Monday, October 13, 2008

Did a meta-analysis published in the Lancet really vindicate homeopathy?

The audacity of con artists knows few limits. In response to my recent Epinions beat-up of Oscillococcinum, a "homeopathic" sugar pill made and marketed by French quack cure behemoth Boiron, Inc., a representative of the company, one Alissa Gould, posted fifteen studies which supposedly prove the efficiacy of homeopathy or Oscillococcinum. Some of these studies were merely low quality garbage published in faux journals set up to promote quackery (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine", British Homeopathy Journal), others were inconclusive and more than one actually supported the opposite of what Ms Gould claims.

The one that caught my attention was a 2005 study by Shang et al, "Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy", Lancet 366, and not only because I was shocked that the editors at such a prestigious journal let the use of "allopathy" as a synonym for mainstream medicine make it to press. (Whether "allopathy" was ever practiced is questionable, but it is clear that modern medicine is not based on some tawdry "cure disease with its opposite" maxim.)

Shang and co-authors compared 110 placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy and 110 matched trials of evidence-based medicine, finding a trend toward bias in small trials of both, but significant evidence from the large trials that conventional medicine has specific effects, whereas homeopathy is similar to placebo. The paper is a bit difficult to read--I can't think of another field in which those "funnel plots" are used--but worthwhile not only for its frank assessment of homeopathy but also as an exemplar of method.

Take-home lesson?: Beware Boiron employees pushing studies: they don't limit their hucksterism to the sugar-pill trade.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Double-Bind of the Incompetent

As Bertrand Russell once put it, the trouble is that "the stupid are cocksure."

We've all encountered them: people who think a talk argument they just made up, be it regarding quantum mechanics, the origin of life, climatology, or (to pull an example from my e-mail box), numerological connections in cosmology, trumps the intellectual "heavy lifting" and rigor of scientists building on the work of previous scientists.

It strikes us as hubris, or even dishonesty. As scientists we see this behavior not merely as being incorrect but as a manifestation of a moral failing. Perhaps that is so and perhaps it is not; regardless, a study by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows this lack of insight to be universal among the incompetent.

Kruger and Dunning had student volunteers (given extra credit) take the logic portion of the LSAT, a grammar exam, and a "test" in which their rating of the quality of jokes was compared to that given by professionals, and also rate their performance on each. On all three, the low performers assessed their own performance as being above average. Top quartile performers underestimated their own ability, but they revised their assessment after grading five others' grammar exams. The bottom performers gained no insight from grading their peers' exams; they were unable to recognize better work when they saw it!

It may be "old news"--the paper dates to 1999--but it is particularly rich, with more insights than I've summarized here. Among other things, it provides some insight into the obstinacy of the armchair global warming denialist, HIV/AIDS denialist, or quantum-mechanics contrarian. Not only are they ill informed, but they are unable to recognize expertise. Read the full article (which may be behind a pay wall) for more.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"We have foregrounded the redistributional dreams of "social justice" over heroic aspirations to discover, invent, and thereby create new wealth..."

Peter Wood, of the National Association of Scholars, has a brilliant essay in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education connecting American high culture's obsession with identity and diversity to the drought of native-born scientists and engineers.

The science "problems" we now ask students to think about aren't really science problems at all...a society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn't a society that takes science education seriously.

This is bound to anger precisely those who deserve it. A defense of merit, achievement, and a call for culture to respect merit and achievement is long overdue.

Monday, August 4, 2008

What's happening to Bangladesh?

Hearing climate contrarians called "skeptics" is, to my ears, like nails on a chalkboard. Not only is there a tendency to fumble about looking for evidence or any argument, good or bad, in support of a predetermined conclusion--the opposite of a skeptic's behavior--but when it comes to evidence supposedly in favor of their position, they more often than not act more like simpletons.

Consider the latest fad in the denialosphere, a pop report on land accretion in Bangladesh. (Of course, the buzz is not about a scientific paper. Denialists don't usually read those, and tend to kick and scream when one insists they must!) It has been widely predicted that sea-level rise will inundate low-lying areas of Bangladesh, but, currently, sedimentation is adding 20 km^2 to the country, annually.

