Posts Tagged skepticism

The Nobel Disease David Winter Oct 08


Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann, Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, Ralph M. Steinman and Dan Shechtman. Seven new Nobel Laureates and seven new names to include in the most exclusive club in science.

The Nobel prize comes with a trip to Stockholm, a gold medal and a share of million dollar prize. But perhaps even more than that, it provides a cachet that extends beyond the world of science and into the every day. Nobel lauretes are recognized as the best of the best: people whose intellectual achievements have changed the way we think of the world. The gravitas we attach to people who can put ‘Nobel Prize winning scientist’ in front of their name means their opinions are afforded special status. Indeed, listening to people who ought to know what they’re talking about is a pretty good way to learn about the world. But a Nobel Prize doesn’t represent a barrier to sloppy thinking. In fact, if anything there seems to be tendency for acknowledgement of expertise in one area to provide an unfounded confidence to speak out on other subjects. Some laureates have fallen for the most appalling anit-scientific rubbish. So much so, the term “Nobel Prize Syndrome” or “Nobel Disease” has been coined to describe this phenomenom. So, without wishing to take any of the gloss of this year’s Nobelists, here is a list of some of those that were brought low by the Nobel Disease.

Linus Pauling (Chemistry and Peace, Vitamin C fanatic)

Surely the saddest case. Pauling was a supreme scientist, one of the first chemists to get serious about using the tools of physical chemistry to understand the basis of biology. His most famous contribution was pioneering methods that use what we know about the nature of chemical bonds to find the structure of biological chemicals. Evolutionary biologists like me remember him as the guy the first proposed that we could use the rate of change in chemical structures to measure evolutionary time between species. He’s also the only person to have won a real science Nobel and the Nobel Peace Prize – the latter coming for his activism for nuclear nonproliferation.

Then there was the vitamin C business. Pauling became convinced that high doses of vitamin C would cure.. well, amost everything. The initial results of Pauling’s research were promising, but it soon became clear they wouldn’t hold up to more rigourous tests. It seems Pauling’s belief was stronger than any evidence, and he doubled down, advoacting high does of vitamin C in popular and scientific works. Today it’s almost impossible to talk to an advocate of these cures without having Pauling’s name thrown add you.

Kary Mullis (Chemistry, HIV denialist)

If Pauling is the saddest case of the Nobel Disease, Kary Mulllis might just be the oddest. Mullis is credited with inventing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) – a method used  hundreds of thousands of times every day in molecular biology labs around the world to amplify small, specific regions of DNA. I can’t even imagine how you’d do genetics without PCR, so his achievement is certainly worth the prize. But he is seriously strange. When people talk about Mullis’ personality, they emphasise his use of LSD and his love of surfing and motorbikes. I guess that’s quirky, but science takes all sorts and none of those would make him unique among Nobel Laureates. However, I’m not sure there has ever been an acceptance speech quite like his. Before Mullis embarked on his career in biochemistry he had a go at being a novelist, and his speech reflected this:

And now as December threatened Christmas, Jennifer, that crazy, wonderful woman chemist, had dramatically left our house, the lab, headed to New York and her mother, for reasons that seemed to have everything to do with me but which I couldn’t fathom. I was beginning to learn tragedy. It differs a great deal from pathos, which you can learn from books. Tragedy is personal. It would add strength to my character and depth someday to my writing. Just right then, I would have preferred a warm friend to cook with. Hold the tragedy lessons. December is a rotten month to be studying your love life from a distance.

So, I don’t think much of his writing, but he won a Nobel Prize and I’m some guy writing a blog – so it’s hard for me to pick on him for that. Sadly, he’s done much worse. In his autobiography he claimed the theories of Ozone depletion and climate change were the result of a conspiracy between scientists and government organisations seeking to continue their funding. Even worse, he is an HIV denialist. Mullis has never done any scientific research on HIV or AIDs, but PCR is, on rare occasions, used to diagnose HIV. You can imagine the mileage that those strange people that deny the link between HIV and AIDS get from being able to say “the inventor of the PCR test doesn’t even believe it!”Mullis has gone to say anti-retrovirals don’t work and agree that  AIDS isn’t a disease that people who lead “normal, American lifestyles” run much of a risk of developing.

Also there is something is his book about being visited by a fluorescent alien raccoon.

William Shockley (Physics, Eugenicist)

Shockley invented the transistor and thus, changed the world. Apparently, he wasn’t happy with one revolution and wanted to change the word again, this time by creating a brighter future through genetics. Shockley was one of those people that think Idiocracy is a documentary, and that letting people make their own reproductive decissions will inevitably lead to a genetic meltdown for society. Almost all of the reasoning that goes into these eugenic panics is flawed, but Shockley really went a long way out on a short branch. His argument amounted to “Black Americans have a lower average IQ than whites, this is a result of genetic differences, therefore environmental interventions won’t alleviate  these problems”. Shockely was no inhibited by an understanding of genetics at any step of the reasoning that took from his poor data to his odious proposals.

Among other things, Shockley’s argued those with an IQ under 100 should be paid to be sterilised, and he provided samples to the wonderfully named “Repository for Germinal Choice” (dubbed the Nobel Prize sperm bank in the media”) in the hope his sperm would make the world a better place.

