Science


Nate SilverData journalism is becoming fashionable in the American media. In essence, it involves the analysis of statistics. This is an excellent thing. Empirical data is a far more reliable guide to the state of the world than assumptions and anecdotage. Many are the destructive ideological claims that might have been dispelled by unassuming spectacle-wearers with spreadsheets. And, besides, statistics can be a lot of fun. Did you know that Filipinos are likelier to admire Americans than the Americans themselves? It made me laugh.

Still, there are risks inherent to a data-driven perspective on the world. One must be careful before deciding what should be on the basis of what exists. The fact-value gap might not be as unbridgeable as Hume supposed but traversing it takes a great deal of labour. One cannot step across as if it is a crack in the pavement. If capital punishment is found to deter crime, or if taxing soft drinks is found to reduce obesity, or if legalising crack is found to generate profits that need not inspire one to support the rope, tax or syringe. Concepts such as freedom, justice and, indeed, right and wrong have not been made rendundant by Microsoft Excel.

This is nothing that ten thousand would-be ethicists have not observed before. Promoting values under the guise of statistics, though, can take more subtle forms than one might think. Determining the relevance of statistics, for example, is a difficult and often bias-laden endeavour. Let us say we are trying to judge the wellbeing of a population. What statistics do we look at? GDP? Perhaps, but well-off people can be miserable. Income equality? Perhaps, but people can be joined in suffering. Self-reported happiness? Hrm. Are people aware of how happy they could be? Is their happiness sustainable? It’s a tough job. So, immigration is not just about the economy. Education is not just about Pisa rankings. Violent crime is not just about the murder rate. Health is not just about life expectancy. One should not always trust a geek to know what is important.

Statistics can be deceptive. One must place them in context before they are employed in service of an argument lest the clinching proof that one displays be a mere red herring. Upbeat person that I am, I was searching for data on suicides yesterday: how common they were in the past compared to the present. “But wait!” I told myself. “Remember to be mindful of the fact that many who died in the past would have lived if they had been treated with modern medicine.” “Ah, yes,” I told myself a second later, “But recall that people who jump off high buildings, swallow pills and shoot themselves in the present might not have had access to such effective means of self-destruction in the past.” Making sense of factors that influence statistics can be hard and depressing work but it has to be done if they are of significance.

This would come as no surprise to many statisticians, who worry about confounding factors more than other human beings concern themselves with numbers on scales and in bank accounts. The problem is not just with them but with their new admirers – people who might ransack data sets to give the prejudices a respectable appearance. One should not assume that institutions are worthless or ideas admirable because their opponents or advocates make statistical arguments. The ethical and epistemic implications of their claims might be more problematic than they grasp. Indeed, the wealth of variable that can lurk in data sets should make all of us humble in our inferences – especially if we plan to act on our observations.

Unlike Steven Pinker, then, I do not think that statisticians have made more explicitly ideological theorists and commentators obsolete. (Though in the case Leon Wieseltier it is tempting to make an exception.) One cannot decide how to live based on a spreadsheet any more than one can decide where to live based on a map. Like maps, as well, they are subject to misreading by people who exaggerate their own interpretive abilities – and this can lead one to quite unpleasant places.

DennettBrace yourself, because the next sentence could get ugly. On the website of the Edge foundation, Daniel Dennett responds to Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s response to accusations of “scientism” (which, the reader will doubtless be overjoyed to hear, I responded to). He has no time for the claim that scientists who venture beyond their fields are guilty of trespassing on other peoples’ land. Indeed, he demands more respect from the humanities…

A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn’t read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences.

I have no particular objections to this, but merely ask that scientists who opine on philosophical, ethical or historical matters acquaint themselves with the bodies of thought in those fields. Richard Dawkins, for example, could have been saved the embarrassment of equating the potential effects of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing on religion to that of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had he realised that the “nothing” of which Krauss wrote was very different to that of classical theologians.

Even philosophers who champion science could benefit from being more studious when voyaging beyond the grounds of their expertise. Daniel Dennett, for example, in Breaking the Spell, defined the cosmological argument as that which maintains that “since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely God”. His refutation of this claim, by asking for the cause of God, was undermined by the fact that the cosmological argument really states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. That is why the causeless deity enters the picture. Dennett, Armin Geertz sighed, “knows very little about religion”.

