Archive for category science

Meet the Methuselah of the Deep Sea

First off let’s pretend that I went through a lengthly apology for not posting here in quite a while. Secondly let’s pretend that you have accepted this apology graciously and are just happy to have another ramble by Ryan to read. That out of the way let’s meet todays star attraction…

The only thing in the sea that I think is cool

This is Turritopsis nutricula. A few days ago I attended a conference on stem cell biology and this little gem of a beast cropped up. Before I go into why it is such a remarkable creature I’ll have to share a few facts about jellyfish. Jellyfish belong to the Cnidarian phylum and Cnidarians are the most distantly related group on Earth compared to all other animals. This is because Cnidarians diverged from the rest of us animals over half a billion years ago. Consequently they are quite different; they possess radial symmetry unlike us bilateria, they lack the highly conserved (not to mention ancient) hox genes and rather disturbingly their mouth and anus is the same hole. So what did I find particularly fascinating about this specimen? After all it isn’t very remarkable to look at. In spite of the picture T. nutricula don’t grow beyond half a centimeter and whilst the adults have nearly one hundred tentacles there are far more dangerous jellyfish out there. No the remarkable thing about T. nutricula is that it is biologically immortal.

Yup that’s right, immortal. T. nutricula start off life as larvae that attach to the sea floor and form a polyp, this polyp will begin to asexually produce small sexually mature jellyfish that will bud off of the polyp. Different species of jellyfish have different lifespans (hours-months) but after reproducing most jellyfish die. This is where T. nutricula differs; instead of meekly passing away a T. nutricula will begin to turn from a mature jellyfish back into a polyp! This polyp can then recreate the mature form and the cycle can continue indefinitely, literally rejuvenating itself over and over again.

The reason that this was bought up at the stem cell conference is because of the mechanism by which T. nutricula does this remarkable Benjamin Buttonesque trick. It occurs through a process called transdifferentiation. Cells start life as a stem cell that then undergoes a division forming two cells; one cell identical to the original and one more specialized cell. Transdifferation is the rare process by which specialized cells transform into a different type of specialized cell. This is as strange as brain tissue turning into muscle but this is how  T. nutricula cheats death. It starts changing into an odd blob that sinks to the sea floor. This blob then anchors on and forms a polyp again. In reality  T. nutricula does die thanks to the hazards of the sea (predation, disease etc) but efforts are now underway to keep them safe in the lab and observe their bizarre life cycle for as long as possible. So who knows? Perhaps future generations of stem cell biologists will be studying the same creatures that are even now being investigated for new insights into stem cell medicines. All I know is that I want one. I mean, who wouldn’t want the one pet that wouldn’t get flushed down the toilet after a few months?

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Some rather peculiar designs

If mankind perished today and our remains were dug up by future archaeologists from another species there is one thing that would become apparent quite quickly; we love to build things. From houses to bridges, sky scrapers to motorways we tear up resources lying around us and hammer them into useful and beautiful feats of engineering all the time. Sometimes those things really are inspiring examples of what we can achieve (the Millau Viaduct is taller than most sky scrapers) others are slightly more wacky (see the Hitler house). I’ve encountered quite a lot of ideas of the years that have left me enthused, impressed, awed, disturbed, incredulous and overall gobsmacked! Here are a few that instill all of those things…

  • Alantropa

There’s not enough land so let’s build more!

In 1929 a German man by the name of Herman Sogel had a rather…interesting idea. He believed that the 20th century would see the rise of both the U.S and a Pan-Asian nation that would displace Europe to the third power block of the world (personally I think he was a little over half right, the U.S did rise and many Asian nations are becoming more and more prosperous). To combat this he wanted to turn Europe and Africa into one continent. Yup, you read that right. The continent would be named “Alantropa” and would be created by damming the Strait of Gibraltar, over the years the Mediterranean sea would evaporate lowering its level by 200 metres. The plan had many aims, according to Sogel it would take nearly a century for the project to be completed. Hundreds of thousands of workers would be needed to build the damn in under ten years with potentially millions more required to turn the growing land of the Mediterranean into fertile farmland and colonise it. Alantropa would be powered by the dam which would produce Gigawatts of energy from hydroelectricity. Sogel saw this plan as a way of ensuring co-operation and peace in Europe as well as providing economic and industrial growth (later versions of the plan involved draining some of the mediterranean into Africa to produce three great lakes to turn the desert into more fertile land).

