Thursday, 20 December 2007

British 'girls' are mingers

Really nothing can be added to this little gem from Tad Safran in the Times:
"I am a massive fan of British women. UK girls, in my opinion, are the greatest natural beauties in the world . . . when they’re 17 or 18 years old. The girls I was surrounded by when I was a teenager were sublime roses with lustrous hair, flawless skin, bright eyes and lithe, athletic bodies. They dressed as if there would be a prize at the end of the night for the girl wearing the least. I then went away to Philadelphia for university. Four years later, I came back and wondered: “What the hell happened to all the beautiful girls I knew?” My first assumption was that one half of them had eaten the other half and washed them down with a crate of lager. These girls looked phenomenal when looking good took no effort. But when British women get to the age where they have to make an effort, they appear unable, or uninterested, in rising to the challenge."

As he says himself:

"I always thought I would end up with an English girl. But I’m never getting laid in Britain ever again."

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

I ate the baby Jesus

Via Butterflies and Wheels, the ever lucid Theo Hobson comments:
"Ultimately you are either for or against Baby Jesus"

Thursday, 13 December 2007

We only made up 20% of the results, it is still significant at p<.05!

Working nights I'm not following the Policy Exchange/Newsnight spat, but the comments on this Comment is Free thread were fascinating. A good number of people seem to be arguing that if you can prove that 5% of the Mosques actually had forged evidence that they were selling extremist material then the conclusion is that we should continue to take the Policy Exchange report at face value and just revise down the estimate of the number selling extremist material from 25% to 20%.

Perhaps it is just me, but when a study has methodology as demonstrably suspect as this I'm inclined to reject the whole thing. We are not supposed to give the benefit of the doubt, even to think tanks. Imagine when a scientific fraud is perpetrated the journal concerned doesn't publish a retraction of the study but rather withdraws only those figures or results that have been demonstrated to be fabricated, and stands resolutely behind the rest.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Little girls probably 'ask for it'

Via the F Word, the Guardian reports:
'"A judge in Australia was facing calls to step down today after she failed to jail a group of nine males who admitted gang-raping a 10-year-old girl in an Aboriginal community, saying the young victim "probably agreed" to have sex with them.'

This story has a disturbing combination of cultural relativism (cf female genital mutilation) and good old fashioned judicial misogyny. It was 1993 in the UK that Judge Starforth Hill said of an eight year old sex attack victim that she was "not entirely an angel", and gave the man two years of probation. How can stuff like this still be happening?

Friday, 7 December 2007

Labour Friends of Dorothy

Re: the David Abrahams affair, I was amused to discover that JP thinks 'friend of Israel' (as in 'Labour friends of Israel') is a euphemistic reference to being Jewish comparable to being a 'friend of Dorothy'!

Monday, 3 December 2007

Captain Cackhanded

I wonder if Denis Campbell, author of the classic Observer MMR 'scoop', is the worst broadsheet health journalist in the country?

Looking at his latest offering he could well be:

"Most people use only three to four per cent of their total supply of brain cells."

Really Denis? Are you sure? Did you check out that surprising factoid to see if it was true or one of the hoariest urban myths of all time?

Oh, apparently not:
"Where do brain myths come from, and why are they so persistent? The origin of the 10% claim remains uncertain, despite considerable research. It is often attributed to William James, who expressed a similar idea in a 1906 speech to the American Psychological Association: "Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources." But the 10% number has not been found in any of James' writings. Alternatively, the myth may have originated from an early misinterpretation of interneurons as undeveloped neurons, leading to the speculation that they might be a reserve pool or neural replacement later in life. Another potential source of this myth is the difficulty encountered by early neurophysiologists, notably Karl Lashley, in identifying functional defects caused by lesions of particular brain regions. Indeed, the term 'silent cortex' was once commonly used to describe regions without a clear sensory or motor function, and this could easily have been misinterpreted to mean 'unused cortex'." (from Nature Neuroscience, but pretty much anyone with even the slightest familiarity with psychology or neuroscience could have told him that it was nonsense)

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Christina Odone and freedom of speech

According to Channel 4 news that I've just watched Christina Odone was 'censored' for insulting atheists. Digging a little deeper reveals her on the Today programme (here around 21 mins in) and this from the New Humanist blog. Odone on the Today programme accuses the guy from the Commonwealth Foundation of "your folly in not allowing somebody of faith to speak at a carol service at Christmas".

But it turns out her speech was for the Commonwealth Foundation carol service in partnership with the Fairtrade Foundation, on the topic of 'opportunity for all' and she decided to use this topic to attack atheists and secularists for oppressing religious believers. So they told her that what she wanted to say would offend non-religious believers attending and asked her to read something else by Bertrand Russell instead, and she refused and pulled out.

Clearly her right to free speech has been suppressed by the evil forces of secularism, and it is not at all the case that she tried to subvert a non-denominational event promoting development goals in order to spread her own particular brand of religious victimhood and atheist bashing.

Monday, 26 November 2007

More Blasphemy

Leaving aside that realistically it doesn't look like she has actually violated this silly law, this is another example of blasphemy laws in action:
"A British schoolteacher has been arrested in Sudan accused of insulting Islam's Prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad.
The BBC's correspondent Amber Henshaw said Ms Gibbons' punishment could be up to six months in jail, 40 lashes or a fine.
It is seen as an insult to Islam to attempt to make an image of the Prophet Muhammad.
The country's state-controlled Sudanese Media Centre reported that charges were being prepared "under article 125 of the criminal law" which covers insults against faith and religion."

Monday, 19 November 2007

Gone fishing

Away for a week - comments being moderated if and when I get the chance.

I'm back.

Guess where I've been.

Abortion rights in Scotland under threat

From the F Word blog:

"The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced recently that, if he could secure cross-party support for it, a Commission would be set up in Scotland to look into making abortion a devolved issue with a view to decreasing the time limits on abortion.

"Cue the setting up of a new pressure group – Women’s Abortion Rights Scotland – a protest outside the Parliament, two motions tabled by MSPs defending a woman’s right to an abortion, articles in the Scottish media about abortion that, for the first time in what seems like forever, presented the pro-choice side of the argument and not one, but two motions passed at STUC Women’s Congress supporting overwhelmingly a woman’s right to an abortion and condemning the Dunblane comments by O’Brien."

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Revd Joel Edwards joins the Equality and Human Rights Commission

From Mark Vernon:
"The Rev'd Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, has been appointed to serve as one of the commissioners on the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It is a move that has surprised many since Edwards represents a constituency - including conservative and fundamentalist Christians - that is one of the most rabidly anti-gay in the country."
Mark is somewhat concerned about what this appointment represents as "the EHRC must certainly engage with deniers as it furthers its causes, but not necessarily have them on the board to do so". It isn't clear just what the role of an EHRC commissioner is*, or on what grounds they are recruited. I can see why Mark is concerned but, given the disparate groups the EHRC represents, perhaps it is inevitable that there will be conflicts between them. I think we'll just have to wait and see what the results of this appointment, and the creation of the EHRC will be.


"Under the provisions of the Act in appointing Commissioners the Secretary of State shall:

a. appoint an individual only if the Secretary of State thinks that the individual:
i. has experience or knowledge relating to a relevant matter, or
ii. is suitable for appointment for some other special reason, and

b. have regard to the desirability of the Commissioners together having experience and knowledge relating to the relevant matters (this is defined as discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender, gender re-assignment, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation and human rights)."

"Joel Edwards has served on a number of faith, government and public agency advisory groups and is a regular broadcaster for UK and international media. He is the current General Director of the Evangelical Alliance and is Chair of Micah Challenge International and the Churches Media Council. He was a probation officer for 14 years with the Inner London Probation Service before his appointment as the General Secretary for the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance in 1988. Joel is an honorary Canon of St Paul's Cathedral and has an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews."

Early medical abortions in international waters

Via the f-word blog, an interview with Rebecca Gomperts:

'She is the founder of Women on Waves (WoW), a radical Dutch organisation that sails an "abortion ship" to countries where the procedure is illegal, before taking women out to the safety of international waters to provide terminations...As a doctor, I look at the abortion issue from a health perspective and the fact is that an early abortion is safer than giving birth. That is not meant to promote abortion because if women want to have children it is a risk they are naturally willing to take. However, if they don't want them they should never be forced to take that risk."'

