Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A review of the great debate: Nye vs Ham

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Last night (4th Feb 2014) a controversial debate between Ken Ham (CEO of Answers in Genesis) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy) took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky (amazing that there is such a place…).

The subject of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Before the debate even started, it had kicked up quite a storm of controversy, particularly among the atheist and scientific communities. Dan Arel, writing for the Richard Dawkins Foundation wrote a very thoughtful piece titled “Why Bill Nye shouldn’t debate Ken Ham”. He pointed out that:

Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago wrote, via his blog “Why Evolution is true” that

Nye’s appearance will be giving money to organizations who try to subvert the mission Nye has had all his life: science education, particularly of kids. And you know what? I don’t even care if Nye mops the floor with Ham. Though that would be great (especially because the DVD promises to be “uncensored”), it doesn’t justify Nye making money to further Ham’s program of lying about science

Many people were expressing similar concerns, and largely I agreed with them. There seems to me no legitimate reason to have a debate about whether creation is a viable model of origins or not – it simply isn’t. There’s no real controversy, evolution is provable, proven and irrefutable. Creationism is based on a loosely assembled collection of badly translated myths written down by people ignorant of science centuries ago that has had no utility in explaining the reality of the world we live in, nor in making predictions about it. Evolution and Creationism simply are not comparable, and by offering to participate in a ‘debate’ it inevitably legitimizes those who would like to have Creationism on an equal footing with Evolution.

Bill Nye went ahead anyway, and explained his reasons for going ahead were because he is worried about science education and that a generation of children will grow up in the US as scientifically illiterate, leading to all sorts of problems, particularly economic ones. He also felt that people in Kentucky (where the debate would take place) might be influenced by the facts presented, and realise the problems of being presented with a scientifically illogical set of beliefs.

Given that the debate went ahead, what was the result?

Fortunately, Bill Nye made a very good showing at the debate, and although there were some minor problems with what he said, I felt that he acquitted himself well. Ham, of course, simply played out his box of tricks, and ultimately just said that he believed the bible, and that nothing would change his mind.

Bill Nye, being a reasonable person, stated on a couple of occasions “I don’t know” as his answer, and when asked what might change his mind, stated “Evidence”.

This is the crux of the matter. It is why there can be no debate with Creationists. When Bill said “I don’t know” Ken swooped, and his answer was “I do know, because the Bible said…”.  This is just a dirty trick, because clearly Ken does not know, he just believes. But it was a trick he used several times, and it was a winner for his crowd. Oh, how they loved it. The stupid science guy just doesn’t know, but look, the answers are right there in the Bible!

There is no debate, because the result of debate is to decide based on the information presented, which position is reasonable. Bill Nye, from all rational, reasonable points of view “won” the debate, but his opponent(s) are not rational nor reasonable.

Ham and his supporters already knew the outcome of the debate, and it was that Ken Ham and his young earth creationism are “right”. Those supporters of Ham are right now rejoicing and basking in the fact that their new hero has been given the exposure his views “deserve”. It does’t matter that Bill had actual evidence. It doesn’t matter that all the real science was on Bill’s side. It doesn’t even matter that Ken Ham has not a single shred of credibility in the real world (in what Nye consistently referred to as “the outside”), it only matters that Ham’s platform has now been elevated to one of equal footing with Nye’s. The “controversy”, in the minds of his supporters, has been exposed. In their minds, Ken Ham won, because Ken Ham’s supporters are unable to distinguish evidence from belief.

In Nye’s defense, I think it is unlikely that many who did not already believe will have been swayed by Ken’s silly arguments, and it is also perhaps good that many in the audience were exposed to some actual science. This for me, is the only redeeming factor in this debate, that the audience, which inevitably would have been packed out with Ham’s supporters have likely NEVER been exposed to the real science that Nye presented. Perhaps one or two of them will think about what was said. Perhaps also, among those watching, there would also be many theists who were cringing at the ludicrous things Ham was saying, and they may be provoked into sharing with their friends that they don’t subscribe to his nonsense.