Brian Josephson (Physics, Parapsychologist)

Josephson won his Nobel Prize for his PhD work on superconductivity.  Having been awarded the prize while he was still a Reader at Cambridge (and academic rank equivalent to Associate Professor in many other countries) he can now pretty much do what he wants with his life. And what he mainly wants to do is explore the stange and wonderful world of “quantum mysticism” including ideas like telepathy and precognition. I don’t really know what else to say about Josephson, except read his webpage and find out for yourself.

Luc Montagnier (Medicine, Homoeopathy supporter)

Montagnier is one of the people credited with discovering HIV which, Mullis and his crew notwhistanding, has been shown to the causative agent of AIDs. A huge discovery, and one that set the basis for working on treating or even curing that disease. 
Then, in 2009, Montagnier set up his own journal, and published two papers that purported to show electromagnetic signals could be recorded in water that had once had DNA in it, but had subsequently been diluted such that none could remain. That would be a truly earth shattering result, as it would change pretty much everything we know about chemistry. That would be good news for homoeopaths, because, in order for their cures to work almost everything we know about chemistry would have to change. Indeed homeopaths jumped on Montagnier’s work as evidence for their quackery.
Of course, the papers are rubbish. PZ Myers goes into the details, but my favourite warning sing is that one paper went from submission to re-submission to acceptance in three days. The most earth shattering result in chemistry: read, reviewed,  commented on, edited, resubmitted and accepted in three days; in  Montagnier’s own journal; where he is the chief editor. Of course, none of that, or the fact the even the most sympathetic and credulous reading of Montagnier’s papers actually supports homoeopathy as it is practised will stop him being cited by homoeopaths at every chance.

Niko Tinbergen (Medicine, supported “Refigerator Mother” theory)

The Dutch ethologist gets special mention as showing the most rapid onset of Nobel Disease. Tinbergen used his acceptence lecture to advocate for the “Refigirator mother” theory of schizophrenia and autism – an unfounded  theory that led to thousands of mothers (never, it seems, fathers) being told their children’s illness were a result of their poor parenting.

Sunday Spinelessness – For aussie beetles, beer bottles are an evolutionary trap David Winter Oct 02


It’s Nobel season. Over the next month or so, we’ll hear who has received a telegram summoning them to Stockholm and to fame and fortune (the cash part of the prize is worth about 1.5 million dollars). Of course, the Nobels are a big deal. Prizes are given to recognise people who have fundamentally changed the way we think about the world or the way science works. So it’s nice that in the week before we start thinking about those huge sicentific acheievements we have the Ig Nobel prizes to remind us that most science is small, and sometimes it’s even prettty funny.

The Ig Nobels were set up to honour science that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think”. This year’s winner were announced on Friday and prizes went to researchers who trained a tortoise to yawn on command so they they could find out if yawning was contagious among these animals (it’s not), a Japanese team who developed an alarm clock that wakes you up by spraying a fine mist of wasabi across the room and a team who finally provided an answer to that age-old question – “why do discus throwers get dizzy while hammer throwers don’t?” (here’s that answer). But perhaps the award that’s done the most to make people laugh is the one presented  to Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz in recognition of their studies into male Australian beetles that would rather mate with beer bottles than their female counterparts.

The beetles in question are Julodimorpha saundersi, a member of the jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and native to desert habitats in Australia:

BIG beetle 
J. saundersi. Thanks to Jean Hort for sharing this photo as CC2.0
Mating season has probably just finished for these beetles. Adults emerge around August and for next couple of months male J. saundersifly about the place looking for females, which are larger than the males and flightless. So, for millions of years male J. saundersihave spend their springtime looking down hoping to find large (because large females produce more eggs) shiny, amber coloured surfaces covered in dimples like those on the beetles back. And for millions of years I’m sure that worked fine. Then someone invented beer bottles, and because some people suck, beer bottles starting turning up on roadsides in the Australian desert. Apparently, some Australian stubbies* have a series of dimples across the bottom. When a J. saundersimale sees one of these bottles he presumes he’s won the reproductive jackpot and found the biggest, most amber, most dimpled female to ever live and… well.. you can see what happens next for yourself:

Image © Darryl Gwynne

Gwyne and Rentz found that they could attract males just by putting beer bottles out, in 30 minutes of observation that managed to lure two of them. Sadly for J. saundersi, this battle with the bottle can have devastating effects. Gwynne observed a beetle being attacked by ants “which were biting at  the soft portions of his everted genitalia” and another dead one being eaten by ants.

I have to admit, the idea of a beetle so madly fixated on a beer bottle that it will give its life in the hope of mating with it is so ridiculous as to be funny. So I’m laughing, but is there anything in this research that fulfills the Ig Nobel’s other criterion and makes us think? Well, I’m not sure you and I are so different from a beetle with a pathological sexual attraction to discarded beer bottles.

J. saundersi males had a perfectly sensible approach to finding partners that only broke down when a sudden change in the environment made last generation’s strategy look stupid. Any species can fall into that trap because natural selection, the process that makes organisms fit their environment, has no foresight. All that selection can do is adapt the next generation to the last habitat. Usually that’s fine, but lately habitats have been changing quickly. The rapid technological change of the last few thousand years has left humans in a few evolutionary traps of our own. The most commonly cited example is about food. Until recently, foods rich in fat and sugar were pretty hard to come by. Since these foods are important for regular running of our body, we have evolved brains that reward us when we eat them. Today, our brains no longer match our environment.  In most western societies fatty and sugary meals are about 10 minutes drive away and, perhaps not surprisingly, the developed world is dealing with a epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. 