God save the Queen

Via aaronovitch watch I see that the two cartoonists in Spain have been convicted for insulting the royal family:

"Under Spanish law, introduced in 1995, anybody who insults the royal family can face up to two years in prison.

The public prosecutor argued that the cartoon was "clearly degrading and objectively defaming" and was "obviously an attack" against "the honour" of the prince because of "the deliberate and unjustified use of his image, in evident and conscious contempt of the Crown, causing notable hurt to its institutional prestige"."

The ridiculous nature of this sort of special protection from offence ties in rather nicely with my post on the blasphemy law. It also provides Bruschettaboy an opportunity to have a go at the 'Decents' which is always welcome.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Who's worse, the rapist or the victim?

Via political scientist and butterfliesandwheels, from the BBC:

"An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped. The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes - she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. When she appealed, the judges said she had been attempting to use the media to influence them. The attackers' sentences - originally of up to five years - were doubled...

According to the Arab News newspaper, the 19-year-old woman, who is from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in the eastern province a year-and-a-half ago. Seven men from the majority Sunni community were found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years. But the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia's laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other.

She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man. On appeal, the Arab News reported that the punishment was not reduced but increased to 200 lashes and a six-month prison sentence. The rapists also had their prison terms doubled. But the sentences are still low considering they could have faced the death penalty."

Ah, our wonderful allies in the 'War on Terror', spreading democracy and helping to make the world safe for women everywhere.

Via feminist philosophers and feministe, according to Arab News:

"The woman is charged with being in the company of an unrelated man shortly before she and her companion were brutally gang-raped by seven men, all of whom have been found guilty and sentenced to between two and nine years in prison with lashes for the crime. young men noticed the two in front of a mall and abducted them, took them to a deserted area and raped them both.

Arab News has learned that the young man is not appealing his sentence out of fear that his punishment, if the verdict were upheld, would be increased."

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Alister McGrath III

Following on from previous posts, I found this discussion of Alister McGrath's Dawkins Delusion:
"My only concern is that some liberal theists may skip The God Delusion and go straight to the considerably slimmer volume, The Dawkins Delusion. The only way I could see McGrath’s illusion working is if his readers have not read The God Delusion, and continue not to read it afterwards. I urge anyone who has not read either book, not to bypass Dawkins and go straight to McGrath. And, if you have bypassed Dawkins for McGrath, please go and read The God Delusion. Of course, if you have read The God Delusion but not The Dawkins Delusion, read McGrath’s work, by all means. Personally, I did not find it compelling and cannot offer my recommendation. Not that any atheist has anything to fear from it, I simply think there are better things to do with your time and money."
And a couple more here:
"In DD, McGrath comments: “One obvious response [to GD] would be to write an equally aggressive, inaccurate book…” But to do so would be “pointless and counterproductive, not to mention intellectually dishonest”. (DD, p.xi). Unfortunately, DD is aggressive, inaccurate, and arguably intellectually dishonest. McGrath also notes that to publish a “litany of corrections” to Dawkins would be “catatonically boring” (DD, p.xii). I, however, unapologetically adopt the “litany of corrections” approach, simply because it is good to set McGrath’s scholarly pretensions against the reality, making the contrast as stark as possible. Early versions of this document were criticised for failing to distinguish between different kinds of faults: I had started at the beginning of the book and worked through to the end, noting the problems as I went, and some readers disliked that approach. I have now classified McGrath’s solecisms, giving this review something approaching a helpful structure."
And here and here:
"Alister McGrath (along with his wife and co-author Joanna Collicutt McGrath—but Alister says on page 117 that he did most of the work) has written a book that purports to rebut Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. McGrath’s book is called The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. “This book, [he] suspect[s], will be read mainly by Christians who want to know what to say to their friends who have read The God Delusion and are wondering if believers really are as perverted, degenerate and unthinking as the book makes them out to be. But it is [his] hope that its readers may include atheists whose minds are not yet locked into a pattern of automatic Dawkinsian reflexes.” (McGrath 15.)"

Revoke the UK blasphemy laws

Via nullifidian a 10 Downing Street petition to revoke the UK's blasphemy laws:
"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Revoke blasphemy laws in the UK. The fact that blasphemy is still a criminal offence in Britain shows the extent of the lack of religious freedom within this country. Why should someone be punished for speaking against something they have no belief in?"
This makes sense for all secularists, atheists and theists alike, as well as any non-Anglican theists whose own religion is not so protected.

Here's a description of the law:
"Blasphemy (and blasphemous libel) is a common law offence with an unlimited penalty. The content of the current law is obscure and, from the evidence that the Committee has received, is widely misunderstood.
The courts held, more generally, that it was "no longer true that 'Christianity is part of the law of the land'"[140]. The law of blasphemy was thus restricted to protecting the tenets and beliefs of the Church of England, other religions being protected only to the extent that their beliefs overlapped with those of the Church of England.
As to what precisely constitutes a blasphemy, the matter is obscure...From the decided cases it would seem that blasphemy is committed "by anyone who makes public words, pictures or conduct whereby the doctrines, beliefs, institutions, or sacred objects and rituals of the Church of England by law established are denied or scurrilously vilified or there is objectively contumelious, violent or ribald conduct or abuse directed towards the sacred subject in question, likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Church of England believers in the community". As the Law Commission's view indicates, quite what this means when it comes to applying the law to any given set of facts is difficult to say."

Saturday, 10 November 2007


Via crookedtimber: Simon Kuper in the FT reviews four books in the 'Eurabia' genre (including 'Londinistan' by our very own Mad Mel). Started by Bat Ye’or, these ideas seem particulalrly popular in the US (presumably because they're further away from Europe and know less about it).

The essential thesis is that Europe is facing a demographic and ideological takeover by those sneaky Muslims who will reduce the rest of us into a state of dhimmitude (a sort of ideological subjugation). Read the whole thing, these views may be bonkers but you will come across them again:
"In the imagined “Eurabia’’, the Muslims are taking over. Europeans aren’t resisting. In fact, it is 1938 again, or in Bawer’s phrase, “Europe’s Weimar moment’’. A keyword of the “Eurabia’’ genre is therefore “appeasement’’ - once of Hitler, now of Muslims. Phillips urges a British-American alliance, as “when they stood shoulder to shoulder against Nazi Germany’’, with the US providing “muscle’’ and Britain “backbone’’. But unfortunately, Britain has gone wobbly. She expects this will prove fatal, because it is correct “at least in part’’ to see “Islam as a successor to Nazism and communism’’. It follows, for all four authors, that another exodus or Holocaust of Europe’s Jews is likely, though Laqueur grants that “by taking a low profile they might be able to survive in the new conditions’’.

Why is Europe supine? (Sorry - the “Eurabia’’ habit of grand rhetorical questions is infectious.) Ye’or has the fullest theory. She explains that something called the “Euro-Arab Dialogue’’ - with a permanent secretariat of 350 members, and a seat in Paris - runs a plot to hand over Europe to the Arabs, and to destroy Israel. “In just thirty years (1973-2003), the Euro-Arab Dialogue has successfully brought about the mutation of European civilization, giving birth to a hybrid culture: Eurabia - as foreseen in 1969 in Cairo by the European Committee for Coordination of Friendship Associations with the Arab World.’’ In her book if nowhere else, the EU has a united foreign policy.
Phillips has a different theory about Britain’s demise. Wonderfully, it unites all the enemies of her journalistic career. Jihad is conquering Britain because intellectuals, transsexuals, judges, Antonio Gramsci, the human-rights brigade, gays who adopt children, etcetera, have destroyed the country’s confidence in its own values. So Phillips’ former employer, The Guardian, is “a virtual mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood’’, while Islamic jihad is “the armed wing of the British left’’.
Its target market seems to be the US. Of the four books only Londonistan seems to have had much circulation in Britain, probably because hardly anybody who actually lives in Europe could take these dystopias seriously. The only way to interest many US readers in Europe’s tame politics is to predict catastrophe. Bawer, for instance, warns of “the end of the West as we know it - and perhaps the beginning of the end of freedom, too’’."

