Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Trust me - I'm a scientist.

Productive day[1] - I've had one of my breakthrough hypotheses published in a mainstream forum[2], and had very positive peer review[3]. I should thank Dr Jeevani Mantotta and Dr David Corney for their useful comments in the development of my new theory.

[1] Only 0.4 times as constructive as if I were a man - see below.

[2]The Guardian Unlimited Talkboard

"MontyCristo - 12:23pm Jan 10, 2007 GMT (#67 of 102)


Excellent "

Update: I've come to the conclusion that, being a mere woman, it's probably the best I'll ever do. Is it too late to retrain as something girly? A hooker perhaps?

I'm less than half the man you are...

Great post at MetaFilter. It's particularly about women in science but illuminates the consequences of thinking in sweeping generalisations.

The most salutory of the articles linked to is the story of Ben (ne Barbara) Barres.

For a drier but more "evidence based" view see instead the story about impact factors. Women in science need to be 2.5 times more productive to be adjudged equal to their male peers.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The innate intellectual superiority of the white male[1]

Private Eye's round up of 2006 reminded me of a "funny if it wasn't so scary" news story from the middle of last year.

Arse and Elbow Award to the [British National Party's] 11 dim-witted councillors in Barking and Dagenham, all but one of whom failed to back a measure they themselves had proposed because they had lost interest in the debate and weren't listening when the vote was called.

The fearless Barking and Dagenham recorder tells a slightly different story:

Laughter broke out as only one of the 11 BNP councillors raised his hand to vote for the amendment.

After the meeting, Cllr Barnbrook claimed the mistake had occurred because his party thought they were supposed to press buzzers to vote.

Apparently the new councillors don't know the difference between a council meeting and Family Fortunes.

[1] I know that four of the 11 councillors in question were women. But then, nobody's arguing for the genetically determined intellectual superiority of the female sex[2], so it's not as funny.

[2] If you don't know who's arguing for the innate intellectual superiority of the white male (or in some cases, the Asian male) see the Bell Curve. It's been stronglr criticised as scientific racisism, but it's worse than that - it's unscientific racism. It falls into two very simple logical fallacies straight off the bat - "asserting the consequent" and "post hoc ergo propter hoc" ("it follows x, therefore it was caused by x). This is before one even takes into account the paucity of evidence - indeed the counter evidence - that IQ tests are important determiners of anything other than the ability to do well in IQ tests.

For a lay person's on a scientifically literate approach to looking at the dual effects of "nature" and "nurture" on intelligence (i.e. one that controls for confounding variables) the News Scientist has a nice article here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Fun with Bayes

God exists - with at probability of .67. I want to see the priors for that!


I stumbled across a link to the newly constituted Richard Dawkins Foundation. The introduction is a well worded statement (also available as a video) which gives an insight into Dawkins' motivation. I found this statement chimed strongly with my passionate yearning that the beauty of rationality, reason and science should reach a much wider audience.

I often find Dawkins a tad unpalatable - he gives the impression that he believes that he has found "the truth" rather than "a better explanation of how the human mind works that raises still further questions". Contrasted with the humility and passion of science writers like Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Dawkins' style seems more akin to that of the fundamentalists he holds in such disdain.

His position, however abrasively put, is firmly pro-reason. And it seems, with this foundation that he intends to lead people to reason by reason, rather than through provocation. And what is more, he intends to do this on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously. The foundation will facilitate the flow of funding and ideas between the UK and the USA. Some of the stated aims are inspiring ambitious:

"Research. We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason... Research of this kind would be supported in the form of grants to universities in America and Britain or wherever the best research can be done."

The benefits of this are obvious - research that increases the understanding of the human experience has intrinsic value.

"Education. Within the limits on political activity imposed by the charity laws of the respective countries, we would seek to support rational and scientific education at all ages, and to oppose the subversion of scientific education, for example by the well-financed efforts to teach creationism in science classes. Depending on how much money we raise, we would hope to subsidize the publication of books, pamphlets, DVD's and other educational materials."

I find this aim laudable. At the moment, because of the deeper pockets of religious groups, intelligent design (ID) resources are being sent to schools for use in science lessons. Banning the use of these resources is deeply unsatisfactory - it gives the impression that science thrives where there is no controversy. On the contrary, science thrives where there is well reasoned, observation driven controversy. Funding resources that counter the flaws in the ID position (including the canards on entropy and "just a theory") help to train a generation of scientifically literate critical thinkers that can discern a good argument from a bad argument, and that know what the current state of our knowledge about evolution is.

"Database of lecturers. We intend to keep a list, organized by regions in both America and Britain, of people, in universities and elsewhere, who might be willing to receive invitations to lecture. I receive a large number of such invitations myself. I accept as many as I can, but I canĂ‚’t accept all of them. It would be extremely helpful to have, at my disposal, a list of younger people who might be less well known at this stage of their career, but who would probably give a much better lecture than I ever could."

At the "commencement address" at my graduation from UCL, the VC made a good point - that there are scientists who are good at science, and there are scientists that are good at bringing on the next generation of scientists. The best scientists are those who do both. Having bought into the popular opinion of Dawkins as somewhat of an arrogant individual, I find myself rapidly reassessing my feelings in the light of this.

"Charitable giving by secularists to humanitarian good causes. Major disasters like earthquakes or tornados prompt a desire by decent people of all persuasions to help. I, for one, am always anxious that my money should go to help the disaster victims but should not fall into the hands of missionaries or other church-based organizations. Even if these organizations do eventually pass it on to the victims, they often do so with strings attached. Some of us are keen that no proportion of our donations should fall into the hands of missionaries."

As a humanist it offends me deeply when people claim that Christian ethics or Islamic morality or religious "goodness" are what motivate people to help one another. Until the charitable and voluntary efforts of humanists are recognised then the position that religion is the only font of morality and fellow feeling will never be challenged. I could here bang on about my work for charidee at this point but I won't.

Unfortunately he then goes on to use the loaded term churchh contamination" - heigh ho!

"Consciousness-raising. Feminists and homosexuals have taught us the value of consciousness-raising... I am more interested in raising consciousness about something else: the habit,practicedd not only by religious people, of labeling children by the religion of their parents. This is a Catholic child. That is a Muslim child. I want everybody to flinch when they hear such a phrase, just as they would if they heard, That is a Marxist child. "

An interesting position - I'm still trying to work out where this fits in the matrix of values, judgments and taboos that make up my "moral compass". Rhetorically excellent device though.

I'm still not certain where my rationalistic "tithe" will go. I'm increasingly uncertain that the still small voice of skeptical rationality can't win against the convinced irrational. Trying to prevail that way feels playing chess against an opponent who is playing "knuckles"[1] - it's frustrating and stupid. But do we need a foundation to set people on the "right path"? Should those who seek reason prepare for a propaganda war? I will be attending Louis Costandinos' talk at Skeptics in the Pub with interest.

[1] A game popular at my primary school in which - to prove "hardness" - one took as many blows across the knuckles with a ruler as possible. Like conkers but without the conkers.