Most of the reporting after the fact is using headlines like “Bill Nye Defends Evolution in debate…” This is exactly what many feared. Let me state again: Evolution DOES NOT NEED DEFENDING. This stupid sort of reporting is incredibly disheartening – it is actually Ken Ham who is on the defensive. To say that there is any defense necessary for evolution would be to deny all evidence. It would be like defending the Seattle Seahawks against those who say that the Denver Broncos really won the Super Bowl.

In the end, this will probably do no lasting damage, but at some point, we need to stop pretending that evolution or science needs defense, and the first step is to simply ignore the ignorant. Do you think Bill Nye would have agreed to debate with people who think the pyramids were built by aliens, or that crystals can heal cancer? Of course not, as they are ignored for the cranks they are. Ken Ham and his ilk are no different, they are either truly delusional or they are deliberate liars who are fleecing the gullible. Given that the DVDs of this debate are already being sold (I wonder if they will really be uncensored) on the Answers in Genesis site, I think we can all figure out the answer.

If you haven’t seen the debate, you can watch it here on YouTube: Bill Nye debates Ken Ham – and you can draw your own conclusions.

Mental Health: A plea for understanding

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Someone, let’s call her Sally, once said to me: “Andrew, it’s your mind that’s the problem; you think too much”.

I’ve never forgotten that. Not just because it seemed like a really stupid thing to say (who wants to live in ignorance?), but because there was an element of truth in it.

Sally was wrong in her meaning and the context, but the truth is, my mind – more specifically, my brain – is a problem.

It’s not that I think too much – sometimes I try not to think at all. Actually, thinking is very much affected by the functioning of my brain. On a good day, my thoughts will be clear, rational, and likely to do me very little harm. On a bad day, my thoughts will be clear, rational and likely to do me a lot of harm. You see, mental illness is not about how much or how little we think. It is about the conclusions that our brain suggests as a result of the thought processes within it.

Sally’s comment was made publicly in the context of a religious meeting. We’d been discussing our Christian lives, and I happened to say that I often struggled with doubt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t able to consistently believe in a God who cared about me, or the rest of the world, yet wouldn’t help me to deal with the mental health issues I struggled with. I shared it with the aim to try to help others who I was sure might have experienced the same. I went on to say that I choose to believe, as I hope that God will one day help my unbelief.

I had been, since my late teens, taking medication to control severe clinical depression, and any time this was brought up in a church context, someone would inevitably offer to pray about it, or would offer some religiously based advice, but always with the implication that the fault was with me. At times, there would be a suggestion that ‘sin’ in my life was the root cause of the depression, and that if only I would ‘get right with God’, then it would all clear up. Please, bear in mind that I was devout since a young age, I was in a leadership position within my church, I spent more time reading and studying the bible than almost anyone I knew, and I spent a lot of my time being involved with the church and serving however I could.

I was not a ‘nominal’ Christian, I was a fully fledged, born again, bible believing, servant of the Lord. More than that, I desperately wanted to believe, not only to believe, but truly experience God for myself. That I could not only made my life more hellish, and I truly believed the problems were with me, and with me alone. That I could not reconcile my belief with my inner thoughts, desires and experience was beyond awful, and yet all these other Christians seemed to be living wonderful lives of peace, joy and harmony.

Eventually I left the church, not wishing to be a hypocrite. I had to first admit that I simply did not believe, and then act on that disbelief. I couldn’t stay in a leadership position and claim those beliefs. That meant I lost, quite literally, all of my friends. I eventually let my family know too. That, to this day, still causes me stress and grief. Some of my relatives live in a very cloistered bubble of evangelical Christianity, and I (and my siblings) are no longer a part of that world. However, this post is not really about that, maybe another time.

This post is about the stigma of mental illness.

And, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness.

I am no longer in the church, and for that I’m grateful. I have since been able to accept many things about myself and have in turn become a more accepting person.

But, I am in a similar environment, ironically.

I am now in a business community, where I am a fairly well respected and known expert and CEO. You might be frowning a bit, what has business to do with the church? (Unless you live in the USA, then you’ll fully understand). In business, particularly in the USA, weakness, vulnerability, and emotion are not seen as strengths. If you meet another business leader at an event, you’re unlikely to hear much negative about him/her or the business. The mantras of business are strength, improvement, growth. Winners only need apply.