I do not think scientists must stay in their place. Indeed, I think that they have much to offer other disciplines, in terms of data and of methodologies. What is annoying is the presumptuousness with which they stride into fields and assume that they have grasped the lie of the land; assume, indeed, that such fields are so bare that they can understand their nature without contemplation, and without consulting people who have long studied them. It is this behaviour that is liable to provoke hostility towards outsiders.

AgeingHow incessant and great,” C.S. Lewis mused, “Are the ills with which a prolonged old age is replete.” It is hard to argue otherwise. Physical and mental decline, as well as the threat of the inevitable, can make seniority a trial.

As scientific progress and economic growth have allowed us to live longer, and as the birth rates have fallen in our societies, old age has begun to vex more people than those who are experiencing it. Britain is “woefully under-prepared” to cope with increasing numbers of elderly people, a House of Lords inquiry has found, and people must work for longer and in many cases live with fewer benefits and services.

Much of this is true but I have been maintaining that amid fears of the “grey Tsunami” leading to spiralling health and social care costs people have been overlooking means of helping older people to avoid the ill health and frailty that necessitates it. I am not the only one. At the turn of the millenium Professor Marian McDurdo observed that arguments concerning the provision of care for the elderly had “dominated discussion to the virtual exclusion of a search for strategies which might improve their overall health”. A decade later, Tom Kirkwood, director Newcastle’s Institute for Ageing and Health, lamented the fact that politicians and commentators still view an ageing population through a “prism of increased…costs” and called for an “expansion of scientific knowledge about ageing”.

Forget the social costs of ageing for a moment. Yes, they are important, but it should not be forgotten that we are discussing real people who will be forced to endure the worst aspects of the conditions that will require treatment. There is sarcopenia: the degeneration of lean body mass that weakens people, making tasks as simple as carrying bags or rising from a chair difficult; worsens balance, raising the threat of falls and decreases metabolic rates, ensuring that people are intolerant of temperatures and at risk from obesity.

There is osteoporosis, in which one’s bone density is greatly reduced, exacerbating the risk of fractures. Older people are more liable to fall than others, then, but are also more likely to do themselves severe harm once they have fallen. Fractures can also occur without obvious provocations. Bones in the spine collapse, making it hard for sufferers to hold up own body weight. The slightest jolt – as little as a cough or sneeze – can lead to fractures of the ribs.

Then there is the possibility of cognitive decline. Dementia and Alzheimer’s confuse, annoy and sadden their victims and those around them. More than any one disorder, though, there is the pain associated with losing one’s independence: the potential for frustration in one’s ability to realise ambitions and embarrassment in relying on others to fulfil tasks.

Decline and/or death will come to all of us at some point and genetics, ill-advised decisions and misfortune will bring either or both of them on sooner rather than later for many. There are, however, steps that can be taken, in preparation for and during old age, to help millions avoid or ameliorate the consequences of these and other afflictions. Some may be complicated chemical treatments, of which I am ignorant enough that I cannot discuss them, but other known or apparent health-promoting measures are uncomplicated and accessible and deserve to be popularised so that today and tomorrow’s old people can profit from them.

1. Resistance training – Few old people are going to become bodybuilders like the Herculean nonagenarian Charles Eugster but extensive evidence suggests that resistance training improves one’s health to such an extent that it should not be seen as the preserve of musclehead. Research has shown that pensioners up to the age of 96 can make impressive gains in strength and muscle size with the judicious use of resistance training. It builds muscles around bones, which stimulates the reinforcement of their density and makes one less vulnerable to osteoporosis. A review published by the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging found two-dozen studies that illustrated this effect. Other studies have shown evidence that resistance training lessons the risk of diabetes in men, and even that it is an effective antidepressant among elders.

2. Leucine – “Leucine” sounds like a constipation remedy but it could actually be significant in helping one avoid the damage of sarcopenia. French scientists have found evidence that suggests that eating diets rich in this amino acid can help the elderly to process protein in a manner that enables them to preserve their muscles. Dr. Michael Rennie of the University of Nottingham Medical School said further research was needed to test the theory but that older people could still act upon its tentative recommendations. Leucine is abundant in plant and animal foods, and scientists have also found evidence that leucine supplements may be effective. (For ethical reasons, I would ask people to consider maximising plant sources. They are no less healthy and, indeed, can be more so.)