I think there is an even more important example of this phenomenon for people that aim to live a skeptical life – our brains developed in a world quite different than the one we live in. The share volume of cognitive biases that psychologists have identified reveal how our intuitions can stray from reality. Not all of those biases arise from a mismatch between our brain and our environment. Brains aren’t truth finding machines, because knowing something is true doesn’t, in and of itself, provide any survival advantage. But some of these mistaken intuitions really do seem to arise from our evolutionary history. Most of the people that have ever lived have done so in bands of about 50 people. Every piece of news they ever learned about the world came through those people, and maybe a few interactions with other groups. Today, I can open a new browser tab and read one of 50 million twitter streams; or watch, read and hear news from almost anywhere on the planet. But I have still have my brain, which mainly evolved to deal with news from about 50 people, so part of me is amazed when I hear someone won the lottery three times, or someone else has given birth to three children in three different years but each at 7:43. Of course, in a world of 6.7 billion people these things have to happen, but, as much as I know that, it’s hard to convince my brain these aren’t amazing events. 

I said this fact problem matters for skeptical types, and, indeed, our faulty intuitions can have effects at least as bad as those faced by the amorous beetles that precipitated this post. If you live in a world with 50 contacts, and one of them tells you they got sick after eating a specific sort of food, that’s pretty good evidence that you should avoid that food. If you live in a world with billions of potential contacts, and one of them tells you that someone, somewhere got sick after receiving a vaccination or got better after taking a homeopathic remedy that’s not evidence for anything. Just like the triple lotto winners, in a world where millions of doses of vaccine given out, someone will get sick after a vaccine whether it causes an illness or not.  Thankfully, we’ve developed methods that help us, as much as possible, to remove our intuitions from the way we handle evidence. Together, we call those methods science and it’s crucial that those methods are the heart of the way our societies develop if we are going to avoid our own evolutionary traps

So, by all means laugh at J. saundersiand his futile, fatal attempts to impregnate a glass bottle, but do try an be aware that similar traps are lurking in our own brains.

Gwynne, D. & Rentz, D. 1983 Beetles on the bottle: male buprestids mistake stubbies for females (Coleoptera). Australian Journal of Entomology, 22, p.79-80. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-6055.1983.tb01846.x

 *For people outside Australiasia, a stubby is a short brown 330 mL bottle which usually contains the caramel fizz that gets called “ale” or “draught” beer down here, but is, in fact, a lager.  

Thanks to Ted, the blogo-sphere’s foremost beetle taxonomist for pointing out this species is not called J. saundersi, as it has been shown to be distinct from J. bakewilli the name this population bore when the paper was written

Ken Ring can’t predict earthquakes either David Winter Mar 01

The New Zealand media have done a remarkably good job of covering the Christchurch earthquake. TV, newspapers and radio have all struck the difficult balance between the country’s desperate need to understand what happened on the 22nd and how people are coping with the right that each victim the quake has to privacy in such a terrible time. The media have also shown great restraint with respect to one particular story. Ken Ring, the astrological weather forecaster, claims to have predicted the earthquake. I think Ring, with all his calculations and post-hoc explanations, is the very embodiment of what Richard Feynmann called ’cargo cult science’ – someone who does some of the things scientists do, but fails in the most defining characteristic by not honestly testing his theories against data. I’ve had a little fun at his expense before, but, really; as much as it makes me sad that we live in a world in which Ken Ring can sell his weather forecasts and appear as an ’expert’ on anything in the media, the worst thing his almanac does is take money from people. In the wake the earthquake Ken Ring has done something much more serious. While thousands of people are devastated by a natural disaster, and terrified about what might happen next, Ken Ring claims to have predicted the earthquake of the 22nd and that a much worse one is due in March. So, let’s do what Ring fails to and test his methods against reality.

If Ring had really made an isolated and specific prediction that a destructive earthquake would strike Christchurch on February the 22nd then he might be worth listening to. His claim revolves around this post from his website a little more than a week before the event. Here’s the quotes he’d like you to pick out from that post:

The window of 15-25 February should be potent for all types of tidal action, not only kingtides but cyclone development and ground movement.

Over the next 10 days a 7+ earthquake somewhere is very likely

You might quibble that the Christchurch quake, at magnitude 6.3, was about 5 times less powerful than the M7 event he’d predicted – but I don’t think anyone in Christchurch wants to argue about how strong their quake was. On the face it, it really does look like an amazing coincidence: Ring predicted a quake and it happened. But there is more to it than that, I’ve been through his site and Ring has also predicted earthquakes for, at least, the 24th of September, the 1st and 7th of October the first week in November, the 20th to the 27th of January, the 1st to the 5th and 19th to the 25th of March and the 17th of April. In fact, in one post, giving him the +/- one day he needs in order to claim he predicted the February 22nd quake , he paints more than half of the time between the start of January and the end of March as earthquake risk:

You can add a fair few false negatives to those false positives. In October he claimed the aftershock sequence would die down, missing the major rumble on boxing day and several times he declared that it was unlikely Christchurch would be face another major quake (tragically wrong).