Alas his plan isn’t without its flaws. Aside from the building logistics the dam would cause massive ecological damage to the mediteranian and whilst Sogel had peaceful intentions towards Europe he had less savory attitudes towards Africans who he saw as in the way of an Expanding Europe. Still the audacity of this plan brings a smile to my face.

Artists impression of Atlantropa (Source: Wikipedia user Ittiz)

  • Dubai City Tower

Those with a fear of heights need not apply

City or building?

Of a slightly less extreme nature but by no means less imaginary is the Dubai City Tower proposal. Over recent years Dubai has become a hotspot for extravagant buildings like this, this and this. However of all the future proposals DCT really stands out. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, stands at 800 metres (half a mile!). It is an extraordinary feat of engineering but the DCT would stand three times higher. The ‘tower’ would consist of multiple towers spiralling around each other before meeting hundreds of metres from the ground. With its extreme height the tower would not only have lifts but would have vertical trains that stopped every 100 floors. Each section of 100 floors would be a different “neighbourhood”. The plan isn’t just to build a tower but a vertical city. The DCT would be as self-sufficient as possible generating much of its own power from solar panels and wind farms attached to the outside of the towers, each neighbourhood would feature a sky atrium (domed garden) stretching between the spiralling towers to act as parks and focal areas for local businesses and communities. It’s still doubtful if this structure will ever be constructed and if it is it won’t be for decades. But this idea of arcologies (one building cities) has always intrigued me. The DCT will have everything in it; shops, homes, hospitals, schools, cinemas, hotels, offices….you name it and it will have it. Which intrigues me because of the simple odd fact that a person can be born, raised, work, marry, have kids and die all in the same building! Not that this is a desirable thing (it isn’t to me) it is merely extraordinary.

  • Space Elevator

Going up?

If you thought a mile and a half building was impressive how would you like to take a ride on a cable car….to space? The Space elevator is an old favourite of both science fiction and speculative engineering. The idea is pretty simple; at an altitude of 30,000 kilometres an object can be placed in orbit so that its orbital speed matches the rotation of the Earth. In other words an object in this ‘geostationary orbit’ would always hover over the same place on Earth. From a platform in this orbit a cable could be slowly lowered

One small step for man one giant cable for mankind

down and attached to the corresponding place on the ground, then ‘climbers’ can run up and down this cable literally taking an elevator ride to orbit. Of course in reality the project is not that simple! There is no cable material that we can use at the moment that has the strength needed however we have started to produce materials that may be future candidates. Carbon nanotubes are small tubes of carbon nanometres wide made from just one atom thick sheets of carbon. They are the strongest materials known to man and we’ve been researching better methods of making them for years, the only problem at the moment is we can make small fragments but not thousands of kilometres! How the climbers would attach and actually climb is another problem however there are competitions between universities over this kind of thing already. A space elevator is daunting but its biggest advantage is the cost cutting that it would give to the space industry, that is costs of putting something into geostationary orbit would shrink to 1% of today’s price. On a purely weight cost that would change the cost of putting an average man to geostationary orbit from £1,200,000 to £5,000! That’s a pretty good amount allowing the average person to save up to go to space, not to mention the boom that the company/country who owns the elevator would get from trade in the space industry.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these ideas, it’s things like this that still give me a passion for science (though my field focusses on the very small which is slightly less gobsmacking to see). If you’ve come across any crazy plans yourself feel free to let me know, I’m always keen to find the next thing that with that level of wow factor!