Friday, 9 November 2007

Shake that booty

Saw this study in the news:

"They found those with alluring walks were the furthest away from ovulation. A British expert said the research, featured by New Scientist magazine, supported the idea women disguise their fertility to deter unsuitable partners...The women who were most fertile at the time of the experiment walked with fewer hip movements and with their knees closer together. She now thinks the findings tally with other research suggesting that women want to conceal their ovulation from males other than their chosen partner."
And all the stories seem to be derived from New Scientist:
"This showed a correlation between the way the women walked and their time of the month. The women who were fertile walked with smaller hip movements and with their knees closer together."
Is this the media misrepresenting scientific research? Nope, this is evolutionary psychology! The study is an online pre-publication of Provost et al in Archives of Sexual Behavior (there are some great looking articles in there, like a book review of 'God hates fags'):

"In this study, we found that men responded to the changes in gait women demonstrate across the menstrual cycle. Without knowing the differences between the women they were rating, men were significantly more likely to rate women walkers in their luteal phase as more attractive. This finding contradicts research in face research, where men judge women to be more attractive at times of peak fertility (Roberts et al., 2004).

It is possible that faces and gait present different information because of the intimacy with which the stimulus is viewed. For example, faces can only be seen in a fairly close encounter, whereas gait patterns can be seen from a large distance. If women are trying to protect themselves from sexual assault at times of peak fertility, it would make sense for them to advertise attractiveness on a broad scale when they are not fertile, yet still being attractive to people they choose to be with (i.e., during face-to-face interactions). Thus, it is necessary to investigate how men prone to using sexual violence view the walking stimuli, as well as to test the use of sexual coercion both in and outside of couples across the menstrual cycle, to investigate if unadvertised ovulation is adequately protecting a woman’s reproductive fitness interests."

Yep, women protect themselves against sexual assault at times of peak fertility by getting themselves raped when they aren't fertile - clever girls. Not so clever men, clearly their 'sexy hips' detection module is dysfunctional.

So let's see what the study actually shows.

[Summary to avoid reading this overlong post: despite what the paper itself and the news articles say, although men did rate some gaits as more attractive than others, they actually find that they didn't differ in the attractiveness they assigned to women in their 'more' or 'less fertile' phases, and although there were some poorly characterised differences in gait between the 'more' and 'less fertile' phases, they didn't differ in their hip movements or knee distance].

They looked at first year undergraduates and "women from the community" with 36 off, and 23 on "hormonal birth control":

"A female researcher met the participants, informed them that the study was investigating motion across the menstrual cycle, and obtained their informed consent."
Blinding doesn't appear to be big in evolutionary psychology research, I like to think the students knew exactly what they were trying to show and deliberately fucked up the results.

So they then estimated the phase of these subjects in their menstrual cycle (from date of last period and cycle length):

"NHBC[non-hormonal birth control] women participated during the late follicular phase (high fertility phase; 14–16 days before their next period) or the luteal phase (low fertility phase; 5–7 days before their next period, to limit the influence of pre-menstrual symptoms[***]). Cycle stage was confirmed using salivary ferning"
If you don't know about female menstrual cycles have a look here, basically peak fertility is around five days before ovulation and two days after, the follicular phase is after menstruation and before ovulation so the late phase here is around about ovulation (i.e. peak fertility). The luteal phase follows ovulation and the point here is around a week after ovulation (the luteal phase is normally 14 days long, and the follicular phase is also around 14 days long but varies with cycle length). Salivary ferning is a rather old-fashioned and unreliable technique similar to looking at cervical mucus and is popular in 'natural' family planning. Personally I'd have at least used tests of urinary luteinising hormone (LH) to detect ovulation*. Still, they are likely to have at least vaguely segregated on ovulatory phase.

So then they either recorded the women then and there (if they were in one of the correct menstrual phases, or if they were on 'hormanal birth control'). They got other NHBC women back to take measurements in both menstrual phases. So they recorded 41 body markers and used these to calculate "15 virtual markers corresponding to the major joints in the body". Then they did some complicated maths:

"To reduce the dimensionality of the data, the time series of the virtual markers were decomposed into a Fourier series, and then a principal components analysis was applied to the resulting Fourier representation"
This essentially tried to summarise the data in terms of simple mathematical functions (Fourier analysis) and then to come up with a smaller number of factors that best summarises the larger data set (principal component analysis) potentially discovering hidden structure. They then took this 12 principal component model and used the 12 factors to try and construct an equation that could categorise the women as being in the follicular or luteal phase based on them (discriminant function analysis) (they also compared follicular phase women to women on birth control).

Obviously there is a big risk here of overfitting the data - you've got 12 different factors that can be combined together in any way you want to try and distinguish the two groups - and only data from 19 women to compare the follicular and luteal phases (20 women available to compare follicular and birth control). Ideally you'd go and get another sample of women to test your discriminant function on to see if it can accurately classify them. In this paper they attempt the somewhat less ideal approach of removing one woman from the analysis and fitting an equation to the remaining women, and seeing if the removed woman is then correctly classified. Then they use a Z-test to compare the results of removing each woman in turn to what would be expected by chance (50% misclassified).**:

"The linear discriminant function for NHBC women significantly discriminated women at peak fertility from women in the luteal phase (z = 2.59, p < .01, n = 38). A total of 71% of the walkers were classified correctly.2 79% of the ovulation phase walks were classified correctly (four women were misclassified), and 63% of the luteal phase walks were classified correctly (seven women were misclassified). Only one woman was misclassified in both stages. The linear discriminant function for HBC women and NHBC women in the late follicular phase did not significantly discriminate women of peak fertility from women using hormonal birth control (z = 1.26, p > .05, n = 40), with 40% of women classified correctly with this linear discriminant function."
That is the data from the other women lead to equations that could predict the correct menstrual phase by some combination of the 12 gait-derived factors in 9/19 women (3 misclassified on the follicular phase, 6 on the luteal phase, 1 on both phases). Women on hormonal birth control could not be discriminated from women in the follicular phase by using these 12 factors.

So there is some limited evidence that there might be some differences in the gait between women in the follicular phase of their cycle and women in the luteal phase. But they didn't stop here. They then went on the generate hypothetical extreme women using their disciminant function (see here for an animation):

"Upon visually observing these two walkers, the lateral distance between the knee and ankle joints and the hip movement appeared to be the major differences between fertile and non-fertile women"****
But, when they actually looked at the real (as opposed to hypothetical) data they found no statistically significant difference in these measurements between the follicular and luteal stage women. Now you or I might conclude that the findings of a difference using discriminant functions was a rather slim and unreliable one, but not our intrepid researchers, the real evolutionary psychology is yet to come. But we do have one problem, women using hormonal contraceptives have hormone levels that mimic the luteal phase (remember that diagram?), therefore they ought to differ from follicular phase women if these differences are hormonally driven:

"It is possible that this result was due to fluctuations in personality dimensions of women not using hormonal birth control. For example...perhaps HBC in comparison to NHBC women are more extroverted or agreeable in general, so their gait reflects such traits at all times, but such extroversion or agreeableness is pronounced in NHBC women only during times of peak fertility...It is reasonable to assume that HBC women, in contrast to NHBC women in general, are more open to engaging in sexual relations...NHBC women at peak fertility are more interested in sexual activity, especially with extra-pair partners...Thus, walking patterns may be similar because of the interest in sexual activity of NHBC women at peak fertility and HBC women...However, it may simply be that hormonal levels in HBC women may affect their walk so that they are indistinguishable from NHBC women at peak fertility. Women using hormonal birth control have more circulating sex hormones than NHBC women in their luteal phase, when estrogen begins to drop. These extra-elevated levels of estrogen may affect the muscles and ligaments of the body, and thus women’s gaits "
Hmm, yeah, maybe women on the pill walk like dirty slags, I'm not sure I'd like to speculate. If only we had some way to know if higher levels of oestrogen in women on hormonal contraceptive compared to women in the luteal phase means that women on contraception don't differ from follicular stage women. Maybe, and this is just a hunch, we could compare the women on contraceptives to the luteal phase women, or did that not occur to them?

Anyway, onto the main event:

"A total of 43 men in an introductory psychology course participated in this study for course credit."

Ah, psychology students, where would we be without them? So they got them too look at point-light displays using the 15 virtual joint markers:

"We told the participants that they would see point-light walkers of women on the screen, and their task would be to rate the attractiveness of the walkers on a 6-point Likert-like scale"
So what did they find?