Thanks to the way our brains work, we generally struggle to evaluate theories of causation and claims of prediction fairly. We are too impressed by occasional “hits” and tend to forget the many “misses” which outweigh them. If we want to be rigorous, how should we react to hearing about Ring’s “hit” given the litany of “misses” I list above? As it happens there is a theorem for that. Bayes theorem is one of the most important little pieces of maths going around, because it tells us how to update our beliefs about a given question in light of new evidence, and that’s exactly what we should be trying to do if we want to lead a skeptical life. It is maths, but it’s not too scary. I’m the sort of person that loses contact with scientific papers as soon as ‘Σ’s and ‘∫’s start turning up, so you know if I’m writing this , you can follow it. Before we start, we need to define a couple of terms. Let’s call P(KR) the probability Ken Ring can predict earthquakes and P(Prediction) the probability that Ken Ring would have successfully predicted this earthquake. From that we want to calculate how probable the claim “Ken Ring can predict earthquakes” is given his successful prediction, well call that P(KR|Prediction). Once we have those defined it’s just a little 3rd form algebra:

P(KR|Prediction) = P(Prediction|KR) * P(KR)

So, how are we going to replace those terms with numbers? For now, let’s not be one of those close minded skeptical types, ignore how eccentric Ring’s methods and takes the evidence as it stands by saying P(KR) is 50%. P(Prediction|KR) is the probability that Ring would have predicted this quake if his methods work. You might be tempted to says this is 100%, but remember, he missed the Boxing Day aftershock and he’s repeatedly said Christchurch was unlikely to be hit again, so he’s not immune to false negatives either, I’ll be generous and give him 90%. The really interesting bit in Bayes Theorem is the bottom term P(Prediction). If we are being agnostic about Ken Ring’s abilities then we need to estimate this with regard to both the possibility his method has something going for it and the possibility that it doesn’t. We’ve already said that Ring has an 90% chance of predicting an earthquake if his methods work, what’s his chance of ‘successfully’ predicting a quake even if his methods don’t work? This is the most important question you should ask yourself about his claims and it’s where all those false alarms come in. Given the ‘calendar’ above, Ring would have claimed to have predicted the quake if it fell on any of half of the days between January and March. His prediction for February was a little more specific than that, but when you read the post it’s still quite vague: “somewhere”, “in the ring of fire”, “withing 500km of the Alpine fault”. I’m going to say, given the huge number of predictions he’s made, there was about a 30% chance any day that had an earthquake would have been one Ring had previously predicted. To get P(Prediction) we have to balance each scenario like this:

Now, when we put the numbers in like so…

P(KR|Prediction) = 0.9 * 0.5

…we end up with P(KR|Prediction) being 75%. Ring’s successful prediction still supports the case that his methods work, but it’s hardly the decisive piece of information that allows us to say once and for all that he knows what he’s doing. You almost certainly want to put different numbers than I did in that equation, and you should. The idea is not to convince you a particular value is the right one, but to show you how including those false positives in our assessment of his claim changes the way we update our ideas about it and, by extension, how much stock we should put in his future predictions. There is a Bayesian calculator here for anyone that wants to play around with other numbers, over there P(H) is what we called P(KR), P(D|H) is P(Prediction|KR) and P(D|’H) is the probability Ken Ring got it right by mistake (the one I gave 30%).

Skeptics are often accused of being closed minded for sticking to scientific orthodoxy in the light some piece of evidence or other: “If you would just let this evidence stand by itself you’d see my theory is true!”. Assessing any evidence by itself, without our background of knowledge on a topic, is not being open minded – it’s being willfully ignorant. When we want to compare one theory to another we should use all the evidence available to us, and that includes what we know about how the world works. Ring thinks earthquakes happen when the moon makes its closest approach to the earth (called perigee) and around full and new moons. This next sentence really pains me, but here goes. His theory is not 100% lunacy. The phases of the moon have no effect on the earth [whoops, as pointed out in comments, they kind of do, since they correlate with moons position relative to the sun and contribute to tides, this was included in the models/charts below so doesn't change their conclusions], but the position of the moon in its orbit just might. As every schoolchild knows, the moon exerts a tidal force on the planet and there really are “land tides”, tiny swells and lulls in the crust of the earth analogous to the ocean’s tides, that ebb and flow through the day. It’s just possible that a fault that has been loading up with pressure for hundreds of years is more likely to give way when then moon is close and the tidal forces are stronger. But think about that for even a second and the problem becomes clear. Even if the moon is sometimes the straw that breaks the camels back at a particular fault, you couldn’t use the moon to predict an earthquake unless you already new a fault was about to go, i.e., the moon could only predict earthquakes when you could already predict an earthquake!

Ken Ring get’s a bit touchy about scientists dismissing his theories out of hand, so let’s look at some data. I actually asked Ring for some help with this, but he is yet to answer my email. Luckily, since the September 4th earthquake Paul Nicholls from Canterbury University has been plotting the intensity of the aftershock sequence. He’s also plotted the two lunar cycles Ring thinks are responsible for the strength of earthquakes: the lunar distance and the moon’s phase. In many ways, this is the data-set in which we are most likely to find support for Ring’s ideas. We know for a fact that the faults around the Canterbury plains are going to be under stress while the land sorts itself out after the upheaval in September. If the moon really was pushing already loaded faults past their breaking point we’d expect to see it in this data. Usually the most important statistical test you can perform on a data-set is having a look at it. This is Paul’s plot from last night, the slimmer of the two waves on the top represents moons orbit (troughs are perigee, the point Ring thinks is most dangerous) and the larger is the moon’s phase (the troughs are new moons).