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Why don’t I live on the moon?

I’ve just watched a fascinating animation of the international space station being assembled. That got me thinking and next thing I knew I was hammering out a blog post.

The International Space Station, keeping man in orbit since October 2000

When I was young I always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was four I went on holiday to Florida and visited the space centre there, from then on I was hooked. I loved rockets and shuttles to the extent that even now if I see a rocket launch on TV I get glow of pride and awe that our species has managed to do this. In my pre-teen childhood I was quite into all the traditionally geeky space stuff like Star Trek and other shows which now if I ever see annoy the hell out of me for two reasons;

Firstly, any TV show that calls itself “science-fiction” typically takes a white-western conservative culture and bolts on shiny tech.

Secondly, flying off to other planets isn’t a dream that is going to be available to us any time soon.

Every now and then I meet someone who admits that they believe the moon landings were a hoax. My second response to this (my first being to try to beat them to death with their own internal organs) is to ask why they think this way. Aside from flag waving, shadows and reflections the only interesting question that is asked is “why haven’t we been back?” The last Apollo mission was nearly forty years ago and since then there hasn’t been any grandiose feats to rival those missions. We live in a world where technological development appears to progress almost exponentially. Moore’s law is a good example of this (transistor numbers on computer chips double every two years) and we see it in our daily lives. The laptop we bought that was state-of-the-art last week was barely second best when we got it home from the store and by now deserves a dusty shelf in some museum. Now I’m not suggesting that space science has not progressed in the last forty years but it’s important to note that in that time space science has not yet developed to the point where it can give us cheap space travel.

At the time of the space race NASA was costing the US 4% of the federal budget. Out of every dollar the US spent 4 cents went to NASA and with this they got to the moon. This is thing about manned space travel, its hideously expensive, it takes a significant cut of a very rich country’s budget and it gives no profit back. I’m not suggesting that we should only commit to projects that have economic benefit (far from it) but the fact is that any manned space travel project requires a fortune in surplus funds (Note: the US didn’t go to the moon because they had some spare change and a twinkle in their eye, they did it for competition and the potential dangers of having a USSR military dominance in orbit).

Space travel is inspiring, it’s romantic but above all its bloody expensive. But all is not lost to the warcries of “cuts”, “audit” and “profit”. As technologies progress and economies grow we may find ourselves again in the position where we have the capability and the will to strive out into space with manned travel. Mars has always been seen as the next step for human exploration but a Mars mission is a world more difficult than a lunar one. Once a ship leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere (which the moon is within) the intensity of radiation exposure from the sun massively increases. Even more of a problem is the fuel and engine technology it takes to get there, the probes we send to Mars take years and are only making a one way trip.

Will VASIMR rockets like this take us to Mars and beyond?

All current rockets use chemical fuel as a propellent, but this gives a very limited burn time before the fuel runs out. With an equal fuel:rocket ratio our current technologies can give only a few minutes of thrust (for more info see “specific impulse“). There are other technologies being used, some probes use ion thrusters which can burn for months but they give very very low thrust (0-60 in about four days). However all that may be soon to change, the next generation in rocket technology will soon be launching to the international space station. In 2014 a VASIMR rocket will be attached to the side of the station, this type of rocket promises to give high thrust with very long burn times (hours-days). It does this by heating its fuel until it turns into a superhot plasma that it then shoots out of the back of the engine with a magnetic field. If this engine passes testing and gains investment we could be seeing a wave of VASIMR craft capable of taking us back to the moon and across to Mars in just months of travel time rather than years. In addition to this there have been a sprinkling of other technologies proposed such as a plasma bubble generator that would protect the ship from radiation by making a strong magnetic shield to deflect it, and the always jaw-dropping proposal of building a tower to orbit.