To hear it from Paul Biggs on Jennifer Marohasy's 'blog or CLS at Classically Liberal, this is proof that sea-level rise will not inundate Bangladesh at all, that the IPCC and unnamed predictors of "catastrophists" are wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is nonsense, and it's so patently nonsense that one wonders if Biggs and CLS have any shame at all. Sedimentation and sea-level rise are competing effects: that one and not the other currently determines the sign of land-mass growth doesn't mean that it will always determine that sign. Let's take Paul Biggs' number as gospel for a second, that the IPCC predicts that 17% of Bangladesh will be under water by 2050. (What the IPCC predicts--and what it means for the IPCC as opposed to an individual group's paper to predict anything--is, of course, more complicated than this.) Bangladesh has an area equal to 134,000 km^2 according to the CIA World Factbook 17% of this is 22,780 km^2, far more than 20 km^2/year times 42 years, or even the Yahoo report's sanguine 5000 km^2 of "reclaimed" land.

Comparing percentages is not, of course, the way to go about this problem; one needs a model of land accretion during a time of sea level rise. Neither Mahfuzur Rahman nor Maminul Haque Sarker, the scientists/engineers cited in the Yahoo article, are working is not working with one, and neither are the denialists. At worst, I'm being no more flimsy than the wannabe "skeptics"; the comparison is good for a rough estimate and I have better things to do with my time than change field of study.

What's incontrovertible is that Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of rising sea levels, mainly through saltwater pollution of soils an aquafiers. See the IPCC AR4 WGII report for discussion and references. (I'd put 5-1 odds on the denialists not looking at the IPCC report at all!)

But maybe I'm wasting my time even without changing field of study. CLS talks of a "Church of Saint Al" as though the tail is wagging the dog and climate scientists are taking marching orders from a mere popularizer. And he gives hints that, like Ronald Bailey prior to his Road to Damascus moment, he's choosing a position on a scientific question based on what he wishes public policy to be, a dishonest practice. To quote:

Well that technology costs money and that means an improved economy and that means more carbon emissions so that can’t be allowed.

Yep, it's the usual Bircher-esque paranoia, the party line from glibertarians who talk a lot about free markets but lack the imagination to put such markets to use: Improved economies mean more carbon emissions, economic growth can't be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative or happen in a cap-and-trade framework. You can either have economic growth or you can stop fouling the nest. Want prosperity? Then take unlimited global warming and ocean acidification.

Now there's a teenage pinko's dream argument! "Capitalism and economic growth can only survive by fouling the nest."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A serious deficiency in the introductory physics syllabus

With one lecture left in my non-calculus "College Physics" summer class, I gave the students a choice of covering oscillatory motion and sound or free energy with two applications to biological physics. The vote was unanimously for the latter.

To my surprise, their textbook (the latest edition of Sears and Zemansky's College Physics by Young and Geller) has no mention of free energy, nor do the six other introductory physics textbooks (calculus-based or not) on my office shelf.

A "water cooler poll" shows that nobody teaches about free energy in their introductory class. One grad student said he didn't see the topic at all as an undergrad! We teach students the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but not any of its practical consequences. Stock homework problems consist of ridiculous irrelevancies such as computing entropy produced by a falling parachutist.

Free energy is perhaps the most useful idea we could teach life-science majors, and it provides a foundation for understanding chemical kinetics and entropic forces such as osmotic pressure, polymer elasticity, and the hydrophobic effect. Most of them hear it as a term in their general chemistry class, and even use it to predict the direction of chemical reactions, but they'd have to take physical chemistry to really begin to understand it.

Could someone please explain to me why it's so universally absent from the syllabus as to be excluded from textbooks?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Toward market control of agricultural runoff.

"Way back in the day", when I was still seemingly suffering from or perhaps just getting over the loutish aversion to environmentalism that free-marketeers catch like the flu, I remarked on Dani Wenner's long-defunct (revived thanks to about the inability to rein in the Gulf of Mexico's Dead Zone through traditional means like emissions bans or the tort process, noting that perhaps some market-based solution could be brought to bear.