"Late follicular walks had a similar attractiveness level (M = 3.66, SD = .5) as walks recorded in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (M = 3.56, SD = .5) when compared with a paired t-test"
No?! I thought men preferred the less fertile women? Well what they do next is either clever, or stupid, depending on your point of view. So basically, they assign each woman a 'degree' of menstrual cycle based on walk. That is they used the discriminant function to transform menstrual phase into a continuous variable ("menstrual cycle stage z-score"). Then they fitted various models relating "menstrual cycle stage z-score" to the attractiveness rating z-score to try and squeeze out a result. All you need to know is that eventually they managed to fit a model** that suggested that the more luteal-like the walk, the higher the rated attractiveness - and we have to bear in mind that the relationship is between the discriminant function score and the attractiveness rating - there are no real life measures of ovulation being used here - and there is an obvious caveat that extreme data points could be skewing all the results (which are pretty tenuous here) such that one woman had a weird sexy walk in one menstrual phase that drove the discriminant function (it's not like these women were blinded as to which menstrual phase they were in or the aims of the study!):
"Each SD of menstrual cycle score increase resulted in a 0.08 increase in the z-score of attractiveness rating, meaning lower perceived attractiveness"
So, when you look at gait scores 3 standard deviations from the mean, values so extreme that only .13% of scores would be more extreme than this, then the difference in attractiveness score would be .24 (41% of scores would be more extreme than .24 of a standard deviation). That is, the relationship is rather a weak one.

So the conclusion is that this isn't a completetely stupid paper, the use of statistics is puzzling (but that isn't what I intended to go into here), but the findings are a lot less exciting that the press, and even the paper makes out. We've got some evidence that women's gaits may vary in some poorly characterised way with menstrual cycle. We have some further evidence that if you try and find a way to use gait to generate a mathematical function to discriminate between women in the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle then men rate those gaits that score very highly on this discriminant function as being more attractive than gaits that score very low. Anything is else is pretty much just evolutionary psychology just-so stories. Remember, if they had found that women had 'sexier' gaits when in the 'fertile' follicular phase they would have declared it further evidence for women unconsciously signalling they were ready to breed - but instead they found the opposite, and yet they've got a bizarre theory that women are trying to look sexy when not ovulating to conceal when they're fertile. It doesn't take the most insightful evolutionary biologist to notice the evolutionary problem here - once you're broadcasting to the men what stage in your menstrual cycle you're in, why would they continue to find the non-fertile gait attractive?

*Interestingly they cite Guida et al claiming that it shows 78% of women in their most fertile period have salivary ferning. The paper actually found that "Urinary LH...yielded a 100%...correlation...with the ultrasonographic diagnosis of ovulation" but that "The salivary ferning test had a 36.8% simultaneous correlation with ovulation but had a high percentage (58.7%) of uninterpretable pattern."

**Note that there are all kinds of assumptions that underlie the statistical approaches used in this paper, and the authors are not at all clear about whether they have tested to see if these assumptions are true.

***I haven't talked about premenstrual symptoms but it should be obvious that these are present in women 5-7 days before their period before I even make the point that the cyclical symptoms with menstruation do not necessarily follow the simple lay belief in 'PMT', occurring only in the days running up to the period, but can in fact present throughout the cycle.

****Note this line from the news article:
"The women who were most fertile at the time of the experiment walked with fewer hip movements and with their knees closer together."
LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! That's what your disciminant function predicted was the case for the most extreme hypothetical values of your discriminant function. You didn't actually find any difference between the 'fertile' (follicular phase) women and the other women on those measures. And you have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that those women with the most extreme score on the discriminant function were more fertile!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Habermas and Flew

Gary Habermas reviews Antony Flew's book 'There is a God'. There's not much more meat to any of the arguments as presented here than reported by Mark Vernon. But this perhaps gives a flavour of how bad it is:

""A Pilgrimage of Reason" (chapter 4), is the initial contribution to this section. In this essay, Flew chiefly makes the crucial point that his approach to God's existence has been philosophical, not scientific. As he notes, "My critics responded by triumphantly announcing that I had not read a particular paper in a scientific journal or followed a brand-new development relating to abiogenesis." But in so doing, "they missed the whole point." Flew's conversion was due to philosophical arguments, not scientific ones: "To think at this level is to think as a philosopher. And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job of philosophers, not of the scientists as scientists"
Chapter 7 ("How Did Life Go Live?") continues what Flew insists is a philosophical rather than a scientific discussion of items that are relevant to God's existence. He discusses at least three chief issues: how there can be fully materialistic explanations for the emergence of life, the problem of reproduction at the very beginning, and DNA. Although science has not concluded these matters either, they are answering questions that are different from the philosophical issues that Flew is addressing (129). Flew concludes by agreeing with George Wald that, "The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such รข€˜end-directed, self replicating' life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind" (132)."

Now obviously we have to be careful not to fall into the trap that some have with Dawkins (saying that he cannot possibly talk about God without becoming an expert in theology), so I don't want to claim that Flew needs to have become an expert in molecular biology, but I think it is at the very least as equally a scientific as a philosophical argument to claim that the origins of self-replicating life cannot have a materialistic explanation, and I'd really like to see how you can disprove it philosophically, without recourse to science. Just what is this science-free philosophical argument that shows that life and self-replication could not have arisen by physical materialistic means? How is it not a scientific question whether, as a matter of fact, life or self-replication arose, or presumably could arise, in the environment of the primordial Earth?

Monday, 5 November 2007

Abortion and women's health

An interesting thought struck me when reflecting on this amusing segment of the Commons abortion report that I've commented on before:
'“...if you compare women who keep their pregnancy with those who have an induced abortion, those who have an induced abortion are more likely to get breast cancer later on”...However, if you look at the rates of cancer between women who have had an abortion and those who have not had children, the effect disappears.'
When thinking about this odd view that women must be prevented from having abortions because carrying a child to term will reduce their incidence of breast cancer another set of figures came to mind. Maternal mortality from abortion in the UK is something like 1:200,000, whereas deaths from pregnancy are maybe 1:30,000. So it looks like compulsory termination of pregnancy is the only way forward.

Foetal viability

Rebecca, in the comments to the last post, points out this interesting article in the Times about foetal viability:

"Couples who have difficulties conceiving can seek fertility treatment. At the same time, contraception is freely available to couples who want sex without producing a baby. Can this be right? As a society we value babies so much that we are prepared to allow - and fund - IVF. So how can we sanction - and fund - the deliberate prevention of babies being conceived? We can't have it both ways. Contraception should be banned.
You should therefore be baffled at the prevailing official view that the time limit for abortion should depend on the age at which premature babies can be saved. Some campaigners are calling for the abortion limit to be cut from 24 weeks to 20 weeks because an increasing proportion of babies born before 24 weeks' gestation can survive. Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, argues that survival rates for babies born at less than 24 weeks remain very poor, and therefore the abortion limit should be kept as it is. While she disagrees with the campaigners about the facts regarding the survival of premature babies, she has not questioned the notion that the abortion limit should be reduced when medical advances lead to a substantial improvement in the viability of premature babies.

This is nonsensical. The capacity of medicine to save a premature but much wanted baby is a completely separate matter from whether or not a woman should be permitted to abort a viable but unwanted pregnancy. In so far as ethics should determine a time limit on abortion, the relevant question is at what stage, if at all, a foetus should be regarded as a person, and in particular the extent to which it has a developed brain and can experience emotions. The state of ncubator technology cannot answer that question, any more than progress in IVF technology should determine whether contraception should be permitted."

Sunny Anand

I see Sunny Anand has joined the anti-abortionists in pushing the laughable lie that he has been silenced by the scientific and medical establishment over his 'evidence' that foetuses feel pain at an early age. Here he is in today's Times:
"The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists responded to the Dispatches programme on abortion, stating it was “unaware of the work of Dr Anand”. On October 23 the RCOG received 13 published articles referring to my work on foetal pain; 12 of these were published before the closing date for submissions to the Science and Technology Committee. Yet, it refers only to one article that appeared in October after the deadline.

The RCOG view ignores the development of foetal sensory processing, functional subplate zone (below the cerebral cortex), and sub-cortical mechanisms of consciousness that support foetal memory and learning. Three key flaws beleaguer their scientific rationale to rule out foetal pain.