Space science isn’t as attractive as it used to be, the middle generation grew up with the images of moonlandings and shuttle launches. We’ve got budget cuts and Justin Bieber. But this isn’t the end of man’s story in space, our science marches on and when conditions are favourable we’ll be able to invest in technologies that will get us back out there. I’d like to think that this lull we are in is just the first interval in a long epic play…and the second act is starting soon.

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YouTube channels of worthy note

Recently I’ve been quiet busy and haven’t had as much time to think about or write long and detailed blog posts, they tend to take a lot of energy. So in the mean time I’m going to point out some very good channels on YouTube dedicated to the debunking of pseudo-science and the promotion of science. Cutting to the chase;

Thunderf00t

Dedicated to Science and Education this channel was made famous for its “Why do people laugh at creationists” series. Over 30 videos are in this series (about ten minutes long each) and they really are great at explaining both how to recognise pseudo-science and educating on matters like the history of life and the Earth. Other stuff on the channel ranges from O.K to a bit irrelevant but I can’t recommend WDPLAC highly enough, I advise watching the first episode at least just to get a feel.

Potholer54

A long-time British journalist writing for private eye, the Sunday times and Newscientist magazine (amongst many). A brilliant and thorough series of climate science can be found on this channel complete with references to scientific publications (a thing to be quite valued in this age of cut-and-pasting of internet opinions). Check out his playlists to see the various works, his style and consistency is a very rare thing, there’s pretty much no myth surrounding climate change that hasn’t been addressed so if you’d like to learn more about this very pressing issue visit potholer54.

C0nc0rdance

Channels like this are part of what inspire me to blog, dedicated to debunking fringe ideas such as anti-vaccine, raw-food and germ theory denialists (to name but a few) this channel gives concise information with references to check for oneself. I’ve highlighted before that in the times we live in there are more accepted (even high-street) pseudo-sciences than ever before. It’s important to learn about things like this so we can make an informed decision about how to live our lives with or without these things. This channel addresses some of the most controversial issues of recent years such as the MMR vaccine and GM crops, it’s well worth a visit.

That’s all for now, I don’t want to go on and on listing videos or channels to watch. I hope you find these channels enlightening and interesting. They’ve educated me more than I can measure over the years on issues I would have never come in contact with or indeed never have thought count have existed (who would have thought there would be germ-denialists in 2011?). Enjoy.

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Living forever?

One of the more remarkable gifts our technological world is the increase in our life expectancy. Even but a century ago the average life expectancy of a British man was half of that of today, even in the last two decades it’s gone up by five years. This increase has a myriad of reasons; an abundance of food, water, law and order, an increase in hygiene and sanitation and finally massive advances in medical science.

Extending one’s life and capability through innovative means is part of what makes us human. This trend of increasing life expectancy is one that doesn’t seem to be slowing down, indeed as we develop our biosciences we are gaining a deeper understanding as to the mechanisms of ageing. This occurred to me as a topic to talk about when I saw an article on the BBC news website reporting on the state of anti-ageing science. The report highlighted a few issues that were vehemently discussed in the comments, to get to the issues I’ll go over a bit of the science behind ageing.

We don’t fully understand every mechanism that goes on whilst we age. There are many contributing factors that we have discovered though; the most often touted cause of ageing is the shortening of telomeres. These are stretches of DNA found at the end of chromosomes, every time a cell replicates a bit of these telomeres are cut off. Over time this leads to shortened telomeres and a more likely chance of DNA damage. Other contributing factors include protein build up inside and outside of cells, DNA mutation and cellular replacement (many cell types die faster than they can be replaced, this is more apparent in the elderly). Designing therapies to counter all of these (and any undiscovered causes) would lead to a stabilisation and even reversal of the ageing process.