I lost sight of the issue between then and now, until the Nature Conservancy's newsletter brought it back to my attention. That ever-innovative group, having concluded a paired-watershed study exploring different means to buffer waterways, has begun a pilot program which may be a major step toward the institution of markets in wetlands' ecological services. To quote:

Faced with spiraling land-acquisition costs, the Conservancy is exploring how environmentally friendlier practices might be woven into existing farming operations. On the Mackinaw River, a tributary of the Illinois River, the Conservancy is carrying out a pilot program to test the feasibility of “nutrient farming.” Conservancy staff have built micro-wetlands at the ends of farm fields to catch nutrient-laden water before it reaches the river (in the wetlands, many nutrients are either taken up by plants or metabolized by bacteria and then released into the air).

Nutrient farming could form the basis of a market modeled after an existing cap-and-trade system that has helped curb emissions of the pollutants that cause acid rain. Farmers could be paid for nitrogen and phosphorus they take out of the water with micro-wetlands, reducing the overall nutrient load flowing to the Gulf of Mexico.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ben Stein gets an F.

It is a behavior we see rather often, usually in the context of the faux "debate" over anthropogenic global warming, and we ought start condemning it loudly until it is universally considered shameful: people who refuse to learn even the basics of a scientific theory not only feel entitled to have an opinion on it (as if that isn't bad enough!) but also to express that opinion publicly as though it is of equal merit, and to slander, implicitly or explicitly, the experts.

Ben Stein and his writing and production team didn't bother to learn what every high-school graduate should know about the modern theory of evolution, rendering an already poorly-produced film not only wrong, but bad. My review of their film Expelled is now (belatedly) posted on

Thursday, May 29, 2008

More insight on the Mentos eruption

The June issue of the American Journal of Physics (the AAPT's flagship publication) contains a report by Tonya Shea Coffey of Appalachian State University on an undergraduate class project concerning one of the Youtube-era Internet's favorite kids' pranks: the Mentos eruption.

Fruit Mentos and Mint Mentos were found to cause nearly equal emptyings of Coke bottles. Playground sand, among other things, was an adequate substitute. Diet Coke and Coca-Cola were nearly equally emptied by the Mint Mentos. Differences between Diet Coke and Caffeine Free Diet Coke were not clearly statistically significant.

The Diet Coke-Fruit Mentos combination, however, produced the longest jet, followed by the classic Caffeine Free Diet Coke-Mint Mentos pairing. Further investigation by Coffey and her students showed from photographic evidence that aspartame reduces the work needed to form a critical bubble compared to plain seltzer water and that less work is needed to form a bubble in Diet Coke than in plain Coca-Cola. SEM study found that Fruit Mentos and Mint Mentos are nearly equally rough. Moreover, unlike a wax coating previously applied by the "Mythbusters", Fruit Mentos' coating dissolves rapidly in soda water. The researchers speculate about Mentos having a surfactant component but take no measurements.

Fairly useless research, yes, but it gets students thinking about questions more subtle than those found in introductory textbooks, provides a means of introduction to surface science intersting to the common eighteen-year-old, and it's more practical than quite a bit of what ends up getting funded by DARPA.

HT: Chronicle of Higher Education

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Porter Hypothesis now on sound footing, but does it apply to our world?

As a physical scientist, I take a very negative view of the "talk arguments" still common in economics. Qualitative explanation is nice, but one cannot prove or argue anything with mere qualitative work. There is no qualitative scientific methodology.

Michael Porter put forth a few years ago an idea with great appeal: under some circumstances, strict environmental regulations can be a win-win situation, both reining in the negative externality and inducing firms to eliminate waste and innovate, simultaneously increasing profits and R&D spending.

More recent work by Stefan Ambec and Philippe Barla puts this onto more solid footing. Note that the result is parameter-dependent. One would have to be a slob to say that the Porter Hypothesis (which really should now be called the Ambec-Barla Theorem) implies that there is no such thing as a bad environmental regulation.

In a recent review, Ambec and Barla appraise the empirical evidence, and find that, while case studies can be found on either side, most of the time there are no Porter effects. Whether this is an artifact of the existence of pollution havens is one of many open questions.

