Monday, 25 August 2008

Cows... with Magnets!

Now here's a headline to set off a healthy bit of scepticism:

"Cattle shown to align north-south"

I'm not going to rubbish that claim straight off the bat, but I'd definitely need a little more proof than a few anecdotes and images before thinking there was something to it. Why would they do that? I'm well aware that a sense of magnetic direction is seemingly quite a widespread phenomenon among Terran fauna, but I have a hard time understanding why this particular ability would be of any use to cattle.

Over eight and a half thousand images of cattle were examined, apparently. That's a pretty good sample size, I'd say; but nowhere do I see the numbers involved in working out the incidence of north-south alignment (if anyone can grab access to the actual article, I'd be grateful for a link).

A couple of other points stood out for me in the BBC report of this: firstly, that in Africa and South America, the scientists carrying out the study noted a north-east/south-west alignment rather than the north-south seen elsewhere; they explain this by pointing out that the magnetic field is weaker there. OK, granted. But why then are they still aligning along a different line? Without seeing the data itself, that sounds to me like whatever method they used to determine significant alignment might be a little too generous.

Secondly comes the speculation of reasons why this north-south alignment might be happening; the lead scientist is quoted as speculating that it could be anti-predatory behaviour.

I'm sorry, what?

Do most predators come from the north or south? Would it not be a more effective technique to have the herd facing in different directions if it's an alert system you're looking for? I can appreciate the use in having the herd facing the same direction - if the need to flee arises, it makes that safety-in-numbers thing much easier to manage. This would seem to be the most reasonable explanation for a herd facing in generally the same direction as each other. But if this is the case, why north-south? Perhaps they just like facing south; perhaps it feels like going downhill...

Basically this sounds like fluff reporting of a half-baked investigation. I'd like to see the numbers involved, but at the moment I remain unconvinced that there is a phenomenon to explain here; I'll agree that in general a herd will face in more or less the same direction. That much is hardly news. The north-south thing, though? Needs a little more work.


EDIT: The story has been taken up by Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science, and it seems that he's read the article! Here's his take on it. Reading through, it seems like those numbers I was after do actually add up quite nicely; as for the reason behind it, the general notion seems to be that they have as much reason to line up in this way as a compass needle does. It's just what they do. Some intriguing ideas are being thrown around about physiological processes running smoother when aligned with the poles, but these are still at the hypothesis stage.

I wouldn't be much of a sceptic if I didn't change my tune when faced with the numbers. I still maintain my opinion of the original piece on the BBC, though. The quality of science reporting is, as I should have come to expect by now, somewhat south (haha) of optimal.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Feminism and I

I consider myself a feminist. I am far from being alone in this (Skepchick.org, for instance), but I just had reason to consider this label which I place upon myself might be in need of elucidation.

A friend of mine blogging under the name Lost Reverence recently wrote an entry entitled The Punishment of Women for Men's Own Failings..., and as she doesn't allow comments on her blog, I thought I'd post my feelings on it here.

While I widely agree with her - which has a tendency to happen - I do worry a little at some of the language used, particularly toward the end of the entry. Yes, I suppose that "men cannot control their emotions" - but I'd rather there was a qualifier in front of that, such as "some", or maybe even "most". The problem I have here is that, while promoting the rights and dignity of women (which I fully endorse, as part of being a feminist), it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of painting all men with the same brush, much as has been - and is - done to women.

I suppose the best way of understanding the kind of feminism I endorse (and which I think has the greatest chance of succeeding) is as being more about gender equality. This is an end which, in the current social climate, can best be achieved by promoting the rights of women, which is why it's usually included under the heading of feminism. What I'm not out to do is deny that there are differences between the sexes - and it's quite possible that emotional stability is one of the things which tends to be found more in one than the other. But the ultimate aim of gender equality, I think, should be to finally be able to appreciate individuals as complex beings in their own right; this would naturally include influences of biology upon them, but would not end there as it so often does today.

On a personal note in response to LR's post, I have had my heart broken* at least once - and despite this fact and the fact of my gender, I also consider myself relatively stable on an emotional level. I certainly don't see any way in which I am punishing my current partner for my past mistakes or failings. But then maybe it's all subconscious and terribly Freudian. I do hope not.

* I too dislike this overly-emotional term. It smacks of rhetoric. Suggestions for alternatives appreciated.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Alternative Flight and our Gappy Friend.

In a recent QuackCast, Dr Mark Crislip put together a rather amusing satire on the topic of "alternative flight", taken largely from his earlier blog post at Science-Based Medicine. The jist of it is that we should be introducing more alternative modalities into aeronautics just as they have been introduced to medicine; if there's a problem with the plane, don't necessarily just call the engineers - get some Reiki Masters and Tarot readers in there. Crislip's actual satire is far more involved and entertaining than that brief summary, but you get the idea.

Now I do hope I'll be forgiven if I'm wrong in this assessment, but I got the impression that the general point of the satire was to say "you wouldn't apply these crazy unscientific methods to something like aeronautical engineering, so why would you do so with medicine and the science of human biology? It's a fair question up to a point: if the scientific method is good enough for flight, why do people go elsewhere when it comes to their own bodies?

It is a fair question, but the analogy is limited in its scope; a cursory probing will actually adequately answer the question it poses. We created aircraft; the science of aeronautics is pretty complete - we (or at least, those qualified in the necessary fields) know how every last bit of an aircraft works, because we came up with the damned things and have been developing them for over a century now. The same can hardly be said of the human body; we certainly didn't design them ourselves and had only an "ignition" role to play in their actual creation. As for the expertise, even the most qualified and knowledgeable in the medical profession don't know everything there is to know about the function of the human body - certainly not to the extent that aeronautical engineers understand that of aircraft.