Chromosomes with telomeres highlighted in red

This is all interesting science but it has far reaching consequences for our society and people have a lot of different ideas about the ethics of life extension. Let’s imagine that effective treatments for all the causes of ageing are produced, in this scenario a regime of drugs is introduced to the public that when taken every day reverse your age to a physically fit, healthy 25 year old body and keep it that way. I’ve heard many arguments for why this is apparently a bad thing. A common argument is that we should not “play god” or “mess with the natural order”. The argument states that death is natural and any attempt to prevent death from old age is morally wrong. Whenever I am faced with this argument I simply ask the person if they take medicine, drive cars or use the internet. If the answer is yes then the argument for being unnatural seems pretty thin. Furthermore nobody has ever died from old age; people die from age related disease. Getting old is simply a slow wearing out until finally something vital fails. In curing old age diseases we ramp up the life expectancy. Are these people really going to advocate not researching medicines for these diseases? Are they going to tell elderly patients “we don’t have medicine for your kind. It’s natural! Accept it”?

Another popular argument is that of overpopulation. Proponents state that if we do not allow people to die the world will be overfull. I’m always sceptical of this claim; firstly it assumes that we cannot support this amount of people. In the year 1800 we could not have supported the 6 billion people we have today because it took over 200 years of technological development for us to be able to support us. The claim that there will be too many people assumes that this progression will not continue. Secondly the claim assumes that we will still give birth to as many people as we do today. Add to that the fascinating discovery made over the last century that if you give women rights, education and prospects they (shock horror) don’t want to spend their lives spitting out children like high-throughput human factories! The birth rate in countries with equal rights for women shrinks enormously. Couple this with the decreasing need to have so many children (you don’t need to have 12 in the hope 6 will survive to adulthood to take care of you) and we get a scenario of 1 or less children per adult.

For me life extension always makes me wonder; I am 21 years old; once I’ve lived that many years again I hope to have had kids, be married and have a good career. At that age I can expect that once I’ve lived that many years again I will probably be dead or close to it. But that is on the basis that near 80 is the age I will kick the bucket. If the regime of drugs we have supposed comes to pass and my life expectancy jumps from 80 to several hundred years I doubt my principles will stay the same. Why have kids at any age before 100? Why not spend a few centuries learning, travelling and establishing a good life before tying myself down with other humans to raise?

Personally I would work for decades then take a sabbatical (instead of retirement) and spend a few decades travelling, studying and generally being on holiday. I’m interested to know what you all think. Do you think age-stabilising drugs would be a good thing? What would you do if your life expectancy jumped by orders of magnitude? How do you think society would change? Ultimately these issues are nothing new, but as science marches on our life expectancy is shrinking over the horizon. So who knows? Perhaps one of you will be mulling over this blog on your 200th birthday…

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A comprehensive debunking of Homeopathy

I’ve stated it before on this blog but these days we are surrounded by people peddling “alternative medicines” and the like in an attempt to gain funding for what ultimately, has either not been proved to work or proved not to work. One of the biggest perpetrators of this is homeopathy also called homeopathic medicine. Homeopathy was concocted by Samuel Hahnmann a little over two hundred years ago. He disliked the philosophies of the then current medicine and instead attempted to develop a field of medicine based on the principle of “like-cures-like”. Hahnmann believed that if something was to cause a set of symptoms in one amount then in a much lower amount it would surely cure the same symptoms, specifically if that substance was massively diluted in water and repeatedly shook it would release its ‘healing energy’ into the mixture which is then called a remedy. He went on to test many different substances by getting people to take them and record every symptom they then suffered. This practice is called “homeopathic proving” and the records of the symptoms from each substance are then stored in books known as “repertoires”. Using all of this the practice of homeopathy goes a little like this…

Patient: I have aches in my feet, a swollen neck and am feeling nauseous.