Secondly, foetal pain does not engage the same structures as those activated by adult pain. The foetus is not a “little adult” — foetal pain is mediated by mechanisms unique from adults. Thirdly, it ignores clinical data that ablation or stimulation of the sensory cortex does not alter adult pain perception, whereas thalamic ablation or stimulation does. The foetal thalamus develops in the second trimester, well before the cortex. If the sensory cortex is not essential for adult pain, why is foetal pain held to that standard?..."

I've dealt with this before but it is worth noting that he is either woefully ignorant of the scientific literature, or being deliberately misleading. Note his claim that "foetal pain is mediated by mechanisms unique from adults" yet he has absolutely no evidence showing this to be the case, and all his work on pain is in the pain felt by newborns, not foetuses at 24 weeks or earlier. He claims that "ablation or stimulation of the sensory cortex does not alter adult pain perception" willfully glossing over the fact that there are plenty of cortical areas where ablation or stimulation will alter pain perception (primary somatosensory cortex is, as the name implies, primarily concerned with the sense of touch rather than pain, and it is stimulation/ablation of this cortex that doesn't alter pain perception much).

There's some coverage of the abortion debate and Anand's role on the Ministry of Truth blog, Anand even makes an appearance.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Trolley Problem

I was prompted to reflect on personal morality by this Sci-Phi post in the Philosphers' Magazine:
"Imagine that there are five hospital patients who urgently need organ transplants. If a healthy man walks in, should the doctors use his organs to save the other five, thus sacrificing the man’s life? For most people the instant response would be: no. Now imagine that a runaway trolley is about to plough into five workers standing on the track. There is a fork in the track, and throwing a switch could divert the train down the other line, where there is only one worker. The same question: should we sacrifice the one worker for the sake of the five? In this case, most people will again have an almost instant response: yes.
How is it that we are able to react so quickly and with such certainty to moral questions of this type? According to the psychologist Marc Hauser, it is because we are born with an innate moral faculty, analogous to our language faculty."
It's an interesting article, but ignoring that it rather throws into relief what I think is a fundamental conundrum I find in my own personal morality. These are variants on the 'Trolley Problem'.

I like to think that I follow a broadly utilitarian philosophy (with some modifications) but this little moral conundrum is the one that challenges that. Like most other people I reject the former choice, and accept the latter - but how do I justify that? Of course I can appeal to practical concerns* (I don't think as a matter of fact that it is likely that all five would survive the transplants, and even those that do will not survive for that long before rejection, and they may have survived a reasonable period without transplantation anyway, and, of course, we could just cannibalise one of the five to transplant to the others), but that is not engaging with the meat of the argument. I don't have an answer, and it is a little troubling.

*I think that this line of argument is more promising when considering a similar (and real) dilemma (often attributed to Peter Singer) about how much money we should give in charity to save lives.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Rowan Williams and the 'New Atheists'

Butterfliesandwheels has an article by Edmund Standing that tackles Rowan Williams's attack on the 'New Atheists':
"When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: 'This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in,'...The religious believer says that moral integrity, self-introspection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else."
I've noticed the rise of this 'New Atheist' tag, which seems pretty misplaced given that the likes of Dawkins of Dennett have been saying this sort of thing for years, and there's little new or different to previous generations of atheists (I'm rather a fan of Mackie's 'The Miracle of Theism' myself). It seems that the coverage and the theistic backlash are the only aspects that can be considered novel.

In summary Standing concludes:
"No, Dr Williams, the atheist is not 'talking about something else', but the very beliefs you proclaim to be true. Dressing up Christian ideas about God in language such as 'an eternal and free agency' is nothing but the creation of a smokescreen of meaningless jargon in an attempt to make superstition appear sophisticated....Have Dawkins, Hitchens, and numerous other atheist thinkers grossly misrepresented Christianity? Can Christian believers justifiably claim that the religion they find written of by such thinkers is something other than the one they at least pay lip service to? No, and no, again. Must Dawkins and others undertake an arduous trawling through centuries of theological waffle in order to reject religious belief? Absolutely not."

Friday, 2 November 2007

Antony Flew

Mark Vernon reads 'There is a God' by Antony Flew (with a similar post on Comment is Free), I predict that the late conversion (or rather "wholly rational discovery of the divine") of this formerly atheist philospher will get the sort of play that Alister McGrath and John Cornwell have.

There's nothing new here, but it is worth seeing how thin it sounds (obviously we only have Mark Vernon's summary to go on, but, as usual, I won't be reading it unless it looks like there are any interesting or novel arguments).

Apparently the 'free will defence' is sufficient rhetort to the 'juvenile' problem of evil, which may well be true for a non-Christian, possibly deist, like Flew, and he no longer has some, fairly esoteric, objections such as "being an actor without a body". Interestingly Vernon says that Flew believes the burden of evidence falls on atheism:

"It is up to atheists to explain how various things like life, consciousness and existence itself could come about. There are no satisfactory theses for these genesis issues...Moreover there is good reason to think that they simply lie outside the remit of science. (For example, if the genesis of the universe is the product of quantum laws you still have to ask about the origin of the laws; plus quantum genesis presumes a pre-existing quantum field so begs the question of how that originated.)"
Now I'm not a big fan of mysterious handwaving about consciousness so I'll ignore that hot potato for the moment, but I'm far from convinced that the infinite regression of causality ('but what caused the big bang?' etc) in any way shifts the burden of proof onto atheists. It doesn't seem like positing an uncaused God (or whatever) is any better an argument than asserting an uncaused anything else.

Flew then goes on to make some arguments for the existence of god from design:
"discussion of matters like fine-tuning will be familiar to those who have read in the field of popular cosmology. He rejects the multiverse response to fine tuning since it explains nothing, merely arguing that everything is possible. In addition, two further problems follow. First, and more fundamentally, saying everything is possible says nothing about why everything is possible in the multiverse. Second, the multiverse is a massively complex proposal. Intelligence behind the fine-tuning, the laws and the existence of the universe is far simpler."
I confess I'm not fan of multiverse theorising, it seems fairly contentless, but then that's the same reason why I'm unimpressed by probabilistic reasoning about cosmological constants since this just seems like plucking figures out of the air too, how does he know that this value of this constant in this mathematical relationship is unlikely, what is he comparing it to, where is the well developed physical theory that underlies such a judgement? But I guess I have less of a knockdown argument against that one, other than the anthropic principle, which is not irrelevant, but perhaps a little over used when the real problem is that the question is pretty meaningless at our current level of physical knowledge.

On evolution and abiogenesis he is just bonkers:

"The current biological theories to account for the origins of life are also examined. In short, Flew finds them unconvincing since, first they require the universe to have existed for far, far longer than it has (by many, many factors of ten); second they still don’t explain how life can have emerged from lifeless matter: how mindless matter can produce life with intrinsic ends and self-replicating tendencies is the serious philosophical question."
Not sure how Flew manages to calculate probabilities on various biochemical propositions for the origin of life, and from someone cautioning against applying intentional labels to matter* his claim that mindless matter oughtn't to be able to self-replicate betrays a spectacular lack of knowledge about molecular biology and biochemistry. Even a cursory aquaintance with prions or RNA make it abundantly clear how something can have a structure which causes elements in its environment to form that same structure, and thus allows self-replication and therefore evolution**:

"Flew also points out that even if a scientist produced life in a test tube, for example, that would not change his mind since the question would still be whence the life (not just the mix of chemicals)."
You what? Is he seriously proposing vitalism? A magic non-physical force animates all things that are 'alive' (whatever 'alive' is supposed to mean, are viruses?) I'm not sure most Catholics or any other theist groups would subscribe to that view!

I'm interested that Flew claims to be a deist, because it seems that he adheres to a very particular meaning of deism, that is, of rejection of revelation and scripture in favour of reason, because, although I presume that he rejects recent intervention in human affairs, it seems that he is far from believing in a mere creator of the universe, rather his God seems to have a hand in the origins of life on Earth some 10 billion years later.***

In conclusion Vernon's opinion of it:

"As to whether I, as an agnostic, find Flew’s design argument for the existence of God convincing, I think I find it impressive rather than conclusive. It is a profound challenge to atheism, but keeps me as a religiously-inclined agnostic."