If you can see any correlation between either of the lunar cycles you’re doing a lot better than me. I decided to dig a littler further, and plot the intensity of each day’s activity against each of the lunar cycles. First the phases of the moon. Remember, Ring thinks new and full moons are the most dangerous, so we expect a curved relationship higher at either end of the x-axis. We find no such thing (in fact, if anything, it’s more dangerous between the new and the full moon):

How about the distance between the earth and the moon? This is the one that makes just a little scientific sense:

This time the relationship at least goes the right way, the quakes seem to be, on average, more powerful when the moon is close. In fact, when you put this data into a model that factors in the general tailing off in earthquake activity following the initial quake, the distance between the moon and the earth is a statistically significant variable with regard to the energy released. And there lies an incredibly important point. “Statistically significant” means unlikely to happen if the null hypothesis (in this case “the moon doesn’t effect earthquakes at all”) was true, it doesn’t mean the result is “powerful”, “meaningful”, or even “capable of explaining a great deal of the variation in the data”. As is often the case, we didn’t really believe our null hypothesis to start with, so it’s no surprise a large data-set found a significant relationship. But the actual effect of the moon is tiny, it explains about 2% of the variation in the data. The feebleness of the moon as a predictor is obvious when you look at the graph – there are plenty of days when the moon is close and there was not much energy released and, equally, there’s a whole lot of days when the moon was far away and there were still magnitude 5 quakes. The moon might well be having an effect on intensity of earthquakes from day to day, but if it can barely explain any of the variance in this data-set, one that was almost designed to test Ring’s theories in the best light, how could it predict an earthquake? It can’t.

Let’s get back to our calculation, last time we started with P(KR) at 50%. I hope you’ll agree, having seen the data, that Ken Ring’s methods are not the least bit plausible. I going to be outrageously generous and say there’s a one in one thousand chance that he can predict earthquakes, so let’s plug that into Bayes Theorem, remembering to update P(Prediction) for this new value too:

P(KR|Prediction) = P(Prediction|KR) * P(KR)
= 0.9 *0.001

Which gives us a value of 3 in one thousand. Again, you’ll want to put different numbers into the equation, but there’s a really important point here. Whenever we hear evidence for some new claim, “a vaccine caused my child’s autism”, “light behaves as a particle and a wave”, “Ken Ring can predict earthquakes (and another one’s coming)”, we should use that evidence to update our prior knowledge of the world. Sometimes, like the outlandish claim that light can be a particle or a wave depending on how you look at, the evidence will be enough to completely change the we think, more often it will hardly make a blip. I think we can put Ken Ring firmly in the “hardly a blip” category: once you see how implausible his methods are you realise you’d need incredible evidence to believe his predictions and once you see his run of false positives you realise that his “prediction” of last week’s earthquake doesn’t meet that standard.

The people of Christchurch desperately need information. In the next few weeks they want to know if they’ll have to face the terror of last Tuesday again and once they city has pulled itself back up they’ll want to understand the future risks for the city. In a climate of such desperation people have a duty to provide only verifiable information and to explain that information’s limitations. That’s exactly what scientist from GNS and Canterbury University have done when they’ve spoken to the media. Ken Ring, who lambasted GNS for scaring people with a “knee jerk” comment that a magnitude 6 aftershock could be expected after the September earth quake, has not lived up to that duty and I really hope no one takes him seriously.

Note: I know this is a topic people will want to comment on. I’m writing a PhD at the moment and really can’t take time to moderate a comment thread. I’m happy to allow comments, but don’t expect instant replies today, or(at sciblogs) for comments to clear moderation straight away.

The data I used for my graphs was scraped from Paul Nicholls site, I chucked it up on google docs for anyone that’s interested. I’ve also uploaded the R code I used to plot/analyse the data – this is an open access debunking! (BTW, did you know both R and the ggplot library I used to make those graphs were developed by New Zealanders? We grow good geeks here.)

The very error of the Moon Man David Winter Feb 28


I’ve been very impressed with the New Zealand media’s reporting of the Christchurch earthquake. They’ve managed to balance the need so many of us have felt to understand the terrible tragedy of the 22nd with the victims of that tragedy’s right to privacy in such an awful time. Up untill today, they’d also shown great restraint in not indulging in the story Ken Ring, the astrological weather forecaster who claims to have predicted Tuedsday’s quake. It seems Campbell live has given in to the temptation, and will feature Ring’s ‘forecast’ today. I have a draft of a post dealing with Ring’s claims on the way, but I won’t have time to finish that today, so let’s make one thing clear.

On his website, Ken Ring has predicted earthquakes for, at least, the 24th of September, the 1st and 7th of October the first week in November, the 20th to the 27th of January, the 1st to the 5th and 19th to the 25th of March and the 17th of April. In fact, in one post, giving him the +/- one day he needs in order to claim he predicted the February 22nd quake , he paints more than half of the year as a time of increased earthquake risk (those are the red circles):

He also predicted a particular pattern of aftershocks on the day following the quake, and, when that failed to happen deleted the failed prediction from his twitter stream (stay classy Ken). And he missed the boxing day aftershock. [note: it's possible Ken didn't delete his prediction for aftershocks on the 23rd, that particular tweet does show up sometimes for some people]

No matter how hard we try, our brains come pre-built to be emphasise “hits” like Ring’s prediction and discount the more plentiful “misses”. The real question we should ask ourselves when we hear that Ken Ring predicted the Christchurch earthquake is “how likely is that he ‘predicted’ this event, even if his method doesn’t work”. By my count, for any earthquake there’s about a 50% chance Ring will claim to have predicted it no matter what. I don’t think we should be amazed he got this one.