Homeopath: let me consult my repertoire……Ah I see, a teaspoon of X causes those symptoms. Ill prepare a remedy of diluted X and you will be better before you know it.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that homeopathy does not work as a medicine. Aside from the notion of like-cures-like not having any basis in anything other than wishful thinking the dilutions that homeopaths use ought to demonstrate to anyone that this is at best, an outrageous scam and at worse, a dangerous idea. (As a side note like-cures-like does not apply to vaccination which relies on the exposure of antigens to the immune system. I’m not going to go into immunology right now because it is a huge field but if you are interested wikipedia, contrary to popular belief, is quite a good start). To accurately describe how diluted homeopathic ‘remedies’ are I’m going to have to go over a little bit of chemistry…

All matter is formed of atoms; these atoms can bind together in groups to form molecules. Due to the different masses of different elements (for example; a single oxygen atom masses more than a carbon atom) if we have a gram of one element and a gram of another they will not have the same amount of atoms in them. This is a bit like having a tonne of bowling balls and a tonne of tennis balls; bowling balls are bigger and weigh more so there will be less of them, tennis balls are smaller and weigh less so we need far more than bowling balls to make up a tonne.

If we want to have a sample with one atom of substance A for every one atom of substance B we have to do a bit of working out. There’s a useful unit in chemistry known as a mole (not to be confused with a mole), one mole is roughly 6 billion trillion molecules or atoms (depending if the fundamental unit of the substance is a molecule [e.g. water] or an atom [e.g. iron]). To know how many grams of a substance you need to make one mole you need to find out its atomic weight, simply looking at a periodic table will tell you this (I’m not going to get into how we weigh atoms!). The atomic weight of oxygen and carbon are 16 and 12 respectively, therefore 16 grams of oxygen has the same number of atoms as 12 grams of carbon.

So how does this little chemistry lesson apply to homeopathy? I’m going to go through step by step how to make a homeopathic remedy of salt. The first thing a homeopath does is make a 1 in 10 dilution (homeopaths call this a “1X”); salt is made from the molecule NaCl (a molecule of one sodium and one chloride atom). One mole of NaCl is 58 grams; one mole of water (H2O) is 18 grams. To make a 1 in 10 dilution where we have one NaCl molecule to one H2O molecule we can put 5.8 grams of salt into 18 grams of water. Shake the sample to make sure it’s evenly mixed and voila! Now we have a 1X solution.

Ten molecules of H2O with one molecule of NaCl, in homeopathy this is known as 1x

The next step is to do the same thing again, diluting one part of this solution into ten parts water. Now for every NaCl molecule there are 100 molecules of H2O and it doesn’t stop there. Homeopaths repeat this shaking and 1 in 10 diluting dozens of times. Remember the number of molecules in a mole? It’s 6 billion trillion (or 6×1023), at the beginning when we had an equal amount of salt to water we had this many NaCl molecules, with every dilution we’ve got 10x less so after twenty-three dilutions there will likely now only be six NaCl molecules in the entire solution. Beyond this limit of only there are only two options; the first is that every time a sample of the solution is taken to dilute in more water some of these six molecules goes with it. This would mean that the 24th dilution was not dilute 10x more than the 23rd. Secondly (and far more likely) these six molecules wont be picked up and all that will be transferred is water, in that case the sample is no longer a dilution but a pure solution of water. From then on any more 1 in 10 mixing is not diluting but merely mixing water on its own. Unfortunately the story gets worse…

Most people could probably see that half a dozen molecules of something is not going to have a great effect on your body but twenty-three dilutions only creates what’s called a 12C remedy. Apparently this isn’t good enough and this solution is then diluted further, the problem with this is that if the solution only has one molecule of a substance in it then diluting it a further ten times in water means that to maintain just one molecule you need ten times more water. After twenty-three dilutions the sample will contain only water but homeopaths advocate remedies to be diluted sixty times! This is called a 60x solution. It’s difficult to understand just how dilute this would be if it still contained just one NaCl molecule;

Globes, teams, groups and companies

The Earth is nearly 8000 miles wide. Imagine a globe the size of the Earth but made entirely of water, that’s 1 billion trillion litres of water. Now make that globe a member of a team containing 100 globes. Make that team a member of a group containing 100 teams. Make that group a member of a company containing 100 groups. Make that company a member of a cohort containing 100 companies. Finally make that cohort a member of a system containing 100 cohorts. In one system there are 10 billion globes. Add to that just one molecule of NaCl and that’s how dilute a 60x salt solution is.