3. Goal-oriented sociability – There is no surefire way of avoiding Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and their effects but there are lifestyle choices that could improve one’s chances of evading and ameliorating them. Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found an association between living a purposeful life and a lesser threat of the deleterious effects of pathologic changes on cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s. Scientists at the Karolinska Institute, meanwhile, studied hundreds of older people over a matter of years and found that those who lived sociable lives, as long as they are also marked by low neuroticism, seemed to have a lesser risk of cognitive decline. Ideal activities, then, would increase one’s interactions with others, diminish stress and offer goals to be pursued: arts, sports, exercise, charitable, religious and even political collaborations. If you are a misanthrope, of course, this may be like removing tumours with bullets but I’m insisting that on seek these benefits.

4. Omega-3s and Omega-6s - “Fat” is not a meaty monolith. There are all kinds of fats, and they are more or less healthful. A study published in 2007 found that eating omega-3 fats, those found in fish, walnuts and flax, was associated with a lessened risk of cognitive impairment while the excessive consumption of omega-6 fats, those common to vegetable oils and some nuts and meats, seemed to increase the threat. To consume omega-3s is more important than avoiding omega-6s as eating the former makes up for one’s consumption of the latter but cutting down on soy, corn, canola and sunflower oils is a good idea anyway. They are rubbish.

5. Aerobic exercise – Exercise gets bloody hard for anyone as they grow old. I find it hard, for goodness sake, and I am twenty-two. As Dr. Jerome L. Fleg details in his essay “Aerobic Exercise in the Elderly”, however, it can be done. Healthy older people and even some men and women with clinical heart disease can improve their fitness and derive reductions in blood pressure and depression and improvements in lipid levels, glucose tolerance and bone density. A study last year also suggested that regular aerobic exercise improves brain power in the elderly. A lot of old people, as well as a lot of young people, may not be sure of how to exercise without risking spectacular accidents but this merely emphasises the need for these issues to addressed so that safe, effective means of obtaining their benefits.

6. Vegetables – This is almost as obvious as “don’t smoke” or “breathe” but it is so true that it deserves to be emphasised. The benefits of consuming vegetables are numerous. Age-related macular degeneration, for example, increases one’s risk of accidents and, well, makes life less fun. Green vegetables such as spinach, kale, turnip leaves and broccoli contain lutein and zeaxanthin, organic pigments known as carotenoids, which, consumed in large amounts, have been found to reduce the threat of age-related macular degeneration by as much as 43%. Systematic reviews, meanwhile, have found that an increased intake of vegetables is associated with a lower risk of dementia, slower rates of cognitive decline, lessened risks of osteoporosis and, of course, a reduced likelihood of becoming obese and developing related illnesses. They taste nice as well. That wasn’t just fascistic propaganda from our parents.

7. Meditation – Now, I am no Buddhist. In fact, I went to a meditation class on one occasion and had to leave because I was giggling. There is, however, hard as some of us find it to imagine rivers running down our sides and so on, evidence that mindfulness-based meditation reduces the stress and loneliness that are not just inherently unpleasant but exacerbate or provoke damaging conditions. There is evidence that this is true not just for healthy adults but patients enduring cancer and heart disease. One paper has even suggested that meditation may have a beneficial effect on the length of our telomeres, which are molecule sequences that protect the ends of our chromosomes. Scientists believe that telomere length is a biomarker of ageing. Is this right? To be honest, I don’t have a bleedin’ clue. But, hey, try it for yourself if you would like to see whether it works or not. It’s not worth getting stressed about.

8. True love – Okay, this one is not accessible in the slightest but the research on relationships and health is so interesting that I am throwing it in here. A paper from the Karolinska Institute offered evidence that suggests that people who are married or co-habiting in middle-life are less likely than single, separated or widowed people to endure cognitive impairment, which, given contemporary trends, is of relevance. The news is not all good for lovebirds, though. Hui Zheng and Patricia Thomas have offered research suggesting that as one’s health declines marriage can be dangerous. Husbands and wives, it seems, are unwilling to ‘fess up to health problems as they emerge. Unless, of course, they are mild headaches or passing colds in which case they will send each other bonkers going on about them.