Hopefully I’ll have a complete post expanding on this reasoning up by tomorrow.

update: The Campbell Live has just aired, and, boy did they do a good job! Very clearly set Ring apart from the science, but his failures to him and presented the real science of earthquakes. Nice one.

Ken Ring can’t predict the weather David Winter Nov 19


It’s that time of year for academics in New Zealand. As soon as undergrad teaching finishes every department, organisation and society on campus decides to schedule some sort of meeting,conference or symposium – since everyone will have so much spare time. Between the three talks I’m going to end up giving this month, and the tonne of work I have to get done between them, I don’t have much time to write here. So, partly inspired by people talking abut their months-old posts in Grant’s piece on the length of time it can take to put a blog post together, I’ve decided to dive in The Atavism’s “draft” folder and resurrect a few half-written posts. This one took about two months to write, and though I never quite got the copy right I do rather like the graph.

Ken Ring was on National Radio a couple of months ago, blathering on about his method of weather prediction. Ring thinks he can provide a forecast for any future date by looking at weather map that’s about 18 years out of date That’s how long it takes for the earth, the moon and the sun to cycle into the same relative positions in their orbits, and Ring thinks it’s the moon that drives weather down here on earth. The 18 year old weather map will tell him what the atmosphere was doing last time everything lined up this way, and that will be enough to predict the next event. You probably agree that Ring’s methods sound like lunacy, but Ring continually claimed in his time on air that his method had an 85 % accuracy rate. Reading Ring’s website, you can see he is pretty generous when he estimates his own accuracy, like the Texas sharpshooter who shoots the side of a barn then paints a target around the bullet hole to show his prowess with a shooting iron, Ring uses any vaguely similar weather event to prop up the accuracy of his predictions. My particular favourite from that page is his prediction for 100 mm or rain in New South Wales, which was accurate, it’s just that it arrived further West, two days later and was a only 20mm.

So, we shouldn’t take Ring’s self confidence too seriously and his method, which involves tricky maths and obscure terminology, is a prefect example of cargo cult science. But we don’t have to stop there, Ring makes specific predictions that we can test. Just as the worst thing you can say about homeopathy is not that it’s impossible for those dilutions to effect the human body, but that homeopathy has been shown to do nothing; the worst thing you could say about Ring’s weather forecasting methods is that they don’t work. I went digging for some of Ring’s old claims and was thrilled to see that my Sciblogs stablemate Gareth Renowden has already done all the hard work for me! Apparently Gareth was been dealing with crazy people and weather even before he launched Hot Topic, and back in 2006 he got his hands on on Ring’s predictions for rainfall and sunshine hours in each of the major centres. Gareth compared those predictions to the actual values and to the long term average kept by NIWA.

There’s a bunch of stuff that can be done with that data (which Gareth kindly made available for anyone to download), but the most important thing (and this holds for almost any statistical analysis) is to take a look at it. Here’s what I came up with for the rainfall data using the rather wonderful ggplot2 and inkscape :

You can click on the graphic above to get a bigger version. In these graphs the long term average for each observation is the black line, Ring’s predictions if the blue circle and the actual rainfall for that month in that city is the green circle.

Now, let’s test the accuracy of Ring’s predictions, but against what? Statistical tests often compare a set of results to what you might expect to get “by chance” but that’s not very helpful in this case. For one, it’s not clear what the range of possible values should be, and second, comparing the forecasts to numbers picked at random ignores the seasonal effects everyone knows contribute to weather. You don’t have to know the position of the moon 18 years ago to know that Auckland is more rainy in July than January. Instead, let’s compare Ring’s forecasts to the easiest forecast you could ever make – just saying rainfall for a given region in a given month would match the long-term average. If there was anything to Ring’s methods he should be able to do better than that. He didn’t, on average Ring’s prediction was 52.5 mm out from the actual rainfall where as “predicting” the average would have been 37.25 mm out.The long-term average was a better predictor, averaging 15.15 mm closer to the actual rainfall with a confidence interval spanning from -0.4 and 31 mm. We can’t (quite) say from that data that Ring’s forecasts have less predictive power than the long term average, but there is absolutely no evidence they’re any better.

Let’s lower the bar a little and forget about how close to the true value Ring’s predictions came. Was he at least able to get on the right side of the average? If he predicted a drier August than average was the real value likely to indeed be direr? In this case, if you just tossed a coin 48 times, calling heads drier and tails wetter, you’d expect to be right about half the time. And would have done better than Ring. His prediction was only on the right side of the average 17 times in 48 attempts, about 35% accuracy and significantly worse that you would expect to get from tossing a coin (if you’re one of those p-value fetishists p, in this case, is equal to about 0.03) .