At his point it should be obvious that homeopathic remedies are just water and aren’t worth the tap they came out of. But homeopaths in light of this evidence still stick to their guns. When homeopathy was being concocted by Hahnmann it was not known if matter was made of fundamental units or if it could be divided infinitely. Since the discovery of atoms we have known that this is untrue and this leads to preposterous scenarios needed in the dilutions as mentioned above. But homeopaths today try to get round this by arguing that water has memory. Yes they claim that pure water when mixed with a substance and shook repeatedly remembers what was in it and takes on the properties of this substance, purportedly by forming a network of water molecules around the substance to mimic it. But this last attempt at saving their ideology is by far the easiest to prove wrong. To start with if water has memory that doesn’t bode to well for our recycling of toilet water into drinking water (hence the expression “homeopathy is full of shit”), secondly this would mean that the water’s healing properties are due to it replicating the effect of the substance in it. If this were true it would violate the idea that a dilution is stronger because instead of having just the substance in water the entire water now acts as the substance! Lastly the time in which water molecules change places and orientation to form new networks is on the order of picoseconds (meaning it happens nearly a trillion times per second), far too short a time for any memory.

Water memory theory applied to an antibody

In spite of having no evidence for like-cures-like, remedies so far diluted they are just water and no evidence for claims of a memory system in water homeopathy is still a huge and active movement in the western world. The matter is only complicated by figures such as Prince Charles (a man with no scientific or medical credentials) stating that homeopathy should be considered. Homeopathy should be considered as much as any unproven or disproven field in medicine, it is not fair if homeopathy get’s to sidestep the stringent drug testing that any proper medicine must undergo purely on the basis of people’s choice or popular figures ideas. The issue is far worse though, a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed that the NHS is spending money on homeopathic treatments. Worryingly there is no exact data on how much is being spent and on what, however it is estimated that homeopathic remedies cost the NHS over £150,000 a year (outrageous when A, it’s water from a tap and B, in an earlier post I talked about how some people feel £100,000 a year for Paul Mason was not deserved) and the cost of running the four homeopathic NHS hospitals we have in the UK is quoted as being near £12 million.

The only shred of justification modern homeopathy has is that it can act as a placebo. A placebo is a substance administered to a patient that does nothing biochemically relevant to their condition but due to the patient believing they have taken medicine they show improvement. The placebo effect is controversial as it may only work by making the patient less aware of their discomfort whilst their body heals naturally, it cannot heal beyond what the body can heal unassisted anyway and there is an ethical dilemma in lying to a patient about their treatment. But if homeopathic remedies are an effective placebo then there is no reason why they could not just be replaced, very easily, very cheaply by a nice, refreshing bottle of evian.

I hope this post has enlightened you a little on what exactly homeopathy is and how it claims to work. I hope I have stimulated a curiosity to learn about these things and how we can know if something has evidence or not. In the modern world the veracity of any medicine (and indeed any science) is only confirmed through repeated, demonstrable experiments by different parties. The data from these experiments can then be published (providing the research was logically and methodologically sound) for other scientists to examine, repeat and have their results also published. Through this long meticulous process we can ascertain what works and what does not. Now more than ever we can ill afford to allow untested, unproven medicines and sciences to gain funding at the expense of that that has fairly passed the best tests known to man.

