Category: Science

January Temperatures

As usual, here are last months satellite temperature anomalies – not because they are best data set for this stuff but because they are the one that engenders the fewest pointless arguments.

UAH_LT_1979_thru_January_2018_v6wline

The green line is my addition, otherwise this graph is from here http://www.drroyspencer.com/2018/02/uah-global-temperature-update-for-january-2018-0-26-deg-c/

As per the last goodness knows how long, the moral is – natural cycles exist but they don’t explain global warming. Things have cooled after EL Niño peaks but the ‘cool’ of 2018 resembles the ‘hot’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. Why, it’s almost as if things have got  systemically hotter over the decades.

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Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.

 

You say ‘a-loomin-um’, I say ‘al-you-min-ee-um’, we both say ‘bunkum’

I resolved to not bother talking about Vox Day for awhile but circumstances compel me. The synergies of nonsense bind extreme nationalism, Trumpism, misogyny, creationism and antivaxxerism. It is always remarkable to see what apparently scientific studies the Alt-Right will quote as if gospel and which they will turn their selective scepticism too.

To wit: https://web.archive.org/web/20171202043719/http://voxday.blogspot.com.au/2017/11/a-new-meaning-to-metalhead.html

What is all this about? It is the old and thoroughly debunked canard that vaccines cause autism. The idea is rooted in two coincidences: an increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with autism (primarily due to better clinical descriptions of autism spectrum and increased awareness among doctors and the public) and the timing of when autisim symptoms are often identified at an age close to when early childhood vaccinations occur. Campaigners against vaccinations have been looking for a more substantial way of linking the two and one generic culprit has been ‘toxins’ in vaccines – i.e. various additives used in the manufacture of vaccines. For a long time the supposed guilty party was mercury, particularly in the form of thiomersal – a preservative used in some vaccines. However, studies linking the two were famously debunked and many vaccines didn’t use thiomersal or other mercury compounds anyway.

Of later the antivaxxers have been pointing their fingers at a different metal: aluminium – which is just like the metal aluminum but more British. ‘Aluminium adjuvants’  are an additive to vaccine that use aluminium. Adjuvants are any substances added to vaccines whose role is to provoke an immune response (see here for a better explanation https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/adjuvants.html ). Tiny amounts of aluminium are added intentionally because the body’s immune system will react to the aluminium and it is that principle (which is central to the whole idea of vaccines) that has vaccination critics concerned.

Back to the study quoted. Vox Day is quoting from The Daily Mail:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5133049/Aluminium-vaccines-cause-autism.html

BUT….the Mail article is little more than a cut and paste from here:

https://www.hippocraticpost.com/infection-disease/aluminium-and-autism/

Which is an article by a “Chris Exley” who mainly writes alarming articles about the terrible things aluminium might do to you. Exley  is quoting a study from Keele University which is available here:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0946672X17308763

And that study was conducted by three people including…Professor Chris Exley. Who, conincidentally enough is on the editorial board of the journal the study is published in:

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-trace-elements-in-medicine-and-biology/editorial-board

It is a long chain and yet oddly this is a rare case where the populist half-baked version of the study is alomost directly from the scientist involved.

Now I don’t know much about Professor Exley’s field, so I can’t really comment on the validity of the methods used. The study involved detecting aluminium in a very small number of samples of brain tissue from dead people who at some point in their lives had been disagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There’s not much in the way of comparisons in the paper and I get the (perhaps mistaken) impression that the method is relatively new. The paper correctly concedes that “A limitation of our study is the small number of cases that were available to study and the limited availability of tissue.”