None of this is to insist that one should not lie around in front of the TV, consume a diet of bacon and doughnuts and imagine that meditation is something exclusively practiced by Gandhi and Steven Seagal. As unexciting as it can be for some people to contemplate the prospect of a run or a plate of spinach, though, I would suggest that giving oneself a much better chance to live an old age in which one is not reliant on carers and pharmaceutical companies is impressive. If further research and education can allow people to live in a state of health and independence in old age it will be almost as much of an achievement as allowing them to live at all.

Professor FrinkThe popular science writer Chris Mooney is disdainful of suggestions that Liberals as well as Conservatives may contain significant pseudoscientific elements. To be honest, the question of which tribe is more harmful depends upon the question of global warming. If it is nearly as significant as climate scientists, backed by left-wing commentators, have argued then Conservatives have not merely been pseudoscientific on a phenomenal scale but have endangered us all as a consequence. If it isn’t they can breathe a sigh of relief and spend the next century gloating. I prefer not to wade into the bog of this debate but its significance clearly dwarfs those of others. It is one of few things history will remember us for.

In other fields of science, though, left-wing obscurantism is evident. Mooney claims that the “blank slate” theory of human nature has been disregarded by the left. The idea of a genetically-based model is, he says, “pretty passé these days”. Who has he been hanging out with? The assertion is contradicted by the facts. The belief that many liberal and socialist commentators have in the value of human equality has led them to presume that it is an inherent fact of our species. Owen Jones, for example, called the notion that genetics play in a role in educational performance “poison”. It is, as confirmed by Professor Ian Deary and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, the conclusion of the leading researchers within the field. Denying it, then, is not smart – whatever the reasons.

The denial of inherent and variable aspects of human nature is not a young phenomenon. Stephen Jay Gould’s critiques of sociobiology, at least somewhat inspired, one presumes, by his own Marxism, were compromised by his misunderstandings and misrepresentations; errors his biases must have inclined him away from observing. David C. Queller was advising the scientifically inexpert to “watch their step” around his work even before a reassessment of claims made in his anti-sociobiology manifesto The Mismeasure of Man revealed, in the words of the anthropologist John Hawks, that he had “made stuff up”. His ideological descendants have been even more crude in their critiques. Rebecca Watson, in a hit-piece against the entire flawed yet valuable field of evolutionary psychology, was found to have grossly misrepresented papers and publications. The response of scientists who shared her political leanings was to smear her critics and ignore her errors.

Some liberals and socialists mistake their values for facts, then, and this often leads them to mistake other peoples’ fact claims for assertions of value judgements. Scientists authoring research papers can be treated as if they are pundits scribbling blogs. Last month, for example, a study argued that obesity rates among women could be partly explained by the fact that they are doing less housework and more sitting around. Some feminists on Twitter insisted that this was a “fail”; such an awful suggestion, indeed, that they were inclined to think that they were “fucking hallucinating”. Their assumption was that the authors were implying that they should get up off their asses and hoover. Yet they were not, any more than observing that men burned more calories as farmers than as computer programmers would imply that they should leave their offices and go back to their hoes.

Their reactions are also indicative of the heat of the emotion that can be produced when what Jonathan Haidt has called the “motivated ignorance” that surrounds the assumptions people hold as sacred is threatened. Be it a fire-breathing Oklahoman who has had it suggested to him that the Earth may be a tad more venerable than 6000 years would suggest or an outraged New Yorker who is struggling with the notion that reducing physical activity might lead to an energy imbalance, emotion should not contribute to the establishment of facts. It is the incitement to obscurantism; the twitch in a bomb-disposers fingertips.

These kinds of pseudoscience and denial have not, I think, been without consequences. The presumption of equal abilities, for example, has aided the growth of an education system where young people can leave school after embarrassing themselves in language exams they never had a chance of passing yet without acquiring technical skills that they could use. More essentially, though, it is unreasonable, and where unreason is allowed to flourish it is infectious.

