Tag Archives: Science

Video: Why Science Is NOT ‘Just A Theory’

We believe this film could also be a useful resource for science teachers wanting to convey the subject-specific meaning of “theory” to their students. Showing it to the class after a discussion around children’s understanding of the word might form part of a lesson on “how science works”, for example.

And who knows, if enough people watch and share the film [above], perhaps it’ll encourage people to think more deeply before they argue about well-established science and claim that it’s “just a theory”? [Royal Institution Blog]

Jim Al-Khalili narrates the video enthusiastically, and is quoted above discussing the purpose behind the video. The animation by Jack Kenny is reminiscent of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and works well. Alom Shaha’s words are well represented by them both – in three minutes the distinction between a scientific theory and a passionate opinion down the pub is articulately communicated without talking down to anyone.

Please do share and enjoy the video!


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Video: How Do We know What Is True?


Short two minute animated video narrated by Stephen Fry contrasting a humanistic view of the world compared to a supernatural view of existence.


Hat tip Jerry Coyne

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Debunking MMR Vaccine Myths Can Backfire


New research just published suggests that debunking myths regarding the MMR vaccine is not enough to encourage skeptical parents – it may even harden their resolve not to let their children be vaccinated. This should give pause if our aim is to encourage parents to vaccinate children, rather than scold them into accepting the medical evidence.

Peter Hitchens made this point on MMR vaccine:

As a parent  myself,  I sympathised then, and sympathise now with those parents who were worried. It is a very heavy responsibility to authorise an injection, in the fear that it may unpredictably do permanent and irreversible damage. The chance may be very small. The authorities may be saying that it does not exist. But if it is your child, you won’t necessarily be convinced by such words. Any parent will know this. Many non-parents will simply not understand. [Hitchensblog]


In a randomized trial parents were assigned one of four communications regarding MMR or measles:

1. Information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

2. Textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement

3. Images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine

4. A dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet;

Or they were assigned to a control group using reading material unrelated to health. The research results and conclusion were:.

None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes. In addition, images of sick children increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and a dramatic narrative about an infant in danger increased self-reported belief in serious vaccine side effects.


Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive. More study of pro-vaccine messaging is needed. [Pediatrics]


How do we view such parents? As delusional, self perpetuating an idea that may be harmful to their children. Or as fearful parents, who have heard past bogus reports, who need a different response. Is a single jab better than none at all for these few, do we really think parents that would have the combined MMR vaccine would not if given the choice of single jabs?

Peter Hitchens had a point in his observation in April 2013 that fears of a parent are not easily put aside. The published research could not have come soon enough if we are serious about preventing future outbreaks in our communities. Effective communication is not just about being convincing about the health benefits of immunization, but increasing immunization.

In July 2013 following the Swansea measles outbreak, Dr Millington commented:

“There was a refusal to have immunisation in the cohort that had not been immunised despite very considerable effort. Having said that we’ve offered it whenever we can wherever we can,”

“Some of the responses we get are really quite difficult. ‘Mind your own business.’


“People say ‘Every time I come here you ask me about my child’s immunisation status. Why don’t you mind your own business?’


“That’s a very difficult conversation to have. I do think we’ve tried everything else. Once the outbreak started I think things were different and I think different methods were used and I think they were effective.

“But it is surprising how many people did not listen to the message and it’s surprising how many people have still not listened to the message – they don’t want to hear it.”


For too long it has come across as we know best, you are just a parent, do not worry. We cannot afford to take that attitude when immunization matters to reach the optimum level in the population.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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The Free Will To Debate: Sam Harris V Daniel Dennett

free will book cover sam harris

Sam Harris is easily misunderstood, regularly misrepresented and at times rightly challenged for what he says. All of these can apply on the same topic. Harris is wide ranging, from the nature of belief, use of torture, to his latest book – Free Will. His opponent on free will is a fellow member of the four horsemen of new atheism, Daniel Dennett. There have been more convivial discussions between them in the past.

In The Four Horsemen video filmed years ago, an accord was quite evident when talking about the virtues of rationalism and the principled position of atheism versus religion. Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (the departed) Christopher Hitchens gave a lively round-table discussion. Whether you agreed or not, it provided an insight as they engaged each other in a civil discussion.

