Premature conclusions

Something the media is very good at, and alas some scientists too, is making a conclusion about a scientific investigation before actually performing the investigation.

This is not how science works!

A recent example of this appeared in today’s Daily Mail, the popular gutter-rag that leads the way in pseudo-scientific sensationalism:

Women who drink coffee or tea during pregnancy may increase their baby’s odds of developing cancer, doctors believe.

Experts say caffeine may damage the DNA of babies in the womb, making them more susceptible to leukaemia, the most common cancer in children.

To establish the link, scientists at Leicester University will scrutinise the caffeine intake of hundreds of pregnant women and compare the results with blood samples from their babies after birth.

Researcher Dr Marcus Cooke said there was a ‘good likelihood’ the study would make a connection. Previous research has shown that caffeine damages DNA, cutting cells’ ability to fight off cancer triggers such as radiation.

Changes of this kind have been seen in the blood cells of children with leukaemia. Scientists know they occur in the womb, but do not know why.

‘Although there’s no evidence at all of a link between caffeine and cancer, we’re putting two and two together and saying: caffeine can induce these changes and it has been shown that these changes are elevated in leukaemia patients,’ added Dr Cooke.

So, they’re planning to investigate this link, though Dr Cooke is quoted as (apparently) saying there is a ‘good likelihood of making the connection‘, despite, as he is later quoted, there being ‘no evidence at all of a link between caffeine and cancer’.

Dr Cooke is also quoted as saying that ‘previous research has shown that caffeine damages DNA, cutting cells’ ability to fight off cancer triggers such as radiation‘; now, I am not going to judge Dr Cooke on the basis of such quotes, because I well know how much gutter-rags like to quote out of context, but I can’t help wondering whether this prior research was a case of caffeine being introduced to cells in a dish, rather than to an actual living and breathing mammal. Any number of chemicals can cause physiological disturbance to cell cultures, but these do not necessarily translate to their being harmful to us generally.

So what’s my problem?

Continue reading “Premature conclusions”

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The perils of positivity….

IN science and medical publishing, everything is positive. Less than 4% of articles deal with negative results. There is a perception that negative results are non-results; only positive results are worth publishing. Why is it that showing that something does something is so much more important that showing that something doesn’t do something?

Obviously, I expect some common sense in this; I don’t very well expect that a paper should be published just because you have demonstrated that drinking water doesn’t cause sunburn, this would be a deeply unsurprising discovery. But what if it is a study that demonstrates that a particular drug doesn’t do what people expected it to do? What if it is a biotechnology that doesn’t work for a whole swathe of biological research?

Online science forums (or fora) are replete with anecdotal evidence describing how time, and time, and time again research scientists make the same mistakes, or encounter the same limitations, in particular techniques. This is because no-one ever publishes such limitations, or at least, not more than 4% of the time.

So what is the problem? Well, science is expensive. Very expensive. It is expensive in material cost, and it is expensive in research hours. To have discovered that you’ve wasted a year doing work that elsewhere in the world someone once wasted a similar amount of time doing, only, 3 years ago, is deeply frustrating.

In coffee breaks around the world, many scientists have discussed the idea of a Journal of Negative Results, a compendium that can be consulted at the outset of a research project to determine whether a technique or approach has already been taken toward a research problem, but has been found not to work. Sometimes such negative results a mentioned, but only in passing, and only after an alternative technique resulted in positive results, which resulted in the subsequent publication. They are rarely keyword searchable and thus inordinately difficult to find.

As I mentioned, science costs a lot of money, far more money than is necessary. This is largely because the money isn’t real, there is poor ownership of it, it is monopoly money. If it were coming out of our own pockets, we simply wouldn’t pay the price we do, we’d demand more competitive prices. Consumable companies are free to charge extortionate prices for items that they are producing by the million. I have tubes in my lab that cost £3.75 each; they can only be used once, and invariably one or two of them can be wasted due to one problem or another. Kits are all the rage in research; pre-fabricated methodologies with all the reagents and instructions one needs to perform a particular experiment. The reagents themselves cost practically nothing in most cases, yet the kits can cost anywhere between £300 – £1500, and in many circumstances, afford you between 5 – 20 experiments.

Now this combination of expensive research is part of what leads to negative results being unwanted. There’s no real money in debunking an idea, it must come along side a positive result if it is to come at all. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is part of the reason why any new drug being produced is just too much of an investment to allow to fail, so the pressure is on to ensure, by hook or by crook, that the drug is licensed. Ben Goldacre writes at length about this in his recent book, and blog of the same name, Bad Science; this is most definitely worth a read!