CavemanI mentioned advocates of paleolithic nutrition a few days ago and note that they have been featured in The New Inquiry. These are people who believe that we should eat the foods that hunter gatherers were munching on before the Neolithic: meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit. All the products of agriculture, they suggest, are alien to our bodies and downright toxic.

It is a concept that appeals to the human and especially the male ego: the supposed manliness of meat consumption allying itself to the purity of eating a natural diet and the nonconformism of defying mainstream health advice. As with most ideas that attach themselves to evolutionary theory it also has the air of radical empiricism. I am unconvinced, however, by its actual claims.

What allowed our prehistoric ancestors to live successfully does not seem as interesting as what allows people to live successfully today. Whole grain consumption has been associated time and again with healthy weight management. It has been inversely associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. This or that grain will more or less tolerable to different individuals but speaking broadly if you claim that they are unhealthy you are going to have to devise a notion of false consciousness.

Legumes are also shunned by contemporary cavemen. Specific complaints against them have been answered by this industrious vegan sceptic but let’s look at the big picture. A study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at countries where citizens live to ripe old ages and compared their food cultures. Legumes united them: “the Japanese eat soy, tofu, natto, miso, the Swedes eat brown beans and peas and the Mediterraneans eat lentils, chickpeas and white beans.” The quality of one’s life is at least as important as its actual length but I see no reason to believe lentil-munchers lose out. Here is a list of Europe’s most obese nations, for example. Sweden and Italy do not even make the top twenty and, indeed, legumes seem to aid the regulation of blood sugars and increase satiety.

I am sure a lot of Paleo promoters are convinced by the science and the effect of the diet on themselves. What they do with their own bodies is their own business. I see their ideas being promoted on a lot of influential outlets, though, and remain dubious about the bases of its rise. Alternet loves it. Boing Boing are fans. io9, Gawker’s futurist outlet, quotes one caveman as saying that besides “obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains”. Eliding “sugar calories” feels like poisoning the well. I ask you: if you ate brown rice or drank coca cola which would leave you feeling full? It is true, though, that grains are not packed with nutrition. So? It is good to have a source of calories that is efficient to produce and cheap to purchase, as well as being a toothsome vehicle for more nutritious foods that contain less energy.

The other option, disregarding the banana scarfing crowd, is to obtain the bulk of your calories from animal foods. I am not convinced that the effect of such a diet on our insides would be beneficial: according to the latest reviews of trials of saturated fats the opposite might be the case. I will admit to having an ethical interest, though. Advocates of the lifestyle often emphasise that they care for animals and buy ethically sourced meat. This might be true, but they are advocating meat-based diets to people who are often considerably poorer and, sometimes, less conscientious than they are. Should a great deal of people adopt the lifestyles they promote they will choose flesh from animals that were tortured in pens and barns in the great industrial eradication that serve first world appetites.

As someone who objects to the manner in which creatures are raised and slaughtered rather than the raising and slaughtering of animals in principle I am aware that my stance may appear to both carnivores and vegetarians as a sad compromise. It may be inadequate, perhaps, but it is not absurd. Animals feel sensations of pleasure and pain. I do not think sensations of pleasure make for a meaningful life. It is the ability to reason, which allows us to comprehend our environments; form distinct relationships and devise and pursue ambitions that make our lives fulfilling. Most non-human animals have nothing that approximates this and their deaths do not seem tragic. Sensations of pain, however, can make for a very bad life. One does not have to reason to appreciate the unpleasantness of being cramped, diseased, mutilated and deprived of air. Promoting a meat-based diet perpetuates these agonies – and, indeed, a system that bears as much relation to our prehistoric past as a drone strike has to the wars of hunter gatherers.

My other problem with the lifestyle is conceptual. I am not one of those people who believes that evolution has served no purpose beyond making us appear less ape-like and irritating Christians. There is much that we can learn from studying the manner in which it has shaped our species. It is also possible, however, to succumb to romantic illusions and reductionist assumptions about human minds and bodies and this obscure our understanding of ourselves. We did not evolve to eat grains and legumes. Again – is this all that’s important? I will grant that I am no more a biologist than I am a nutritionist but are our anatomies so sensitive that they panic when they encounter anything unknown to them? Our bodies tend to be robust and supple things; capable of dealing with that which they had not been briefed for. I know one thing: we did not evolve to have the six packs that a lot of these guys are after.