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How to spot the cuckoos of science

The cuckoo is infamous for two things; regularly jumping out of clocks and laying its eggs in other bird’s nests. These cuckoo chicks when born sometimes even try to push the other eggs out of the nest before stealing the attention and food of the mother. This situation isn’t a unique one in either nature or our society, there are limited resources in this world and in this time of economic recovery and budget cuts there’s even less to go around. Ensuring that the right people get the allocation they need is vital however our society is plagued with pseudo-science, everywhere we look we can see adverts and advocates claiming ‘scientific’ proof for whatever it is they’re selling. This is done to add some cloak of authority to whatever is being said and it’s a dangerous abuse of trust that leads people to distrust real science. So how do we sort the snake-oil salesmen from the pharmacist, the nutritionist from the dietitian? In short, how can we detect the cuckoos of science?

Without a background in the field it is difficult for anybody to tell if what they are hearing is correct. This is true for all of us; everybody is ignorant of far more than they know. But you don’t have to run off and get a PhD in a subject to determine the truth. There are some tell tale arguments that people use when pretending something is science.

  • You can’t prove me wrong!

Frequently proponents of ideas such as intelligent design cite the fact that they have not been proved wrong as some sort of evidence for their ideas veracity. In arguments on the subject the supporters will often make statements along the lines of “well you can’t prove it’s not true so I’m going to keep believing it”. This is flawed logic. If we assumed that things were true until we proved them wrong we would have to believe in far more than we disbelieved. You can’t prove me wrong that there are invisible, intangible pixies whispering in my ear that if I don’t jump 100 times a day they will pull my pants down in public so I should do it right? Of course not! That’s not to say that we disbelieve everything until its proven correct either, if there is no evidence for or against something then it is an unknown. Something is unknown until there is evidence for it (or evidence to show it is not possible). Remember this, if somebody is claiming to know something that is unknown or unknowable then their claim has no evidence, as such it is not science.

  • It’s been around for ages.

This argument I’ve always found particularly odd. People often claim that the older something is the more valid it must be. There is perhaps a grain of truth to this if a method is old then it must work to some respect for it to be used for all that time, but that doesn’t mean that a better and newer method doesn’t exist. Often with this people claim “science changes its mind all the time”. No, science adjusts its views based on what’s observed and progresses. If a text book is different to a text book from four years ago it’s a good thing, the latest will be more up to date and have more accurate information. Ideas such as herbal medicine and fundamentalist religion often tout how long their practices have been about as if that were evidence for their truth. Be particularly wary of this when it comes to medicine, when people claim that such-and-such medicine has been used to great effect for thousands of years ask them why it is that it is not used in real medicine. The answer may be something along the lines of “big pharma just want to make money and so make synthetic poisons”. If you ever hear any conspiracy crap like that just walk away, anything that works as a medicine is investigated thoroughly over years of intensive study. If it works it’s called “medicine”, if it doesn’t it’s called “not medicine”. There is no such thing as “alternative medicine”.

  • It’s 100% natural.

Alternative medicines and fashionable diets are particular perpetrators of this statement. There is an idea that if something is natural it is better and if something is manmade or synthetic then it must be poison. This fails to take into account that most medicines are natural! Whether a chemical is synthesised by a plant as a byproduct of its biology or in a lab with beakers and test tubes as long as it is the same chemical it will do the same thing. The advantage of synthesising medicines in the lab is that you get just the medicine you need. A prime example is aspirin, derived from willow bark it is an effective analgesic. Eating the willow bark by itself is likely to cause you to throw up. If you’re still not entirely convinced just ask yourself this; if natural, unprocessed material straight from Mother Earth was all we needed then why do we have so much disease? Why weren’t hunter gather societies healthier than those of today?

There are many other signs to look for that I will probably go into more in later posts. Key things that I look for are the credentials of the proponent of an idea (remember not everyone who calls themselves a doctor ever got an MD or PhD) and their agenda (are they pushing religion? A product they are selling?). It is important for us all to remain vigilant towards those who would deceive us to either get our money or take funding from worthwhile causes. Beyond the economy is it really good for our health if we let medicine that is unproven or proven not to work into our health service? Or that we teach religious views on the origin of our species over what we have evidence for?

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