Feb 132017

As an atheist, I find it difficult to be polite and not fall about laughing at things like “Intelligent Design”, but for the duration of this blog posting, I’ll try.

On one side are the scientists who spend their working lives investigating biological processes who have their theory of evolution. Now that word “theory” needs a bit of explanation; it does not mean that evolution hasn’t been accepted as fact by scientists. Evolution is one of those rare scientific theories that has never been disproved; merely refined. Essentially the word “theory” here is a challenge to disprove evolution and come up with a better theory – if you think you’re hard enough!

On the other side are a collection of religious leaders (admittedly Charles Thaxton trained as a chemist) who have spent their working lives telling people about god; and coming up with the theory of “Intelligent Design” in their spare time. The suspicion is that these people are letting their religious beliefs influence their “scientific” thinking.

When I want to know about plumbing, I ask a plumber. When I want to know about welding, I ask a boiler-maker. And when I want to know about biology, I ask a biologist.

Feb 162013

So today in addition to being subject to a near miss – the cosmic equivalent of being given a close shave by a Samurai with his (or her) Katana – we also had an unannounced visitation by an asteroid that crash-landed in Russia causing a considerable amount of property damage, and more seriously some injuries.

Now this doesn’t happen every day, but in the lifetime of the Earth it does happen pretty frequently. As is evident from our nearest neighbour which looks as though it has been bombarded in some sort of celestial war. And indeed, the evidence can be seen on Earth if you look close enough; and that list just includes the largest impacts – events such as Russia today simply don’t show up.

Now there is not a great deal we can do about this as individuals, so as individuals we may as well forget about it – the chances of being killed by a meteorite are pretty remote but as it turns out only slightly less likely than being killed by a terrorist!

As a species however, we have reached the point where we can start doing something about it. If that is, we want to invest the resources into doing so. Admittedly we have started looking but simply knowing we’re all going to be killed by a dinosaur-killer isn’t enough – we should be able to do something about it. Perhaps there isn’t much we can do about a dinosaur-killer.

But we should be able to do something about smaller dangers. If we want to.

If we told the military that they will have to change the kinds of really expensive toys they get, we can probably start some form of meteor defence programme without having a dramatic effect on the economy. After all, ultimately a large meteor is as dangerous as an all-out nuclear war.

Sep 232011

CERN announced today that they had published results indicating that they have discovered that neutrinos may travel at speeds a tiny fraction faster than the speed of light – breaking what you could call the Universe’s speed limit. At least according to Einstein‘s theories.

This has caused a certain amount of fuss amongst the media, and probably a lot of discussion around every water cooler where physicists gather. Of course the media has grandly announced that Einstein was wrong. Well, not really (and I should add that I’m no physicist).

Firstly, this is more a “Hey! That’s weird” moment – nobody except the media is saying we should tear up Einstein’s theories as yet. CERN themselves have said what amounts to “Hey guys! Can you check this out, because it’s weird”. They want other scientists to check their results because it is so unexpected.

Secondly even if this pans out, and CERN have found that something travels faster than light it doesn’t mean that Einstein was completely wrong. He came up with a theory that explained the Universe as understood for pretty much a hundred years. Just like the Newtonian universe that went before, the Einsteinian universe was correct (and may still be so) for the Universe as understood by scientists until this discovery.

Bear in mind that the Newtonian universe is taught in schools today – not as a historical curiosity, but as a simplistic if somewhat flawed model of how the Universe works, suitable for children learning about the Universe.

Sep 072010

I happened to come across this piece of garbage blaming a whole bunch of things on science. Turns out that almost everything in their list is due to things other than science. In order :-


Whilst unfortunate, and in fact inevitable – something like space would eventually result in deaths because it is an inherently risky activity – there is nothing about the Challenger disaster that can be blamed on science. The engineering of the O-ring seal wasn’t up to scratch and poor decisions allowed Challenger to be launched in weather conditions that encouraged the O-ring seal failure.

No science in sight. There is a school of thought that anything big and shiny is science, whereas in truth it is big engineering.

Darsee and Slutsky and Fraud, Oh My!, The Debendox Debacle, Nuclear Winter of Our Discontent, Piltdown Chicken

Here we have four separate “sins” of science which boil down to the fact that some scientists have fabricated results. Whilst that is definitely bad, and in the worst cases these “scientists” can cause the deaths of numerous people, science itself isn’t in the wrong here. What is at fault is a tiny handful of scientists. Which just goes to show that scientists are human and just as fallible as your neighbourhood plumber.

If your neighbourhood plumber turns out to be a bit of a crook and in the habit of overcharging for work done, do we blame plumbing ? No we do not.

Statistics for Dummies

Here we have an example of statistics being used incorrectly and incorrect conclusions being made from those statistics. This is hardly the first example of such a mistake in using statistics and statisticians have been growling about such foolish things for probably several centuries.

Notice I haven’t mentioned science in that paragraph. There’s a good reason for that – whilst scientists may well (and hopefully do) use statistics as an analytical tool, statistics itself is not science. It’s not a branch of science; it’s a branch of mathematics.

Blaming science for poor use of statistics is hardly fair!

Skipping over “Very Cold Fusion” section as it concerns yet another couple of so-called scientists rather than science itself, we get to …


So we have a situation where people who do not follow the operating procedure for a nuclear reactor and unintentionally cause a run-away chain reaction. No science here either.

Just your standard poor decision making.