Mad scientist

I have two items on contemporary science and as neither is extremely long I thought I would put them together.

Scientism Against Science – A Christian asserted to Paul “Pharyngula” Myers over Twitter that a God has to exist because something cannot arise from nothing. “Tell that to Lawrence Krauss and other physicists,” Myers thunders. “They all argue that god is an unnecessary hypothesis.” Krauss and his comrades argue that particles may have arisen from the laws of quantum mechanics, which is fine except that the laws of quantum mechanics are not “nothing”. They are answering a different question. This has not occurred to Myers, who goes on say that he “could have reduced [his post] to a simple accusation of “bullshit!””. Yes, he could, but then he would have not have given such compelling evidence of the tendency of some atheists to bask in undeserved assurance regarding the worthlessness of their opponents’ beliefs, and of some scientists to bask in undeserved assurance regarding the monopoly they think their fields hold over truth claims.

I have written before on the phenomenon of scientism, with reference to Lawrence Krauss’ disdainful attitude towards philosophy. It is not merely harmful in that it marginalises other forms of inquiry, though: it also harms science. The manner in which scientists like Myers and Richard Dawkins – who said that what Darwin was to biology Krauss is to cosmology – obscures the relevance of the findings they discuss. The origin of particles is a fascinating question in itself but it is liable to be overlooked if it used as a stick to beat religion with.

Chewing the Fat – Gary Taubes is a popular science writer who is known for heterodox opinions regarding nutrition. He has, for example, pinned the rise of obesity on dietary carbohydrates and claimed that saturated fat is not linked to heart disease. It is very true that the quality of carbohydrates has been problematic, and for all I know it may be true that genetic and metabolic abnormalities are intolerant to carbs in general, but the idea that they are especially fattening for all or most of us seems weird. Numerous studies have associated diets rich in whole grains, legumes and fruits with healthy weight maintenance and, indeed, weight loss. Besides, I do not often hear of the obesity crises in Japan and China.

It is the writings of Taubes on fat and cholesterol that a vegan critic has dissected over an epic four and half hours of YouTube critiques. I have neither the time nor the expertise to vouch for his overall rigour – and, indeed, think I have noted the odd dubious point – but he notes important omissions, misrepresentations and acts of blatant propagandising. (Taubes claims that vegan and vegetarian parents “doom their kids to a life of obesity and diabetes” when the lentil-munchers tend to be slimmer with better insulin sensitivity.) Self-styled diet heretics would do well to give them a listen and evaluate the condition of their theories. It should be disturbing, especially to those of us with an interest in alternative ideas, how writers can inspire uncritical esteem if they snub the establishment.

The pop. nutrition commentariat is, perhaps, the best example of the dangers of forming opinions according to one’s ego and taste rather than objective judgement. The “paleo” dieters include a lot of people who are not acquainted with nutrition research but like to feel iconoclastic and macho in their meat consumption. Fruitarians are often ignorant of basic facts but love the notion of being at one with the world. The risks they can impose on their bodies are evidence of the dangers of biases and the need for means of systematic analyses to deal with their undue influence. It ain’t sexy but it’s science.

MonkeysThe response of commentators sympathetic to Rebecca Watson has been interesting. More interesting, indeed, than her actual talk.

Stephanie Zvan denied that Watson was criticising the entire field of evolutionary psychology and implied that she was being “targeted”. Clint and others have responded to the former point but to appreciate its oddity imagine someone giving a speech in which they defamed atheist writers; misrepresented atheistic scholarship; imputed intellectual and moral failings to “atheists” and referenced Conservapedia. I suspect that Zvan would not leap to defend them from the charge of having an agenda against atheism.

PZ Myers started his defence by maligning Clint’s intentions. His motives are less important than his arguments and beginning by questioning them was a case of well-poisoning. He proceeded to begin a trend of apologists making true but irrelevant points by debunking the implication that one should not criticise a field one has no credentials in. This is true, and people who have argued otherwise are wrong, but one should not criticise a field one is so ignorant of and biased against that one’s criticisms are falsehoods. Jean Kazez also observes that other people have criticised evolutionary psychology and faced no such opprobrium. This is true, but the objection was not that she was criticising evo psych but that she used bogus ones.