Daniel Dennett has this month done the academic equivalent of breaking into a book wrap party, bad mouthing the author, and showing he can urinate higher up the wall then all the assembled VIP scientists that support Harris. In an impressively long review of Sam Harris’ book “Free Will”, Dennett describes it as a museum of mistakes and that scientists are not thinking clearly on the subject – least of all Richard Dawkins. We need philosophers to remind them that there have been advances in thinking and that we need the concept of free will or else no one will be held responsible for their actions. No punches are pulled as Sam is described as needing instruction as an undergraduate on a philosophy course.

Dennett stresses that we may not have ultimate credit for our actions (e.g. moral education in childhood versus none, the genes we have) but we aid this by our subsequent cultivation and decisions. An endowed disposition  is tempered by many actions which are not random or subjective  – let alone out of our control – before we intuitively decide to act. An example is a tennis player practices ground strokes, and return of serve. They have a game plan against their opponent. How they return serve when a hundred plus mile per hour serve comes their way will not be consciously chosen at that moment – but it has been influenced prior to hitting the ball.

Dan is body serving Sam Harris, going for long rallies to show up his opponents game. Sam has opted in his reply for trying to keep the rallies short as a counter puncher. Do read both – they go into the concept of free will in more depth than a short blog post should even dare.

However, I will quote this bit from Sam Harris’ reply to Dan:

It is worth noting that the most common objection I’ve heard to my position on free will is some version of the following:

“If there is no free will, why write books or try to convince anyone of anything? People will believe whatever they believe. They have no choice! Your position on free will is, therefore, self-refuting. The fact that you are trying to convince people of the truth of your argument proves that you think they have the very freedom that you deny them.”

Granted, some confusion between determinism and fatalism (which you and I have both warned against) is probably operating here, but comments of this kind also suggest that people think they have control over what they believe, as if the experience of being convinced by evidence and argument were voluntary. Perhaps such people also believe that they have decided to obey the law of gravity rather than fly around at their pleasure—but I doubt it. An illusion about mental freedom seems to be very widespread. My argument is that such freedom is incompatible with any form of causation (deterministic or otherwise)—which, as you know, is not a novel view. But I also argue that it is incompatible with the actual character of our subjective experience. That is why I say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion—which is another way of saying that if one really pays attention (and this is difficult), the illusion of free will disappears.

That is why I suggest you settle down, with your favourite tipple when you are unlikely to be disturbed, to read Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris discussing free will. Maybe the Richard Dawkins Foundation might even sponsor a discussion between the two of them in the future.

We need to end this with a tie break –  if there is a rational way to conclude the subject of free will.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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Frederick Sanger 1918 – 2013

When Fred Sanger retired in 1983, having just won three years previous a second Noble Peace Prize in chemistry, his first being in 1958, it was not the pursuit of fame, recognition or fortune that drove him on but the work, and the sheer pleasure.


Sanger was awarded his first Nobel Prize in 1958 for work carried out with colleagues in the early 1950s. Toiling away in a small hutlike laboratory buried in Cambridge University’s department of biotechnology , Sanger deduced the sequence of amino acids (chemical building blocks) in the hormone insulin, the first complete protein sequence ever to be determined.

His second Nobel, in 1980, was awarded for related work carried out at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, where he developed an ingenious method of working out the basic chemical “grammar” of DNA that has enabled scientists to “read” the chemical sequencing — the long chains of DNA molecules — that form our genes. The technique he developed, known as “Sanger” sequencing, was still used decades later. [Daily Telegraph]


Only four people in history have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice.

Venki Ramakrishnan, deputy director of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, said: “Fred was one of the outstanding scientists of the last century and it is simply impossible to overestimate the impact he has had on modern genetics and molecular biology. Moreover, by his modest manner and his quiet and determined way of carrying out experiments himself right to the end of his career, he was a superb role model and inspiration for young scientists everywhere.”

Prof Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “Fred was an inspiration to many, for his brilliant work, for his quiet determination and for his modesty. He was a outstanding investigator, with a dogged determination to solve questions that have led to transformations in how we perceive our world. “

He combined this with a drive to interest young people in science. He refused most invitations for interviews, but often helped schools and students. [Cambridge News]

For Sanger, science promised the undiscovered country for any would be adventurer of the mind.

It is like a voyage of discovery into unknown lands, seeking not for new territory but for new knowledge. It should appeal to those with a good sense of adventure.

So long Fred, pioneer of DNA sequencing.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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