But, ask yourself, how likely is it that these very successful people are all having as great a time as they claim?

Dig deeper, you’ll find high rates of stress related illness, alcoholism, obesity and other addictive behaviors. High. Fucking. Rates. Yet, just like those outwardly happy Christians, they’ll all claim to be 100% awesome. The distance between me and the overweight alcoholic in a badly fitting suit is approximately 6 months.

Not being able to show weakness or vulnerability to your colleagues, your employees or your peers in other businesses means that there’s once again an artificial situation in which one must exist. You’ve always got to be a winner. Always be the best. Always be out in front. There are no support structures for CEO’s as such. We’ve got to be the strong decisive ones. All. Fucking. Day. Long.

Except, except for my brain. It just isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. IS ONLY BECAUSE I MAKE IT SO. I choose. But, oh, do I struggle to choose. Every. Single. Day. I struggle to choose.

There’s nowhere to turn. You’re the leader, you’re responsible for millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees. Thousands of customers depend on you. Yet, some days, you can’t move, you can’t even manage to eat, it’s just not worth it. You just want to pull the cushions from your sofa and build a pillow fort, and live there forever, with your cat and a tub of ice-cream. And those are the good days.

The bad days…you don’t want to know about the bad days.

And, yet, I choose, because the other choice is, well, nothing. There’s no other choice. You live or you don’t. And, you try to recognize when your brain is screwing you over.

The problem is that it’s your brain. That cold, rational brain that works really well. It’s a convincing little bugger. When it speaks, you listen. That’s what it does, it thinks for you. But, some days, what it thinks is, “You’re worthless. You’re shit. You’re the little piece of detritus that was farted out of the asshole of the universe, and you suck, worse than the suckiest person on earth”. And you believe it. That’s what mental illness does for you.

I do not want your pity, or your condescension, nor do I want your helpful advice on how to be more cheerful. I know my life is great. I really do!

I have so much to be thankful for, I have a great job, a wonderful family, I live in a country that is by and large easy to live in, and I have friends who care deeply for me. Compared to 98% of the world, I’m rich. I travel widely, I eat in fantastic restaurants, I drive nice cars and buy nice clothes. But, today, that means nothing. Nothing will convince me that my great life is worth shit.

On a good day, I will be proud of everything. My ideas will be great, and everyone will love them. The next day, the same idea sucks, even if you tell me it’s great.

It will suck so much I won’t even write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I have destroyed work or abandoned personal projects, because they … just … suck.

Depression is not about being a bit sad sometimes, so that a quick pep-talk and a cup of cocoa can ‘snap you out of it’. It really isn’t.

Depression is an ongoing battle to work out which of the things your brain is desperately trying to convince you of are not going to kill you. I can know rationally that everything is good, I can sit and list those things on a piece of paper. I can sit with a friend and explain how great everything is. My brain will not be convinced. In my mind, there is a raging beast that is able to chew rational thought into small pieces and spit them contemptuously onto the floor, as if to say “There you are, fool, see what your rational thinking is worth”, and I will believe it. I will coldly, and rationally, know, with a force and desperation that is overwhelming, that I am utterly worthless.

I’ll believe it, and sit there and cry into my coffee and be convinced that the great leader I’m supposed to be, who can speak to an audience of hundreds, or stand up and play guitar in front of a crowd is the most hated fucker on the planet, who should just fucking die. And, I’ll hate everything. Nothing will be good enough. Nothing will be right. No-one will be doing a good job. You could offer me the nobel prize for awesomeness and I would think you were an idiot. I’ll just give up. I’ll decide nothing is worth doing. I’ll call people and tell them I quit. I’ll delete files of work. I’ll send weird messages to social networks. I’ll drink myself stupid. All the while, I’ll know I have a great life.

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Singapore. I’ve spent the day hating this place. Resenting the fact that I’m 2 long haul flights away from home, in a country that’s too hot and doesn’t have adequate taxi service.

I’ve spent the day in business meetings meeting people who I’ve needed to convince of my usefulness, and the worth of my company and colleagues. And I did it. I did it fucking well. And then, I came back to my hotel and cried.