*Vernon says that Flew says "a gene cannot be selfish and since moral causes incline humans genes also cannot determine their actions" which sounds remarkably like Mary Midgley's gross misunderstanding of Dawkins selfish gene concept, "Gene-juggling".

**It seems that Flew may actually be an outright creationist:

"It has emerged that 12 prominent academics wrote to Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the education secretary, last month arguing that ID [intelligent design] should be taught as part of science on the national curriculum. They included Antony Flew, formerly professor of philosophy at Reading University..." [The Times]
Although Vernon says (in his Comment is Free article):
"Incidentally, Intelligent Design, as advocated by conservative evangelicals, is not addressed head-on in There is a God. I suspect Flew wouldn't have much time for it as an alternative to Darwinism: divine intelligence, for him, is an issue where natural selection falls short, notably at the origins of life."
***Vernon says in the comments on his blog that:
"Flew is committed to God as 'perfect goodness' (that's the formula he affirms) for reasons of ancient Greek theology. If God is being itself - indeed best referred to as Being rather than God - and the pinnacle of being is goodness and/or beauty - as both Plato and Aristotle thought (it is just that Aristotle did not conceive of it in relation to Forms) - then God must be perfect goodness. It doesn't follow that the world is good, of course, it only sharing in Being to a degree; or that God communicates with the world - something that Aristotle discounted when he said it was ridiculous to think that people could be friends with God. Humans can contemplate God though, as Aristotle taught at the end of Nico Ethics."
Which seems to suggest to me (I've never studied ancient philosophy) something along the lines of St. Anselm's ontological argument. Combined with the cosmological and teleological arguments above this gives him the whole set. It is interesting that rather than simply thinking that the balance of evidence on some scientific matters (e.g. the big bang, evolution) have shifted to favour the existence of God he has now also adopted a whole collection of unrelated arguments. This rather confirms my view that the atheism/theism distinction is a somewhat bistable continuum where once you are drawn somewhat to one side or the other you begin to interpret the evidence in that framework and are driven further and further towards that side.

The NY Times has an article on Flew, his book, and his conversion
"As he himself conceded, he had not written his book. “This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!” When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”...To believe that Flew has been exploited is not to conclude that his exploiters acted with malice. If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline. Habermas, too, speaks of Flew with a genuine reverence and seems proud of the friendship."
It all sounds a bit sad really, perhaps we've been denied masterful arguments for the existence of God that Flew would have written if he'd been able, perhaps his conversion was based on the rather thin gruel that it sounds like the book contains, and perhaps none of this is his work at all, I guess we'll never know.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

More minority report

More from the Minority Report (Ben Goldacre is currently hosting the reports):
"Dr Joel Brind and Dr Greg Gardner submitted detailed evidence to this inquiry that claims there is a causal link between breast cancer and abortion. They are critical of Beral’s meta-analysis because it omitted some studies which they considered valid and included others that he considered invalid. Dr Sam Rowlands made a similar accusation of Dr Brind’s submission, pointing out that several key papers were missing."
But here is what the main report has to say:
"Dr Richards told us that “if you compare women who keep their pregnancy with those who have an induced abortion, those who have an induced abortion are more likely to get breast cancer later on”.197 This is the comparative group that Dr Brind favours and the result is expected, since carrying a first pregnancy to birth is protective against breast cancer.198 However, if you look at the rates of cancer between women who have had an abortion and those who have not had children, the effect disappears."
Brilliant! Tell women that having an abortion will give them breast cancer because having a child is protective against breast cancer, and then 'protect' them by making terminations more difficult. And don't stop there, early childbirth will protect all women against breast cancer so ban contraception. Only one more step to the Handmaid's Tale and forced child bearing.

Here's some more:
"We are most concerned that no expert in foetal ultrasound was called upon to give answers to questions posed in this section, and that instead the committee relied on testimony from neurobiologists and paediatricians. Why was Professor Stuart Campbell, who pioneered this work, not called? This cannot be justified on the basis that he did not submit evidence because Fitzgerald was summoned to give oral evidence without submitting written evidence. This appears to be a serious omission. We hope that the reason was not because Campbell does not personally support a liberalisation agenda, whereas both Derbyshire and Fitzgerald do."
And from the main report:

"While 4D imaging is a useful technology in terms of identifying anatomical abnormalities,71 there have been no published scientific papers marking a contribution of 4D images to the scientific understanding of the neurobiology of foetal development and consciousness. Professor Maria Fitzgerald, from University College London, told us that “In terms of 4D imaging, I do not think it has told us anything about the development of the nervous system. An image of a body tells you nothing about the nervous system.”72 Professor Marlow added that “[4D imaging] is helpful in terms of prediction of abnormality and therefore one is able to see structures that one would not see in ordinary, two dimensional, real time, 3D ultrasound. I do not think it tells us any more about foetal development than we probably knew already.”73 This position is further supported by Professor Wyatt: “at the moment I think the consensus is they do not add a great deal in terms of the science.”"
Yep, rather than a great conspiracy to silence the 'pioneering' 4D king Prof. Campbell, the fact is they add nothing to the debate about foetal pain because they are just pictures.

How about Anand where the Minority Report said:
"The RCOG...are ‘unaware of the work of Dr Anand or any other work that contradicts the basic findings of (their) review’. For the RCOG to report the studies of researchers who share their own official position, whilst ignoring research published by other leading researchers with contrary views, is at the very least misleading and at worst a serious abuse of power. It seems bizarre that the RCOG has not made more of an effort to find out more about contrary evidence before making such a bold public statement. It surely owes both Anand and Parliament a formal apology and explanation of why it has apparently ‘cherry picked’ the scientific evidence to support its opposition to a lowering of the 24 week upper limit for abortion."

Here's the main report:
"Although we did not receive evidence from Professor Sunny Anand, nor did any of those originally submitting evidence refer to his work or publications, we did consider a review article co-authored by him which was published recently,53 together with submission from Dr Stuart Derbyshire which offers commentary upon it and refers to Dr Anand’s earlier work in this area.54 We note that the main thrust of his important previous work has been to show neonates have better outcomes when provided with anaesthesia and analgesia during surgery and other stressful procedures and that noxious stimuli during gestation can have a detrimental impact on the long-term development of an infant; we have been unable to see the direct relevance of this work to the question of abortion."

Yep, the Committee were unable to find what this important work Anand is supposed to have done is, other than writing a review article which makes no sense.

It is interesting to compare the Minority Report to the Dispatches documentary, all the same faces crop up, Campbell, Anand, none of whom actually have anything scientific to say, I wonder if there might have been some coordination going on?

More abortion

Via Badscience, the Commons Science and Technology Committe report on abortion is out today, (as is the minority report):
"The Committee concludes that while survival rates at 24 weeks (the current upper limit for abortion) and over have improved since 1990, survival rates (viability) have not done so below that gestational point. The Committee concludes that there is no scientific basis - on the grounds on viability - to reduce the upper time limit.

The Committee supports the removal of the requirement for two doctors signatures before an abortion can be carried out. The Committee is concerned that the requirement for two signatures may be causing delays in access to abortion services and found no evidence of its value in terms of safety.

Nurses and midwives with suitable training and professional guidance, should not be prevented by law from carrying out all stages of early medical and early surgical abortion. The Committee says that it found there is no evidence that this would compromise patient safety or quality of care.

On the issue of foetal pain, the Committee says the evidence suggests that while foetuses have physiological reactions to stimuli, this does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below 24 weeks. It further concludes that these factors may be relevant to clinical practice but do not appear to be relevant to the question of abortion law.

While new 4D imaging techniques are a useful tool in diagnosis of foetal abnormality, there is no evidence they provide any scientific insights on the question of foetal sentience or viability."