Win-win environmental regulations remain a tantalizing possibility but not an everyday reality. Perhaps we'll never be able to "have our cake and eat it too". Science, including economics, should inform our policy decisions to the greatest reasonable extent, but problems such as this make it clear that we'll always be caught with value judgements and shades of grey.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why would-be climate skeptics are treated poorly by scientists.

Consider the following: You or your colleagues put more time and effort than nonscientists can usually understand into bettering our understanding of nature, present your work at conferences before the world's most genuinely skeptical audiences, write it into papers, revise papers to satisfy editors, and begin the cycle anew.

A journalist, an ideologue, or an "eminent historian" comes along, decides he'd rather your result be false, and writes, to the general public, without filtering his thoughts through the baloney check called "peer review", that you don't know what you're talking about. His justification: two minutes' work finding a question he can't answer for himself due to his own ignorance. A variation on the classic "argument from incredulity": I don't know, therefore the experts don't know, either.

What, specifically, am I talking about? Take for instance "respected", "eminent", etc. historian Don Aitken , being interviewed in The Australian:

He says an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide over the past century is agreed, some of it due to fossil fuels, cement-making and agriculture. However, normal production of CO2 is not known, and it makes up only a tiny part of the atmosphere. "How does a small increase in a very small component have such a large apparent effect? The truth is that no one has yet shown that itdoes."

The truth is that the Greenhouse Effect has been understood for decades, and is noncontroversial.

Forget being polite and gentle with the lay public. I'm going to stick my head out the window and yell like Howard Beale the anchorman in Network advised. I'm mad as hell. If you are too lazy to learn the basics, you have no business having an opinion on a scientific matter, let alone expressing it publicly.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Willis Lamb, RIP

Willis Lamb, a major contributor to atomic physics and laser theory and recipient, (split with Polykarp Kusch), of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Physics for measurements of hydrogen fine structure (including his eponymous shift) died today from complications of a gallbladder disorder. He was ninety-four years old.

Lamb's career arc is quite interesting. He performed his PhD work under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer performing neutron scattering experiments to probe the electrical properties of the atomic nucleus. He went on to become a pioneer of microwave spectroscopy; his measurements (largely in collaboration with Robert Retherford) of the electronic fine structure of hydrogen provided an early test for quantum electrodynamics.

Note the short length, relaxed language, and fast turnaround at Physical Review sixty years ago. Some things have not changed for the better!

Later in his career he shifted somewhat to being a theorist, becoming a major contributor to the theory of lasers, including the now ubiquitous ring laser gyroscope. In his many later years he also became in many ways the official curmudgeon of quantum optics and the University of Arizona's Optical Sciences Center, infamously offering "licenses" for use of the term "photon". Most of his theoretical work was done in a semiclassical formalism; some of it would almost seem to imply that he was never quite comfortable with quantization of the light field and sought to avoid it if possible, but his 1994 essay in Applied Physics B, "Anti-Photon", is right on the money and worthwhile reading for anyone interested in fundamental physics. "Photon" is not a synonym for "light" or "radiation", the electromagnetic field cannot be considered to be like bowling balls or an atom beam, and one certainly should not be able to claim with a straight face, especially after even a few hours studying quantum optics, that lasers "produce vast numbers of particles of exactly the same energy and wavelength."

Lamb is survived by his wife Elsie, his brother Perry, and many former students and collaborators. An official obituary can be found on the University of Arizona website.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Connections in physics, 21st-century style

Spectators of science often miss what working scientists consider "cool", instead being dazzled by counterintuitive results and "gee, they can really do that?"

To physicists, finding relations between quantities previously seen as independent--the canonical example being the relationship between coupling constants and particle masses--being thus able to indirectly measure things of interest, is one of the joys of the field. "Connections in physics"--finding that different phenomena are governed by similar laws--is yet another.

In March's Physical Review E, Northwestern University biophysical theorists Houyin Zhang and John Marko derive analogues of the Maxwell relations familiar to science undergraduates, allowing experimenters to (among other things) find the number of proteins bound to a nucleic acid molecule from force-extension measurements, without a microphysical model for the mechanism of binding.

From the point of view of someone who works daily with optical tweezers: very cool.