I’m typing this fast, because a friend on Twitter (and you should be following @francosoup, because she’s awesome), managed to say the right thing. Because, she just wrote “I hope you’re Ok mate”. And, I wasn’t. I was broken.

I’m not going to edit it. I’m going to post it, because, in the morning, I’d probably just delete it. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be proud of it. Who the fuck knows?

I just want you to understand that just as you would go to the doctor if you have bronchitis, or a broken arm, and you would not in the least bit feel embarrassed to do so, that if I have to do the same because my brain is broken, then that should be ok.

If I have to admit that I’m not the strong, together person you thought I was, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing my job. In fact, I’m good at my job because, you know what? I think too much. I think until it’s all thought out. Then I plan for failure, and think some more. And I make sure things can happen, because if you don’t plan for those days when you simply can’t move, you’ll screw everything up.

So yeah, Sally, my mind is my problem, but it’s also my strength. Because, if I can convince myself that today is worth it, then I can do anything today. Anything.

If you know someone with mental health issues, please understand how strong they are to just be out of bed, and just try to be understanding. Just. Be. There.

Ask, “Are you ok mate?”. And don’t judge the answer.

Steve Jobs 1955 – 2011

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs.

Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being

http://www.apple.com/stevejobs/

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Lytro: A new kind of camera

Friday, July 29th, 2011

This, if it works as shown, is going to be a photographic revolution (hat tip to my friend Morton for showing me this).

http://www.lytro.com

Visual Snake Oil diagram!

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Here’s a great site that a friend of mine pointed out – http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/play/snake-oil-supplements/

I’ve been pretty interested in the whole homeopathy/alternative medicine debate – Ben Goldacre has written a great book called “Bad Science” on this subject. I’m firmly on the side of the “homeopathy doesn’t work” – in fact, there’s very little real science done in Homeopathy. Alternative remedies are a bit different, there are some natural compounds which when taken in suplement form (not diluted out of existence) do seem to have some beneficial properties in certain cases. The site above shows this off very nicely, so that you can see the difference between the scientifically tested remedies that may have benefit (and therefore are not really counted as ‘alternatives’ – forming as they do part of the collective group of remedies that we can call ‘medicine’) and those that are just snake oil (and therefore aren’t ‘alternatives’ either – they’re just useless).

More than anything, the geek in me just loves the way this visualisation has been put together, and the methodology has applications for all sorts of things – in fact, I’m very tempted to apply it to ranking Anti-virus products – gotta be more interesting than another bar chart.

India Launches Moon Probe

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Since I was a small child, I have been fascinated with flight, but more than that with the idea of space travel. Nothing else quite has the power to awe and inspire me so much as reading about or discovering things about space. Therefore today I had a very moving experience of watching the launch of India’s Chandrayaan 1 Spacecraft. Sadly I did not see it live, although some of my friends did go – the launch site is about 100km from here – but watching it on the TV brought a tear to my eye.

There is something so majestic about the idea of discovery, journeying into the unknown. Although this is an unmanned mission, manned missions are planned in coming years. While there are many things India needs in terms of basic infrastructure and so on, it is a modern country with the potential to be a world leader, so I believe that this sort of program can only serve the interests of the country in the long term. Those who say the money could be better spent have perhaps missed what the space program is bringing to India in terms of partnerships with the rest of the world – including showcasing India’s extraordinary potential for technological partnerships that comes from a highly educated workforce and an inventiveness brought about through necessity.

One of the things I love most about India is the feeling of progression, that something is being built (it’s not hard to get that feeling, there is construction everywhere and nothing ever seems to quite get finished!), and it’s hard not to feel proud to be a small part of that progression.

Watching India launch herself towards the wider universe I can only stand in awe at what humankind has achieved in the 105 years since we first took flight.

The BBC has an article about the launch of the Chandrayaan 1 rocket at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7679818.stm

No Sex Please

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Very funny video spoofing the idea of Intelligent Design from the Richard Dawkins Foundation

http://richarddawkins.net/article,2478,Sexpelled-No-Intercourse-Allowed,RichardDawkinsnet