Yes, she did. She asserted that evo psych is based on the view that the human brain evolved completely during the Pleistocene. It is not. She claimed that evo psych theories tend to be unfalsifiable. They don’t. She accused two researchers of restricting their data collection to “white, middle-class women”. This was false. She claimed that a researcher had done to evo psych what Alan Sokal did to postmodern cultural studies. Untrue. Watson, then, both misrepresented the field and defamed its researchers. (She has admitted to being mistaken over the “white, middle-class woman point” but failed to apologise.) None of her defenders have so much as mentioned this. It is as if someone had screamed that there was an African elephant in the room and they had launched into an explanation as to the difference between the African and Asian elephants.

Myers, it seems, is about to launch an intellectual assault on evolutionary psychology. This is fine. I hope it will be more substantive. Yet beginning with the implication that falsehoods about the field and its researchers are too unimportant to be mentioned does not inspire confidence. Scepticism, above all, is the defence of the truth and the indifference towards Watson’s obscuring of it is proof that it has been severely compromised.

That sceptics can be as dogmatic as anyone should come as no surprise. The extent to which their faults can go unnoticed is largely due to their obscurantism being in the service of opposing unfashionable opinions: conspiracy theories, paranormal research and religion. (Myers, for example, with regards to the latter, claimed this year that Aquinas and Duns Scotus are “not at all relevant to the fundamental question of whether a god exists or not”, which raised the question of whether he knows them from Iniesta and Dani Alves.) The elision, in some quarters, of scepticism with “social justice” ideologies introduces a new raft of biases and a new array of unfashionable opponents. It is clear that sociobiology, and its inconvenient deterministic implications, are doomed to a hostile rather than critical reception. Subsequent falsehoods, it seems, will be viewed with insouciance if they are in a good cause. This is their decision but it makes them activists more than sceptics and their work should be considered in this light.

MonkeysI am leery about the elision, in some quarters, of scepticism with Liberal politics. To be sure, I endorse people approaching their politics, whatever they might be, from a sceptical perspective. What is troubling is when ideology masquerades as something more objective. Rebecca Watson, a progressive commentator, gave a speech at a popular conference named Skepticon that smeared the field of evolutionary psychology. A gentleman named Edward Clint has taken it upon himself to thoroughly refute Ms. Watson’s errors and simplifications.

There is a great deal of legitimate criticism to be made of evolutionary psychology and its practionitioners, and still more to be made of the opportunistic media hacks who leap upon research that can be sensationalised. What make Watson such an obscurantist on the subject, then, is not the fact that she criticised the field but the manner in which she criticised it. She numerous errors of fact and logic, and several of them are revealing.

Watson name-dropped Stephen Jay Gould, who was disdainful of the claims of evolutionary psychologists. Ideologues of all stripes have particular scholars they will trot out to bolster the factual presumptions underpinning their ideas, and we must be careful that we reference people because we have reason to believe they are correct and not because we think their views agreeable. Liberals reference Stephen Jay Gould to dismiss inconveniently deterministic biological and psychological theories. Yet Professor Gould’s critiques were more respected in the popular press than academic circles. Indeed, it appears that he misunderstood and even misrepresented research he disliked. We can bring up arguments if we find them compelling but should take care not to invoke scientists like saints.

People like to laugh at academics, which is why the Sokal hoax is so renowned. It is hard to engage experts on their level, whether or not their ideas are sound, so we enjoy seeing them fall upon their bottoms. Sadly, though, scientific researchers are rarely mistaken in amusing ways, and, thus, there is a danger that the lulz that are had at their expense are on dubious premises. Watson, f0r example, described the success of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in writing a bogus paper on the supposed male preference for blondes. “He got it published,” she laughs. Clint observes, however, that it was not published in a psychological or even biological journal but a medical one, and a medical journal that explicitly welcomes “novel, radical new ideas and speculations…which would be rejected by most conventional journals.” I don’t see why evolutionary psychologists should take the blame for this any more than Bloomsbury should take responsibility for Barry Trotter.

