbine.

There are two intakes on the front of the car and one on each side towards the rear.

The turbine itself is hidden within the car body and will be connected to an alternator which will increase the amount of electricity available to the car by 20 to 25 per cent.

Given that I know nothing about engineering it\’s a little difficult for me to comment. But isn\’t this like blowing at the sails in a yacht and expecting it to move?

You\’re trying to capture the energy from the airflow. OK. But no energy system is 100% efficient. So aren\’t you going to lose more energy capturing it (as opposed to just letting it pass by) then you\’re going to get from it?

Or have I just shown that I really don\’t know anything about engineering? Or physics?

 

The Ig Nobels

A decent crop this year, although they do seem to have changed a little bit from honouring completely nutty research to honouring really rather good research which only sounds nutty at first.

Economics

Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico for discovering that lap dancers get larger tips when they are ovulating.

This touches on something really rather important. We know that there\’s something of a game going on between men and women over when women ovulate. We\’re pretty much the only mammal that doesn\’t in fact advertise the moments of maximum fertility. In this game women are attempting to hide when they are indeed fertile. But if the strippers get higher tips when they are ovulating, this presumably means that men can in fact tell, even if only subconsciously, when they are.

Which shows that there might be a few rounds in this game still to go.

Medicine

Dan Ariely at Duke University for demonstrating that expensive placebos are better painkillers than cheaper ones.

And that\’s got a lot of implications for health care, doesn\’t it?

On the subject of science…

This is rather a good example of it.

Darwin looking into whether blondes were more or less likely to get married and have children than darker haired women. Thus, was the population going to become darker haired over time?

Now, from memory, this is before we (that is, the world in general) found out about Mendel\’s work on peas and thus knew about the inheritance characteristics of dominant and recessive genes (looking it up I see I\’m right, and that Darwin\’s alternative theory was wrong).

So, he tries to collect the data by teaming up with a doctor and studying the women who attended a hospital. Then:

"Eventually Darwin came to the conclusion that the experimental basis was not good enough. Both Beddoe and Darwin came to the conclusion that the original results were misleading and didn\’t make sufficient allowance for the darkening of hair with age."

That\’s good science that is….theory, collect evidence, realise that the evidence cannot be used to prove the theory one way or the other….then drop theory.

Sure, it would be wonderful to be able to prove such things one way or another, but the science consists of the methods by which you provide such proofs. And if you can\’t provide the proof in a scientific manner than you\’re not able to provide the proofs.

 

Excellent!

No, not the results here:

Babies conceived through IVF are much more likely to die at birth than those conceived naturally, the results of a new study show.

The death of babies is never to be considered excellent.

No, rather, we\’ve got a perfect example of two things: the state of science reporting and the much better state of science.

For there we\’ve got our headline, that IVF babies are more likely to die than those conceived naturally. Which isn\’t in fact what the article itself says at all.

Rather, the study looked at births conceived naturally, then those conceived naturally to women who also had one via IVF and then to those as a result of IVF from the same women.

Yes, IVF risks were higher than the first group: but much much lower than those in the third.

So, the result is that IVF, amongst those women who have had both that and conceived naturally, is much less risky than natural.

Her results also show that among women who conceived with fertility treatment but also had another child naturally, the spontaneously conceived baby was three times more likely to die than its IVF sibling.

"The adverse outcomes of assisted fertilisation that we noted compared with those in the general population could therefore be attributable to the factors leading to infertility, rather than to factors related to the reproductive technology," Dr Romundstad said.

So, zero points to the headline writer for getting the wrong end of the stick and many plus points to the researchers themselves for doing what all too few do. Looking at correlation and causation in a mature manner. Looking at babies conceived by IVF alone is never going to tell us all that much, for those created that way will of course be to people who already have problems with conception in some manner. ( We might also note that the 30% rise in risk isn\’t in fact all that large as the absolute risks are pretty low: 6 in a thousand is it? But the three times increase is indeed large.)

Spiralling off into pure speculation (as I am wont to do and as usual, on the basis of very little fact) what might explain that huge gap between natural and IVF in the same women? Well, umm, might it be the men? Some subset of IVF births are with donated eggs. Some subset are with the woman\’s own eggs but donated sperm and another with the couple\’s own of both.

OK, perhaps not the men in fact, but those natural conceptions will obviously be with the couple\’s own gametes….while a substantial portion of the IVF births will be with one or another (or both) sets donated. So the higher risk amongst the naturals comes from the very point that (some) IVF is designed to overcome. Gametes that just aren\’t up to scratch.

Aha!

Finally, I find out where this excellent phrase comes from.

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Niels Bohr.

It would have to be quantum, wouldn\’t it?

Explaining fish evolution

You can imagine in a few million years, when flatfish have finally got themselves sorted out and the eyes are beautifully symmetrical over a neat horizontal mouth, that future generations of IDers will be loudly demanding to know how such a creature could possibly have evolved from ordinary fish. Where, they\’ll ask, is the missing link?

And the answer will be, well, we ate most of them with chips, peas, and a dollop of tartare sauce.

Well, There is an Answer to This Question, Of Course.

Far from showing how swiftly the world is advancing, the Phoenix mission is another dispiriting reminder of how the pace of change in the world is regressing.

It\’s 2008, for Pete\’s sake. Weren\’t we supposed to be taking holidays on Mars by 2008? When we watched Star Trek as children, didn\’t we assume that by the 21st century we\’d be in silver one-piece suits, visiting galaxies, meeting aliens with eyeballs the size of watermelons and nostril foliage like an upturned version of Don King\’s hairdo? In fact, we can barely travel across London without havoc (what happened to those personal jetpacks we were promised?). Japan\’s Bullet Train is almost half a century old and we still haven\’t built anything that matches it for grace and punctuality. Concorde, far from being a first step to being able to fly to Sydney in an hour, has died. Supersonic travel died with it.

Just like Al Gore used to be the next president of the United States, the future used to be the next phase awaiting mankind. That\’s how the future is supposed to work, isn\’t it? But all around us lies spooky evidence that the world may actually be moving in reverse.

If you look at the list of technologies that have indeed advanced rapidly as against that list which has either stagnated or regressed, you\’ll see an interesting point.

Those that have advanced are those (generally, to be sure) where individuals and markets have been left alone to play. Those that have stagnated or regressed are those where governments and bureaucracies have strained mightily to pick winners. And with their usual efficiency, have notably failed to do so.

Whjy, we might even go so far as to start assuming that it\’s not just a correlation, that there might even be some causality here?