Category: Slate

Favourites List (24.01.14)

Gorgeous (Pic: FrenchTribune.com)
What else could it be? (Pic: USAToday.com)

What else could it be? (Pic: USAToday.com)

The week in six bits:

1. NASA startled by ‘Jelly Donut’ on Mars. Probably not a doughnut, though. Personally, I’m more startled by how dumbed down USA Today actually managed to make this report.

2. Conflicts of interest. It’s been a noisy week for sugar. Some folks want it taxed, others want it banned, and a few want it declared “the new tobacco.” In this insight into the petty politics of public health, Christopher Snowdon sums up what happens when you attempt to respond to such accusations by examining the research evidence. It’s not pretty. (This response to Dispatches on UK’s Channel 4 is also worth a look.)

3. Acupuncture Assists Penile Surgery: New Finding. This study recruited 1,481 males, who agreed to have acupuncture during penile surgery (it is some consolation to learn that, in true acupuncture fashion, the needles were administered to parts of the body other than the penis). The researchers reported that the men experienced “less discomfort” during the surgery. Way-hay! Too bad there was no control group. Boo!
Continue reading “Favourites List (24.01.14)”

Seven billion Earthlings: So what’s the problem?

Typically, I get uncomfortable when I’m in the presence of more than, say, five other people. Therefore, you might expect me to be particularly perturbed by reports that the world’s population reached seven billion people earlier today, 31 October 2011. Such reports do perturb me, but not because I’m worried about there being too many other people on Earth. No, they perturb me because they are usually either: (a) factually inaccurate; or (b) presented, without argument, as if there was some self-evident problem with having lots of Earthlings rather than just a few. There are two types of problem in play here, each of which betrays a different type of scientific illiteracy. And that’s the type of stuff I really do find depressing. Continue reading “Seven billion Earthlings: So what’s the problem?”

Extinction of religion predicted by mathematics? Don’t count on it

Recently, a mathematical model predicting the extinction of organized religion received global media attention after its presentation at a research meeting of the American Physical Society. According to the BBC news website, the researchers had shown that religion is “set for extinction” in nine countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland. This follows an analysis of 100-year census data using a mathematical approach known as “linear dynamics”. According to the researchers, because their theoretical model appeared to be borne out by actual data drawn from so many different countries, this was strong evidence that it represented a true depiction of real-world events that could be used to predict the future. While the BBC headline implied some equivocation (i.e., “religion may become extinct”), the majority of agencies carried headlines implying that religion faces inevitable (and, by implication, imminent) extinction (for example, here, here, and here). (It was during CNN’s coverage of this story that Dr Wendy Walsh chose to discuss the impact of atheism in hastening death during catastrophes). So, have these mathematicians really used science to reveal the imminent extinction of religion? Well, not really. Continue reading “Extinction of religion predicted by mathematics? Don’t count on it”

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