Currents That Don’t Kill

Ah! Here we actually have an example of science! A number of studies into the effects of living close to power lines shows that there is no significant effect from living close by.

So where is the poor science here ? Scientists did exactly what they are supposed to do – when presented with a theory (“power lines generate electrical fields that are dangerous”) they tested that theory and found it false. Whether it was true or not, here we have an example of science doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

Sure it cost quite a bit – mostly because there was an apparent need for multiple studies in different parts of the world. But I cannot see any bad science here except possibly the initial hypothesis.

Mars Meltdown

So NASA had a problem with a probe that one group used metric units on and another group used traditional US units? That’s an unfortunate issue with the engineering management. Science isn’t responsible here – yet again.

Rock Of Life

At last! We’ve found something that is science. Scientists decided that their rock from Mars contained signs of life on Mars, and other scientists eventually decided that it was a false alarm.

So some scientists made a poor study of the rock in question and made a mistake. Just goes to show (yet again) that scientists are human and fallible. And note how the mistake was corrected by other scientists – which is much the way that science is supposed to work. If one scientist produces a result, other scientists try to duplicate that result, and if they fail there’s a problem somewhere.

All Abuzz

Yep, this one was definitely a poor decision. Cross-breeding bees to produce a particularly aggressive strain wasn’t the brightest idea. I guess this one does count as a scientific blunder.

Here They Come To Save The Day

So scientists came up with antibiotics and they have been misused by doctors and the public (and industry!) for 50 years or so. As a consequence, drug-resistant ‘bugs’ have evolved and antibiotics have a harder job of killing off these ‘superbugs’.

So what blunder has science made here ? Particularly where it is pointed out that average life expectancy has increased from 47 to 76 in the US thanks to antibiotics. Sure multi-drug resistant ‘superbugs’ are a problem, but how is science to blame for creating those ?

Wrong call. Again.

The Sky Is Falling Again

In this section we learn that an early approximation for the trajectory of an asteroid was not as accurate as it could have been so what was a near miss of 30,000 miles becomes a near miss of 600,000 miles.

It might be nice if the earlier approximation had been a little more accurate, but ‘forewarned is forearmed’ as they say, and it is better to make a mistake along these lines than to miss the asteroid all together.

I wouldn’t say this is a scientific blunder at all.

Evolution? What’s That?

In this section we hear that sections of the US education system are run by mindless drones of extremist christians, who have decided to stop teaching the theory of evolution or to stop testing the knowledge of the theory. Scientists are outraged by this.

How on earth can this qualify as a science blunder ?

Fen-Phen Fiasco

A researcher discovers that a combination of two drugs can be used to combat obesity, but later it is discovered that those tow drugs interact poorly and themselves can cause health problems. Ignoring the fact that science was used to confirm the cause of  the health problems, we can probably put this one down as a scientific blunder.

Assuming of course that the original researcher who introduced the new wonder treatment for obesity wasn’t distracted by the dollar signs from doing some proper hard science first.

To Be or Not to Be, Thanks to MTBE

Ok, I guess we can put this one down as a scientific blunder.

Earth To Iridium

So a telecommunications company who produced an early satellite phone went bust because nobody wanted the produce.

Did the product work ? Yes, so the engineering and the science behind the engineering was fine. Sounds to me more like an entrepreneurial blunder.

Chest Say No to Silicone Implants

Curiously even the writers of this list of “20 Scientific Blunders” admit that this was not a blunder of science, but a blunder caused by lawyers.

So why does it appear on the list then ?


This is quite possibly the most ridiculous entry on the list. I was there on the eve of Y2K watching everyone else celibate the false millennium. This was (as pointed out) firstly a programming blunder where programmers wrote software using two-digits as a date format ignoring what would happen when 99 become 00 (or 100). And secondly a bonanza for legitimate contractors, and less legitimate doom-mongers and snake-oil salesmen.

No science anywhere near Y2K

Summing It Up

So out of the top 20 Science blunders in that article, we actually have just 2.5 (I’m counting the Fen-Phem as 0.5 as science was used to correct the blunder). That’s an accuracy of 12.5%; a pretty poor showing by journalism!

Sep 102008

First I laughed, and then I thought “well good” when I heard that some Creationalists are complaining about a game that supposedly pushes the theory of evolution down kids throats. See http://antispore.com (don’t send abuse – being brainwashed and dumb doesn’t mean you deserve abuse).

Given that Spore has a human pushing the buttons to control the “evolution” of creatures in Spores, it seems somewhat imaginative to claim that it represents evolution. But perhaps it is close enough after all a simulation of “proper” evolution would be a little hard to call a game and would probably be so slow as to be pretty boring to watch.

Even if it does work as propaganda for the theory of evolution, it is pushing a theory that is accepted by every serious biological scientist out there. Creationlists like to claim that evolution is just a theory (and God’s creation is fact because it was written down in the Bible), but whilst the theory of evolution has not been proved, it does fit the available facts.

In fact evolution cannot be proved … scientific theories are never proved; merely rejected when they cannot predict observations. Currently evolution is a validated theory.

Evolution has lasted for almost 150 years which is an astonishingly long time for a scientific theory to last. It has of course changed in that time through minor improvements, but nobody has discovered something and gone “Oh dear! This knocks evolution on the head; time for something else.”. If you think of the changes in our understanding of the biological world since 1859, the fact that evolution is still accepted (by scientists) is quite remarkable.

If you think evolution is wrong, you don’t understand it. Or worse you won’t accept clear facts because they conflict with your view of the world.

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