Some of Watson’s comments are, it seems, not merely wrong but defamatory. She speaks of a book by researchers who interviewed women as to what drives them to have sex. It does sound like the kind of thing that could be very, very bad but Watson’s treatment of it seems disgraceful. She claims the researchers “bravely went and interviewed a thousand white, middle-class women”. The eye-rolling implication is that they were narrow-minded and incompetent at best and downright bigoted at worst. Her audience gave an appreciative chuckle. Well, I have the book open before me and it clearly states that “the women identified…as American Indian, Asian, black, white (non-Hispanic), and Latino”. Almost half of them earned below $50,000. Unless Watson knows something that does not appear to be written she has propagated a lousy and libellous mistruth.

Watson, it seems, was not regarding politics from a sceptical perspective but science through the blinkers of ideology. Considering how broad and dense its fields are this can offer no more than a slanted, narrow viewpoint. It is a lesson to would-be sceptics of every shade that no one political view monopolises rationality, and that the fact that something appeals to your heart does not mean it should be accepted by your head.

There’s been a new study into meditation for the old. Subjects who undertook group sessions in which mindfulness meditation was dicussed and then practiced it at home are said to have reduced their loneliness and the expression of inflammatory genes associated with diseases. Those in the control group had no improvement. (I’ve said this before but I feel sorry for the people in control groups. By dint of random categorisation their misery is continued for our interest.) The reportage – and thus, I presume, the paper – noted that this could be of significance, for one thing, because loneliness has been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

It’s good that in an age where so much is medicalised research continues into the psychological factors related to conditions. They’re especially significant in those associated with cognitive decline and, thus, relevant to my interest in longevity and health. Boyle et al of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that there was an association between living a purposeful life and a reduced threat of Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment. The subjects of their research answered a number of questions intended to determine the extent to which they derived meaning from their experiences and maintained a sense of intentionality. Subjects who were characterised by purposefulness were significantly more liable to avoid mental decline.

Finding purpose in one’s life is, of course, rather more difficult than buying a nice steak. (I find it hard enough and I’m 21.) For some, though, it might not demand religious awakening or the study of existentialism but, say, making friends. Researchers from the Swedish Karolinska Institute studied hundreds of older people over six years and found that those who lived sociable lives, so long as they are also marked by low neuroticism, seemed to have a lesser risk of cognitive decline. The best lifestyle changes, then, might correct social isolation and diminish stress while allowing people to form and pursue goals: arts groups; collective exercise; sports; charitable organisations; religious meetings; even flippin’ politics.

One reason cognitive impairment is of special relevance is that new generations of retirees may be more vulnerable to it. Krister Håkansson of Linnaeus University found that people who were married or cohabiting in mid-life tended to have a better chance of avoiding Alzheimer’s than the widowed, divorced and separated. No one seems entirely sure of why but it set me thinking about another problem these singletons may face once they have aged – they won’t have the benefit of a readymade if rudimentary social life and purpose to their existence. It’s important to make sure such people don’t grow isolated; that their lives don’t become shapeless.

There are other ways to help oneself, of course. A study published in 2007 found that the consumption of fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fats – those found in fish, walnuts and flax seeds – was associated with a decreased risk of cognitive impairment while the excessive consumption of omega-6 fats – those common to vegetable oils and some nuts and meats – was a likely suspect behind an exacerbated threat of it. It would still be wise to get out and active, though. Not merely lest one grow sick but as evenings alone with salmon, squash and spinach for one could grow rather dispiriting in time.

This year I’ve been taking part in a theatrical project that’s included, among other things, a piece written in collaboration with others. This is not ideal for me. When it comes to acting, sports or labour I’m fine with working in a team but for some reason if I write with a group I either clam up or become Hitler’s literary equivalent. It was daunting, then, to come across this paper (via)…

That comes to 815 authors! How on earth did they get on?

One can imagine the scene, as F. Acernese, C. Pankow and I. Yakushin squabble over whose vision of candidate gravitational-wave transient events is going to take precedence. G. Mitselmakher was doubtless sulking in the corner after their evaluation of the feasibility of rapid follow-ups of GW transients was ignored. D. Yeaton-Massey, M. Kasprzack and J.B. Call, meanwhile, might have been lurking in the corner, hoping that no one would call upon them.

The most important question is, of course, how did they work out who was going to make the tea?

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