This isn't to say either a) that we never will or b) that there is any other way to get the answers than the tried-and-true scientific method. But it does explain why people are far more willing to look into "alternatives" in medicine than in aeronautics: there are far more unknowns. SCAMs are just another God of the Gaps.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Fictional Sceptics #4: Something New

OK, so my "fictional sceptics" feature was originally named "Fictional Sceptics in Pop Culture". But today I'm breaking with that particular pattern because I want to bring you something that is most certainly not part of the popular culture. It's a short story by an unknown author going by the name of Nick Westwood*, set in a parallel future the better part of a thousand years distant. It's part of a wider collection of stories which will eventually form The Unity Chronicles. Various other background pieces for this collection can be found at the author's page on DeviantART.

The Uraz Research Facility never slept. This was aided by its positioning at the temperate northern pole of the planet, where they experienced only two hours of semi-darkness in every thirty. The sun was at its highest in the sky when Nakato finally lost his temper.

'It's what we're made of! Please try to lift your mind out of religious complacency and comprehend what I'm telling you!'

'I'm sorry, Hari. I'm trying to understand what you're saying but it goes against everything we know about the universe and our place in it. You can't just dismiss centuries of knowledge with a few simple phrases.'

'I agree. But that's not what's going on here; firstly, it's not centuries of knowledge - it's centuries of willful ignorance. Secondly, I'm not dismissing it with a few simple phrases, I'm dismantling it with logic and reason.'

'But how do you know all those old texts are even real? They must have been outlawed for a reason.'

'Of course they were outlawed for a reason; they were outlawed because they run contrary to every teaching of the Book of Unity. Contradictions in matters of fact as well as in the morality of all this new research.

'But that's just the point, isn't it? Science isn't meant to play God.'

'What is it meant to do then, Faerin? Toil away at petty, circular research and find more and more advanced ways for humanity to destroy itself? I don't know about you, but I'm sick of that; and I thought this new alliance would bring the opportunity to break from the old dogma, to give science the freedom it needs to find the truth and improve lives. Do you know that in some respects we're actually less advanced than Earth scientists over a thousand years ago? Before any colonisation had taken place? Does that make even a little bit of sense to you?'

'What did they know that we don't? It's hard to imagine a culture ignorant of space travel could be more advanced than us in any way. Besides, how could all that information just get lost like that?'

'It was "lost" because of the rise of the Church, don't you get it? The fields of genetics, evolutionary biology, cybernetics - all outlawed because of the threats they presented to the Church's theological dogma. Anything they claimed as "science playing God" was made anathema; funding was pulled, and research was legislated against. Before the Church gained dominance, science had made great leaps in understanding exactly what humans were made of, and of what they might one day be capable. The censorship imposed didn't just set us back by decades, it completely removed entire fields of research. Now that we're free of that dogma, I was hoping to to revive the outlawed sciences. Give me one good reason why we shouldn't - one that doesn't appeal to religious authority.'

'I can't, Hari. It just goes against the grain. It feels wrong.'

'Of course it does; that's the point. If we don't challenge these boundaries then our science will remain restricted in the way it has been for the last few centuries. It feels wrong because like the rest of us you were raised in a dogmatic, blindly unquestioning society. All I ask is that you read these texts and then tell me if you still feel the same way. Try to keep an open mind.'

- - - - -

Two days later, Hari Nakato sat at his workbench poring over a set of readings he had just taken. Everything from the texts were being confirmed; every test he ran resulted in the exact predicted outcomes. Just then, Faerin entered the lab. Her hair was unkempt and her eyes bloodshot. Her face bore a strange expression, that Nakato recognised only too well; a conflicted mixture of enlightenment, disbelief, and frenzied excitement. She'd read the texts.

'Hari, they knew how we came to be. There was no Almighty Hand, no mud sculptures, no miracles. They - they actually mapped a human genome, they proved a relation to other apes. The potential for genetic modification, for eradicating disease and deformity even prior to birth... You were right. The ancient Terrans were way ahead of us, they knew things we'd never imagined were even there to know. How could the Church even defend itself against that sort of advancement?'

'Nobody knows for sure; it's astounding that these texts even survived to be honest. The only other history we have left is what we're told by the Church, and as has become abundantly clear, they can't be trusted to tell the truth. I think we can probably assume that they managed to raise a furore over the implications of the research - the morality of modifying "God's Design", and once they'd got their foot in the door they were free to outlaw anything that contradicted their precious book.'

'But aren't we going to do a similar thing with these texts? Who's to say that these are more valid than the Book of Unity?'

'I see you took the message of the questioning mindset to heart; but you seem to have overlooked the most important one - the texts themselves tell us not to take them as unquestionable truths but test them, probe them - doubt them. That's what I've been doing while you were away missing two nights' sleep. Everything I was able to test of what they say is true, Faerin. Everything. We just rediscovered DNA and the origin of the species. Given a few more decades and sufficient funding and personnel, we might actually be back to where we were a millennium ago. Further, if you count the progress we've made in the fields of research that weren't outlawed.'

'God bless the Varangian Alliance.'

'I can think of more suitable ways to put it, but yes. Things are finally starting to look up.'

Nothing to add to that really, I'll let it speak for itself.

* Yeah, that's me.