So Ken Ring can’t predict the weather. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone reading my blog or at sciblogs.I wish it surprised me that the uselessness of Ring’s forecasts is no barrier to him being taken seriously, selling books and appearing on radio and in newspapers. The host of the show that started by little investigation evidently took some flack for having Ring on (it was a National Radio after all) and his defense amounted to “well, we just let these people talk and you can decide what you think about it”. That seems impossibly weak to me, surely the least we should do is ask people who make outrageous claims to show what evidence they have to support those claims. I’m pretty satisfied there is nothing in astrological weather forecasting, but if advocates of the method really want to put it to the test it would be easy. Get someone to provide a year’s worth of old weather maps but let only half of them be of the right vintage for their method (about 18 years in Ring’s case) and see if the forecasts from the supposedly predictive weather maps are better than the ones from weather maps chosen at random. How likely do you think it is that test will be run?

Just trying to put the punk back into punctured lung David Winter Aug 18

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I’m going to be spending the rest of my week keeping up with my real work. Neither science nor the internet have chosen to rest while I catch up with that, so there are lots of interesting things happening that you should be reading about.


First, there’s the news that from the New Zealand Medical Journal that a woman developed a pneumothorax (air on the lung) following an acupuncture treatment. As Darcy says in the linked article, the best scientific evidence says that acupuncture performed by people who think they are redirecting the flow of ineffable forces with their needles is no more effective than someone prodding people with sharp things where the eff ever they want. There might be a small benefit to having acupuncture, but it’s a placebo effect. At the same time, and the present study notwithstanding, the risks associated with acupuncture are relatively small. Which all raises an interesting ethical question: should doctors send their patients to acupuncturists. Obviously treatments that have been shown to work better than a placebo should be the first tack, but if they fail is it OK to knowingly make use of the placebo effect? I don’t think it’s as simple as it might seem, after all acupuncture can cost a lot of money. Just as it must be a breach of trust for pharmacists to sell small vials of water to patients and call them “homeopathic remedies”, surely it’s wrong for acupuncturists to take money from patients to pay for their specialist skills in a bogus medical system? Perhaps some of the placebo effect would be down to the idea that the practitioner is steeped in some mystic art, put even if a quick in-clinic sham acupuncture session wouldn’t to the trick other placebos treatments might, without incurring the risks associated with acupuncture (no matter how small they might be). Whatever you think, you should leave a comment on Darcy’s post because he’s just become a father! (It seems his place in life has finally caught up with his sense of humour)


There’s lots of Science (yay) and Technology (meh) on the TV this week. Media7 is having a special episode on communicating science with a panel featuring Peter Griffin and Rebecca McLeod from the scibog crew. They had a show on a similar theme last year, so it will be interesting to see if anything has changed since. Our local climate cranks certainly haven’t become sensible in the interim, but the media does seem to give them a little less room to be stupid so that’s something .TVNZ7 also has the first episode of their new sci-tech show Ever Wondered? online. I have to admit that I haven’t actually got around to seeing that yet so I can’t offer much more than the fact that its there.


Last week I had my first crack at teaching a lab. I’ve done plenty of demonstrating before, which I’ve always enjoyed (even the lab that’s mainly about ripping the heads off Drosophila larvae) but being in charge of the whole show it something else entirely. In the end I had fun, and I think the students went away happy but I have to say I wasn’t prepared for the terrifying sea of blank or anguished expression that stared at me when I turned round from explaining something too quickly. So, I asked an award winning lecturer and her crew what they’d do if they faced that terrible sight, you can read the answer here.


left and right handed snail shells

Did you know that snails can be right- or left-handed? In most individuals of most species the shell coils in a “right handed spiral” so when a the shell is placed “apex up” the opening (the aperture) is on the on the right hand side (like the shell on the right above). In a very few snail species most individuals are left-handed. In both left- and right-handed species you get a very few individuals which coil the other way but that pattern usually doesn’t persist for any length of time because right- and left-handed shells tend to get in each other’s way during mating. It’s even been suggested that the reproductive isolation caused by right- and left-handed snails might be enough to help with the generation of new species (I don’t know if anyone has ever looked at the distribution of chilarity among closely related snail species, but it might be interesting). Now, Kevin Zelnio has the story of a landsnail species that maintains an even number of right- and left-handed individuals, and just how it manages that.


I’ve been reading In Pursuit of the Gene by James Schwartz which is a really well written history of the discovery of genetics. It’s reinforced my notion that statistics was entirely invented by evolutionary biologists; Galton, Pearson (of the correlation coefficient) and Fisher were all trying to understand evolution in developing their methods. I also like the strange coincidence that Hugo de Vries developed what turned out to be a poor theory of evolution based on a misunderstanding of heredity from his observations in the evening primrose. Evening primrose’s scientific name is Oenothera lamarckiana, a name which honours French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lemark who has gone down in history as someone whose mistaken ideas on heredity lead him to present a flawed theory of evolution.


And finally, a couple of posts from here have featured in blog carnivals lately. So, go tuck in to something spineless at the Birders Lounge or read about the history of science’s frauds failures and fools.

Lawrence Krauss on a bad day David Winter Mar 17

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Dunedin got to see Lawrence Krauss on a good day and a bad day this week, but that’s not to say one of his presentations was better than the other. Yesterday the award winning physicist and scientific communicator revealed to his audience that his outlook on life changes from day to day. On good days he can revel in the wonder of a universe that could come to know itself due to a series of accidents that started 10-31 seconds after the big bang and allowed the creation of first matter then atoms, stars and planets and finally astronomers. On bad days he despairs at the lack of scientific thinking in journalism and politics and thinks these problems, and the anti-scientific forces that fuel them, will probably prevent us from doing anything meaningful about climate change.