I haven't had time to read the whole report yet, but I was naturally drawn by morbid curiosity to the Minority Report (one of the two MPs writing it has a blog on it):
"We may never know for certain when foetuses first start to feel pain and there is no clear consensus amongst experts in the field. There are two main schools of thought. The first, represented to this enquiry byFitzgerald, Derbyshire and the RCOG, is that foetuses cannot feel pain until 26 weeks gestation, because that is the stage of development at which mature neural connections between the thalamus and cerebral cortex are first present. The second view, expounded in a review article by Anand et al published in Seminars in Perinatology in October 2007 (and also presented by the same author to the US Congress in 2005), is that foetuses feel pain using different neural mechanisms than adults and that these are present at earlier than 20 weeks gestation. Both schools are however agreed that conscious perception of pain cannot e inferred from observing anatomy, stress hormone levels and movements alone.
The alternative view supported by Anand et al argues that the more traditional Fitzgerald/Derbyshire/RCOG view ignores significant evidence, specifically that: a) sensory processing in the human brain develops well before birth;b)the subplate zone is functional well before the cerebral cortex develops; c) the key mechanisms of consciousness are located below the cortex (in areas that develop in early gestation); d) fetal behaviors suggest memory and learning as the highest-order evidence for perceptual function; and e) other lines of emerging evidence in the field of neuroscience."
Note that the two main schools of thought basically represent Anand on one side (published on the 31st of October, today, the first time this view has been published explicitly), and everyone else in the field on the other side, to claim that "there is no clear consensus amongst experts in the field" is simply false on this issue. I'm particularly intrigued by the claim, central to Anand's paper, and the minority report, that the mainstream view "..presupposes that cortical activation must be necessary for fetal pain perception. This reasoning, however, ignores clinical data that ablation or stimulation of the somatosensory cortex does not alter pain perception in adults, whereas thalamic ablation or stimulation does. If cortical function is not a necessary standard for adult pain perception, why must fetal pain be held to a higher standard?"

Note that it is obviously possible, as the thalamus represents the input tract to the cortex for thalamic damage to alter cortical activity and to cause pain even if the conscious perception of pain is mediated by the cortex (so called thalamic pain, an intractable and severe neuropathic pain) - after all, we know that damage to peripheral nerves can modulate pain too, but we don't think that pain is therefore perceived in peripheral nerves!

We also know that cortical pain circuits consist of much more than simply primary somatosensory cortex, including the insula (where direct stimulation can cause pain), and cingulate (where stimulation can relieve pain) and we know that cortical stimulation/inactivation, particularly to the motor cortex can relieve pain, including neuropathic and thalamic pain. So the whole point is simply invalid, the existence of pain/pain relief caused by thalamic damage does not prove that this is where conscious pain perception is mediated, nor does the failure of primary somatosensory cortex damage to modulate pain perception prove that it is not mediated by the cortex. This is such fundamental misunderstanding of the neuroscience that you have to wonder why they even bother making the point at all!

Here's some more:
"The RCOG in response to comments by Anand in a Channel Four Dispatches programme has issued a press release claiming they keep a 76 Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967 ‘watching brief on new scientific developments and advancements in fetal medicine, and continue to examine emerging evidence from the international scientific community about fetal awareness and fetal pain’ but are ‘unaware of the work of Dr Anand or any other work that contradicts the basic findings of (their) review’.
For the RCOG to report the studies of researchers who share their own official position, whilst ignoring research published by other leading researchers with contrary views, is at the very least misleading and at worst a serious abuse of power. It seems bizarre that the RCOG has not made more of an effort to find out more about contrary evidence before making such a bold public statement. It surely owes both Anand and Parliament a formal apology and explanation of why it has apparently ‘cherry picked’ the scientific evidence to support its opposition to a lowering of the 24 week upper limit for abortion."
Anand has not published any research on the issue of preterm foetal pain at all as far as I can see, although he has been an advocate of foetal pain in the media. Note that I have pretty much reported the entire foetal pain section of the Minority Report here, and the only reference is Anand's review, so it is unclear what this research that the RCOG has ignored is. Hopefully they don't think that Anand's utterly unsupported theorising on putative foetal specific pain circuits constitutes evidence?

Here's some more from Anand's review to get an idea of the quality, after claiming that cortex is not needed to experience pain:
"Some argue that activation of the sensory cortex is a necessary criterion for pain “perception” to occur in the fetus, citing the lack of evidence for pain-specific thalamocortical connections in fetal life...If cortical activity is not required for pain perception in adults, why should it be a necessary criterion for fetuses?"
As analysed above, they go on to say:
"Despite this caveat, robust cortical activity occurs in preterm neonates exposed to tactile or painful stimuli,30 which may be correlates of sensory content or its context and certainly imply conscious perception."
Given that we know that those scientists saying that cortex is necessary to percieve pain argue that it is not until about 28-29 weeks that this is possible surely the claim here must be that cortical activity is associated with pain before then? Nope, follow the link, "haemodynamic changes associated with activation of the primary somatosensory cortex. Forty preterm neonates at 28-36 weeks of gestation (mean=32.0)". I'm not sure how they reconcile the claim that somatosensory activity "certainly impl[ies] conscious perception" with their argument a few lines before that "cortical activity is not required for pain perception" but I suppose it fits with their next line of argument that:
"The subplate zone appears earlier in the somatosensory than in the visual area and reaches four times the width of the somatosensory cortex in the human fetus (2:1 in the monkey), implying that this embryonic structure expanded during evolution to subserve important sensory functions."
So, while somatosensory cortex is not necessary for pain perception, the existence of subplate cells in it proves that foetuses perceive pain? Ah well, I guess consistency isn't Anand's strong point. I think I fairly accurately summed up the subplate position before:
"the claim (based on currently no evidence at all) that the subplate mediates foetal pain, and then dies off in development, and the cortex then takes over pain perception (so foetuses have a special bit of the brain that only lasts a few months but is designed so they can feel pain whilst in the womb, but that then largely disappears to be replaced by a whole other neural system to serve the same purpose when the baby is actually born). So there is no reason to believe that this is the case, unless you happen to need to believe that there must be a mechanism that underlies foetal pain because you already believe that foetuses feel pain - can you say post hoc rationalisation?"

Belatedly here's a link to Ben Goldacre's Badscience column covering the provenance of some of the figures about preterm viability:
"I don’t blame Prof Wyatt, but the figure has taken on a life of its own. There may have been yet another mistake here, about the denominator. I don’t know. I’m quite prepared to believe that UCL may have unusually good results. But science is about clarity and transparency, especially for public policy. You need to be very clear on things like: what do you define as a “live birth”, how do you decide on what gestational age was, and so on. Even if this data stands up eventually, right now it is non-peer reviewed, non-published, utterly chaotic, personal communication of data, from 1996 to 2000, with no clear source, and with no information about how it was collected or analysed. That would be fine if it hadn’t suddenly become central to the debate on abortion."

Friday, 26 October 2007

Breast cancer and abortion

Orac's Respectful Insolence has a good post on the non-relationship between breast cancer and abortion:
"Although there are studies that claim a link between abortion and breast cancer, they are almost all weaker case control studies, which are prone to recall bias. It's been shown that healthy women are less likely to reveal that they have had an abortion to an interviewer, while women with cancer are more likely to do so, primarily because they are searching for causes of their cancer. (This is not unlike the problem with Generation Rescue's dubious vaccination phone survey.) Nearly all the better designed prospective studies have found no link. Indeed, now there are numerous studies that have failed to find a link between breast cancer and abortion. Given the preponderance of evidence, although it is still possible that there may be a link between abortion and breast cancer, it is highly unlikely that there is. In this, it is not unlike the state of evidence regarding vaccines and autism. Current evidence
does not support such a link, and there are enough studies to allow us to conclude that there probably is none. That's as good as it gets in epidemiological studies."
Note that a case control study takes a bunch of women with breast cancer and a matched (for age etc.) group of women without it and ask if they have ever had an abortion. As Orac says, there is a risk of recall bias. A prospective study follows a group of women through their lives so abortions are recorded before breast cancer has developed, preventing recall bias. Case control studies are a good way to generate hypotheses, and the hypothesis that abortions increase breast cancer risk was plausible, it is just that the evidence did not bear that out.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Zen parking meters

I went to put my money into the parking meter today and on the front it said:
"Change is possible"
I thought that was rather sweet and I'm not going to think about whether it is just a dodgy translation.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Propaganda for the day

On this morning's Today programme we heard from Reverend Joel Edwards for Thought for the Day (18:28 in). Now I'm not the biggest fan of theists being given propaganda time in the middle of the country's premiere morning news programme, but it is normally a fairly innocuous slot (even if highly irritating for occurring when I want to listen to the news and not dull homilies).