But take a critical look at the next step in the reasoning. Exley hedges what he says but Vox follows the dog whistle:

“So, the obvious question this raises is: how did so much aluminum get into the brain tissue in the first place? And the obvious answer is: from being injected with vaccines containing aluminum.” (Vox Day)

Of course a moments thought reveals that cannot be the answer. Most people do not have a diagnosed Austism Spectrum Disorder but most people are vaccinated. For Exley’s hypothesis to be correct there would need to be some additional factor, which Exley does describe in his media article:

“Perhaps there is something within the genetic make-up of specific individuals which predisposes them to accumulate and retain aluminium in their brain, as is similarly suggested for individuals with genetically passed-on Alzheimer’s disease.”

Well perhaps there is but Exley’s study doesn’t show that. More to the point, if this IS true then vaccines and aluminium adjuvants are irrelevant – we are encounter far more aluminium in our diets than we do from the tiny amounts we might get from vaccinations. Exley has zero reason to point at vaccines, indeed his speculation would imply that vaccines CANNOT be the main reason for larger amounts of aluminium in his samples because neccesarily bigger sources are more likely.

Exley appears to be trying to join two different healthscare bandwagons together: general concerns about aluminium in stuff (see his other posts) and antivaxxerism.

Is the study itself flawed? As I said, I don’t know but the connection the paper makes to vaccines has zero substance and no evidence from the study itself. That in itself should have raised red flags with reviewers.

In the past, I’d have gone to Science Blogs for some extra background on something like this but that venerable home of blogs has been wound down.

Luckily ‘Orac’ of Respectful Insolence has set up their own blog here https://respectfulinsolence.com/ and has a deep dive into Exley’s paper here:

https://respectfulinsolence.com/2017/11/29/christopher-exley-using-bad-science-to-demonize-aluminum-adjuvants-in-vaccines/

Yup, it is as dodgy as somebody dodging things in a dodgy dodge. Orac points out the dubious funding source:

“The second time, I noted that he’s one of a group of scientists funded by the Child Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), which is a group funded by Claire and Al Dwoskin, who are as rabidly antivaccine as anyone I’ve seen, including even Mike Adams. Among that group of antivaccine “scientists” funded by CMSRI? Anthony Mawson, Christopher Shaw, Lucija Tomljenovic, and Yehuda Shoenfeld, antivaccine crank “scientists” all. And guess what? This study was funded by CMSRI, too. Fair’s fair. If antivaxers can go wild when a study is funded by a pharmaceutical company and reject it out of hand, I can point out that a study funded by an antivaccine “foundation” is deserving of more scrutiny and skepticism.”

And it just gets worse from there. No controls, some tiny sample jiggery-pokery with the numbers and so on. Best read directly.

 

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

Continue reading

More Bad Science from the alt-right

uah_lt_1979_thru_november_2016_v6-550x318

Speaking of the Alt-right, their house journal has been getting its knickers in a twist over global temperatures. Resident UK spreader of warming nonsense, James Delingpole got himself somewhat agitated about the fall in temperatures after the 2016 El Nino.

 Global land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year – the biggest and steepest fall on record.

But the news has been greeted with an eerie silence by the world’s alarmist community. You’d almost imagine that when temperatures shoot up it’s catastrophic climate change which requires dramatic headlines across the mainstream media and demands for urgent action. But that when they fall even more precipitously it’s just a case of “nothing to see here”. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/11/30/global-temperatures-plunge-icy-silence-climate-alarmists/

As happens so frequently, Delingpole reveals the stark evidence for global warming inadvertently in his critique. According to Delingpole, we are now in a chilly El Nino. But what do the actual temperatures show?

Dr Roy Spencer is himself a climate change ‘skeptic’ and the satellite temperature data has been lauded by Delingpole in the past.So what are the satellite data showing? http://www.drroyspencer.com/2016/12/uah-global-temperature-update-for-november-2016-0-45-deg-c/

Yes, temperature anomalies have dropped since the 2016 EL Nino peak but they are still high. Indeed November 2016 is substantially higher than most of the data points in the satellite record.

uah_lt_1979_thru_november_2016withline

Taking Delingpole’s blather seriously would imply that his chilly La Nina is HOTTER than early 1980’s El Nino’s.