Krauss’ awe inspiring story of an atom’s journey from the birth of the universe to its death will gain nothing from my retelling it. If you weren’t able to see it then you’l be glad to know his talk was a précis of his excellent book ATOM: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond and covers similar ground to this recored lecture. Perhaps I’m a masochist and a pessimist, but I’m going to skip the awe inspiring story to focus on what Lawrence Krauss thinks about on a bad day. His talk on “Science, Non-Science and Nonsense” described the sources of scientific confusion in society and the tactics used by those groups that seek to take advantage of it.

Krauss argued that the goal of science education and science communication should be to make sure everyone develops a functioning bullshit filter. He didn’t express his thesis quite as bluntly as that, but his core idea is that spreading a scientific mindset would allow us to short circuit needless debates (is global warming real?) and let us get on to the important ones (what are we going to do about it?). He used a neat example to illustrate how this sort of scientific common sense could stop nutty ideas before they get started. UFO enthusiasts often cite the ability of the lights they observe to perform right angle turns at speed as evidence of their otherworldliness. In fact, Krauss pointed out, common sense should tell us that these apparently amazing maneuvers are evidence that the lights in question are not being emitted by a massive object moving through the sky. The only way to turn at a right angle is to stop then change direction, for a UFO to do all its slowing down and stopping so quickly a human observer couldn’t perceive it would generate G-forces with a strength about 2000 times greater than earth’s gravity. And quite a mess.

If the evidence used by UFO junkies is so silly then why do continue prosper? Why aren’t people already filtering this sort of nonsense? The standard of scientific reporting in the media certainly has a lot to answer for. Krauss cited the normal concerns, a fractionated media market means viewers can choose a source of news that confirms their biases and the innate need of journalists to present balance is misplaced in science stories when, in almost every case, one side is wrong and we usually know which side that is. He also mentioned something I hadn’t thought about before. According to Krauss, part of the problem with science coverage in mainstream reporting is that journalists don’t feel qualified to make scientific pronouncements. Writers and broadcasters are happy to make bold statements on politics, financial markets and sports but will shy away from even a scientifically uncontroversial statement like “evolution is a fact.”

Scientific understanding might not be helped by meek journalists and the false equality of balance but most journalists aren’t setting out to deliberately mislead the public on science. Unfortunately, there are forces at work that are doing just that. Krauss had a tonne of examples from the culture wars in his native USA to draw on but he also took the time reminded us of our home grown cranks, citing the New Zealand Climate “Science” Coalition and Ray Comfort (The Apologist’s Nightmare ) as evidence we aren’t immune to anti-science in New Zealand. As you’d expect Krauss exposed just how vacuous the claims of intelligent design creationism and the objections of climate change denialists are, but he also attempted to deconstruct the PR strategies each group use. Both campaigns seek to take advantage of the public’s sense of fairness and journalists’ willingness to provide balance to any point of view. The Discovery Institute would have you believe their goal is simply to get their science a fair hearing in the classroom. But they don’t have a science. For normal science, theories only make it into the school curriculum after they’ve been proposed, tested, retested and confirmed. The ID crowd don’t want fair treatment, they want special treatment, to avoid that boring scientific process and start in the classroom!

Krauss could hardly have known this, but our own climate cranks play the same game. I hate to make an example of this article because the author usually covers science well, nevertheless it highlights the point. In an effort to provide balance to a story on how the IPCC might be made better the author contacted Vincent Gray for comment, here’s the paragraph

Wellington scientist and climate change sceptic Vincent Gray said the researchers were continually coming up with “new models” but they were still “fiddling the figures” and were unlikely to restore public confidence in their work until their projections were proven

That sounds pretty fair doesn’t it? Climate scientists can run their model forward in time and if their projections match observations we’ll take action. Actually, it’s absurd. As Krauss emphasised in his talk, the evidence for climate change doesn’t only come from models, we have tonnes of data that tell us the earth is warming and the seas are rising. Combine those data with the fact recent temperature records are within the uncertainties of the IPCC’s projections and sea levels are near to the upper bound of those projections and Gray’s sound bite seem less fair.

Krauss had more problems than solutions in his hour long presentation. In fact, it’s a testament to the passion he has for his science and skill he has as a scientific communicator that he managed make a talk made almost entirely of depressing facts seem invigorating. The only ray of hope Krauss offered us was that when people’s backs are to the wall they abandon their their preconceptions and to turn to science. In 2003 George W. Bush said that he believed “both sides” of the “evolution debate” should be taught in schools. In 2005 Bush was faced with the prospect of Avian flu becoming able infect humans. Confronted with threat of a flu pandemic the Bush administration dispensed with its evolutionary agnosticism and planned for the possibility of genetic mutations allowing viruses to pass from human to human. That sort of infectivity requires conformational changes in surface proteins which create a new function, exactly the sort of phenomenon the ID crowd think is so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

Krauss will be presenting something very similar to his Dunedin talk in Auckland next week. I’d encourage anyone who has the chance to get out and seem him, he’s a very chrasmatic and interesting speaker. You might even ask the question I really wish I did now- how are we going to fix all these problems?

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