Expensive research also prevents investment into rarer diseases, or any medications that run the risk of having a short shelf-life. One class of drugs that have fallen foul of this economic equation are antibiotics, and this is a rather long pre-amble into what I wanted to say in this blog essay (or blessay, and Stephen Fry attests to horribly calling it).

Continue reading “The perils of positivity….”

Fallacies of logic

[ratings]

THE theory of evolution is an elegant theory, but to really get at the nitty-gritty details takes some discipline and a head for new concepts. There is much excellent literature out there, and plenty online; my links under the title  “Free-thinking”, to the right, are as good a starting point as any.

If you are going to learn about evolution, or science as a whole, then you should hear it from scientists, or other communicators of science, and NOT at websites such as “allaboutscience.org“. With a little reading, you may spot that the site is actually hosted by “allaboutcreation.org“, and I can assure you of three things:

  • There are many such sites on the internet.
  • They use scientific sounding language, but in fact demonstrate complete and universal ignorance of the theory of evolution and of the method of science.
  • They can all be recognised because somewhere they will mention the words “creator” or “designer”; they can’t help themselves. They may also use the word “evolutionist” to describe one who accepts evolution, this is almost uniquely a creationist terminology.
  • Their websites will be based largely around the notion that evolution cannot explain the complexity that is seen in nature, or other notions that they have little comprehension of themselves. Their aim is to raise the more complex issues that they know the average person isn’t going to know about.

They are however flawed because they try to interpret scientific evidence using their own parochial world view, i.e. that we’ve only been here 6,000 years, and we all arrived here in more or less the same form as we are now. Thus they can never hope to understand the time-scales and gradual change through intermediate forms upon which evolution is based.

Here’s an example from the website I cited, on their section about evolution:

Evolution – The Evidence of Why Scientists Believe in Evolution
Evolution, in this context, can be defined as: the belief that all living things, including man, resulted by natural changes from lifeless matter, with no supernatural intervention involved. If life on earth really came to be in this manner, by chance and from lifeless matter, then why are there so many intelligent people — even PhD scientists — who reject the theory?

Well, seeing as this is the first paragraph of the page, one wonders what “context” exactly they’re talking about? Secondly, their definition of evolution is completely wrong; evolution has nothing to say about the origin of life from lifeless matter, this discipline is called Abiogenesis. The theory of evolution, as I’ve described before, explains the origin of species, how natural variation in a species can be acted upon by natural selection over time, resulting in a diversity of different species. By mis-defining evolution, they are attempting to set up a classic fallacy in logic known as a “Straw Man”; by distorting the original definition into something that it clearly doesn’t state, making it easier to defeat, e.g.:

  • Person A has position X.
  • Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
  • Person B attacks position Y.
  • Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

Continue reading “Fallacies of logic”

“Two plus two makes five” – Winston Smith, 1984.

IF enough people believe it, or if it is illegal not to believe it, will it be true?

I spend a lot of my time, probably too much, waging a battle of wits and reason with the truly and irredeemably unreasonable. The usual subject is the scientific theory of evolution. I preface the noun “theory” with scientific so as there is no mistaking exactly what we mean by theory.

Whenever I hear the words “Just a theory….” levied at a scientific theory, it sends a shudder down my spine. As I’ve mentioned before, and I will undoubtedly continue to do so, a scientific theory is not speculation or opinion, it is a comprehensive, logical and above all testable model that represents the best means of explaining the evidence. Furthermore it facilitates predictions that can be tested experimentally to continue to verify the reliability of the theory. The theory of evolution is just such a theory:

The theory of evolution explains that variation exists between individuals within a species, it explains how natural selection can act to drive this variation and it shows how, and describes why, some organisms display characteristics that make them better suited, i.e. fitter, for life in the environment in which they live. It explains how these “fitter” organisms are the ones more likely to survive and pass on their characteristics to offspring. It explains how, over time, these characteristics become a trait in all members of a species, and how less favourable characteristics can be lost. Ultimately, the theory of evolution explains how a species, over this long period of time and subject to much genetic change steered by natural selection, can be very different from its ancestors.

Now, the above paragraph is qualitative, and largely non-technical. However, bound up within the above is some impressively complex science. The debates that rage amongst scientists is not about the validity of the above, it’s about the specifics of how they’re achieved. Part of what I aim to do with this blog is not re-write any of the perfectly excellent books on evolution that are available, but to tackle those areas that are taken advantage of by religious fundamentalists. Science is a dynamic subject; by the time it is written up in a book, it is already out of date. As I mentioned before, there is a battle of wits going on out there, between scientists or other such rational free-thinkers, and religious fundamentalists (which for want of a better term, I call “Fundies”).
Continue reading ““Two plus two makes five” – Winston Smith, 1984.”