But today's broadcast was breathtaking in its partisan political sermonising. Edwards, director of the Evangelical Alliance, was given the the slot to campaign against abortion:
"...the emerging evidence of scientists and respected journalists who lay before us clear indicators that foetuses can survive at an earlier age. It is evidence which is making the law obsolete. In this complicated life and death debate a woman's womb has become one of the most politicised places on the planet. But, had we known 40 years ago, that today 186,000 unborn would be terminated every year, would we have said yes? And would we have been prepared to live with our consciences in making[?] that decision in the light of these facts. Would we have signed up had we realised that in 40 years we would have destroyed the equivalent of London's population, and that, in the vast majority of cases, we had legislated to make abortion a choice of convenience rather than the safety of a woman's life. I doubt that parliament would have done it then, why should it continue to do it now?" [transcribed by pj]
I don't want to prevent the evangelicals from having a voice in this debate, but is it really the purpose of the Thought for the Day slot to use the nation's main morning news and current affairs programme, broadcast to millions of people, as uncritical propaganda time for a religious group to intervene in an important contemporary political debate?

Want to complain? Try here.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Shalizi on IQ again

It is always interesting to follow the Crooked Timber threads about IQ, and, following on from Watson's little outburst they are discussing another post (and now also here) by Cosma Shalizi on g. As before I think they're split into the more leftwing and right-on who are just a little bit too dismissive of claims such as that people in Africa might have lower intelligence on average due to poor nutrition or somesuch, and the more rightwing and willfully anti-PC who are a bit too keen to attribute the problems of Africa to low intelligence rather than the myriad other factors it has to face. [it is interesting to consider, re: the Flynn effect, how European populations of the past, with much lower IQs than we have now, seem to have managed just fine]

Again I think Shalizi has nicely, if a little convolutedly, explained how the existence of correlations between different cognitive tests inevitably leads to a common factor such as g, and does not tell us anything about whether that factor represents some underlying physical reality.

This sort of thing highlights a general problem with psychological science which is not grounded in more basic physiological science - often the explanations given are simply redescriptions of the phenomenon described - and there is thus no actual explanatory value in the models.

Shalizi also makes some valid complaints about those investigating IQ differences between racial groups and their generally poor methodology looking at just means, variance and correlations, which rather poorly control for covariates with simple regressions, rather than looking at the whole distribution. He also refers to an interesting paper that shows that racial differences are reduced when prior knowledge is controlled for. My concerns with claims to have controlled for all relevant socioeconomic factors and the racial IQ difference persisting stem from objections like this - you'd think a rather more comprehensive attempt would be made to find additional covariates, and rather better attempts at matching for them, rather than naive linear regression, would be used before categorical claims like this were made.

I think I would like to take exception to Shalizi's claims about the modularity of cognitive domains:
"If we must argue about the mind in terms of early-twentieth-century psychometric models, I'd suggest that Thomson's is a lot closer than the factor-analytical ones to what's suggested by the evidence from cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, functional brain imaging, general evolutionary considerations and, yes, evolutionary psychology (which I think well of, when it's done right): that there are lots of mental modules, which are highly specialized in their information-processing, and that almost any meaningful task calls on many of them, their pattern of interaction shifting from task to task....But the major supposed evidence for it is irrelevant, and it accords very badly with what we actually know about the functioning of the brain and the mind."
I think the evidence for separate cognitive, as opposed to perceptual, modules is rather over egged.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Dispatches on abortion II

Something's come up so I haven't got time to comprehensively go through this, but actually the programme was pretty similar to the Mail article, which I've already talked about.

The programme basically followed the standard bad science documentary by having 'amazing new research' that everyone has ignored/has only just come to light that is actually nothing of the sort. It also ended on a rather jarring partisan note with first the anti-abortionists making their claims, Sunny Anand is allowed to say something like 'the balance of scientific evidence shows that foetuses feel pain at 20 weeks and below', despite there being no evidence that this is the case, and only a single pro-choice advocate is presented, who says nothing about the science at all, (and no sign of Stuart Derbyshire who is the only scientist who appears to argue the scientific consensus earlier in the documentary)

The primary flaw was to imply that they had discovered brand new research from Sunny Anand that shed light on the question of foetal pain - in fact he has been making the same arguments for years, and has no scientific evidence to support him (he doesn't even do research in this area). There's some nice euphemistic talk about the 'top bit of the brain' that people think supserves emotional and other higher cognitive processes - somehow I think most people would understand reference to the 'cerebral cortex', but then that would probably draw out the contrast with the claim (based on currently no evidence at all) that the subplate mediates foetal pain, and then dies off in development, and the cortex then takes over pain perception (so foetuss have a special bit of the brain that only lasts a few months but is designed so they can feel pain whilst in the womb, but that then largely disappears to be replaced by a whole other neural system to serve the same purpose when the baby is actually born). So there is no reason to believe that this is the case, unless you happen to need to believe that there must be a mechanism that underlies foetal pain because you already believe that foetuses feel pain - can you say post hoc rationalisation?

They also rather slyly try to imply that this 'new evidence' (that isn't) was ignored by the RCOG panel when they came up with their advice on the issue (that's right, not just magic new science, but also suppressed science - these documentaries write themselves!) There was also constant reference to bringing the limit down to 12 weeks (as in many places in Europe) without any explanation as to why this age might be chosen given the discussions around viability or pain at 20-24wks. They showed what they called a foetus that was 'at least' 24 weeks old but implied that this was representative of foetuses earlier than 24wks, which I thought was rather misleading.

There was one amusing moment where the interviewer points out to Prof. Campbell with his 4D images of foetuses that they aren't really smiling or crying because they don't have the requisite neural connections, and he pauses for a long time and essentially says, 'yes, but look at them, they're cute, this'll stop people having abortions', scientific debate-tastic. There was also an interesting point made that before about 22 weeks the lung is too immature to function so that would represent something of a hard limit on foetal viability for the forseeable future.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) respond to the dispatches programme:
"We are unaware of the work of Dr Anand or any other work that contradicts the
basic findings of the review. Perhaps Dr Anand could direct us to the work he is
referring to. "
Heh, what an understated way to call bullshit.

A few other reactions, mostly of the 'in last night's TV' variety, such as in the Times:

"Abortion: What We Need to Know was “what we needed to know” if we were as keen, as the programme obviously was, about advocating that the time limit on having an abortion should be reduced from 26 weeks to 20 weeks."

and the Guardian:
"Like most viewers, I think, the arguments and spokespeople marshalled by the documentary team in Dispatches: Abortion - What We Need to Know (Channel 4)have probably been largely obliterated by the footage (filmed by US anti-abortion activists) of bloody foetal sacs being pulled from vaginas and dozens of tiny, jellied crimson limbs spread before us, a massacre of the innocents laid out on a hospital towel. It was shocking as an image, and arguably shocking as an inclusion in a documentary purporting to be an unbiased look at the controversies surrounding the issue of terminations before MPs gather to discuss possible changes to the law in a few months' time. "

Thanks to an anonymous commenter, Stuart Derbyshire responds to the documentary:

"The programme was a dreadful mess. Anyone who was hoping to be enlightened on the question of fetal pain will have been disappointed. If American researcher Sunny Anand has new evidence demonstrating that pain is possible due to activation in the brainstem, which fetuses possess, I would have liked to see it. But that evidence was not forthcoming in the programme.
I didn’t fare any better in my appearance, being reduced to stating that nothing in the past 10 years changes the view that the biologically necessary components for pain are not in place until about 26 weeks’ gestation. My arguments about the importance of the cortex relative to the brainstem and the necessity to understand pain as a conceptually driven, rather than a biologically driven, experience were all cut.

Ultimately the Dispatches programme was flat-out biased. In the online forum discussion after the show, Davies claimed the show was not biased because all the comments were balanced by objections from the experts being interviewed (8). The problem, however, is that Davies’ voiceover controlled the show and she was evidently keen to get the law changed. Towards the end, Dr Evan Harris, a UK Liberal Democrat MP who is a member of the Science and Technology Committee currently considering abortion legislation, was berated by Davies for having already made his mind up about viability and fetal pain (9). Harris defended himself well, but in case you missed the point about him having already made his mind up, the programme makers helpfully cut in Sunny Anand to explain that there are ‘none so blind as he who refuses to see’."