Monday, 22 December 2008

Smart Sperm

Clever guys have better sperm?

I read this a while ago, but never got round to blogging about it, but now that I've got some free time, I'm going to, as it's quite an irksome article.

I think this is another great example of how massive conclusions can be made by a the smallest of evidence. This article says clearly that intelligent men have more potent and active sperm. This is quite a claim, as when it comes to such intangible qualities as intelligence and the human body in general, any sweeping statement like this is bound to be wrong. But what bugs me the most is the complete overlooking of the data itself. Granted, there's a few cautionary notes in it, a few attempts to make sure people don't jump to wild conclusions despite the fact that the article itself does just that.

No, this is the bit that really bugs me " from former US soldiers who served during the Vietnam war era." I've nothing against war veterans, but it's very unlikely that you could make conclusions about the whole of the human race based on studies of them. Why not, pray? Here are a few reasons, and some people will probably think of me as a commie liberal pacifist anti-American non-patriot, but bare in mind I'm not and never will be American, and the British people have a tendency to slag off anyone and everyone, even people 'fighting for their freedoms'. Nothing personal.

  1. I'm not particularly well informed about the enlisting procedure in the US, but many TV shows and books seem to emphasise that the bulk of the armed forces are made up of guys who don't do very well academically. This may be due to a number of factors, some people don't like school and don't deal well with education, but aren't stupid. But still, the impression I get is that the Vietnam war was fought largely by guys who dropped out of or couldn't get into college. Some are obviously more intelligent than others, but for a given value of intelligent. You probably didn't see many professors taking on the Viet Cong.
  2. Vietnam was a messy war, with all sorts of horrific stuff flying around (Agent Orange, anyone?). Don't forget the effect stress has on the body, even long term, and what could be more stressful than being a foreign country for unclear reasons while the natives constantly try to kill you? And of course, guys from the American Midwest wouldn't really have adapted to life in a tropical country, who knows what they could pick up? Long story short, all these things could contribute to a low sperm count. Maybe the cleverer ones managed to avoid such things, hence the outcome.
  3. I'm not sure when the data was collected, but Vietnam vets must be getting on a bit by now. Sperm count tends to decline with age, smarter people would look after themselves and look after their health, dumb people would not. This could show up as intelligent people having higher sperm counts as an indirect result, but it doesn't automatically suggest a genetic component like the article suggests.
Maybe the research took all these factors into account, but still, it doesn't rule out the fact that only Vietnam veterans were used. The full conclusion should read "Intelligent men who served at least one of duty in the Vietnam conflict have better sperm than less intelligent men who served at east one tour of duty in the Vietnam conflict", although that's admittedly less punchy.

And don't think this is me disparaging on soldiers, I have nothing against them per se, but I endeavour to remember that you get pricks in every walk of life, the armed forces included, only the ones in the army have been trained to kill as well, and that concerns me. But I don't like rash claims based on partial data. If this was a real test, they should have used several groups of people, not just veterans. Professors, Scientists, Big business managers, engineers etc. although these people probably have better things to do than perform some IQ tests before wanking in a cup.

I'd guess people involved in science or technical fields would have surprisingly low sperm counts, as most of them are insular people who have no friends and spend most of their time in doors, constantly masturbating over pictures of Seven of Nine or some other sci-fi totty. And if they're not, they're all in labs handling toxic stuff or sitting with laptops over their groins, slowly irradiating their testicles. So yeah.

That should balance any potential soldier-bashing impression I've given.

Galileo was right!

Pope Praises Galileo

Have you ever met one of those people who have more opinions than your average person, despite having only about 10% of the factual knowledge of the average person? They seem to be more common than ever these days, where the media seems to prioritise opinion over information, and every opinion is given equal merit. It's a dangerous way to be, and I doubt it can last forever, but for the moment, every person seems to have equally valid opinions, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between strength and conviction of opinion and the awareness of the issues it's based on. I.e. People who don't have the first clue how the economy works are the ones who protest the loudest when something about it changes in a manner which doesn't benefit them, whereas those who may disagree in the same manner but know how the system works usually just accept it.

But these people have been around for quite some time, long before the technology gave everyone a voice. Back where I grew up, long before the Internet connected us up, there were a rich variety of opinionated idiots. I once heard a woman in a shop moaning that all our kids are daft because we don't send them to school enough like they do in Europe. Clearly this woman had no idea that in France, for example, the average school week is, or used to be, 4 and a half days, 10% less schooling a week than British kids. But that didn't matter; her kids were daft, therefore all kids are daft, and it's not her fault, it's the government. You get the gist.

This preamble is very long, I know, but I am going somewhere. These people are often the first to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them. Passionately, without forethought or remorse. If they were in charge, they'd just lock up anyone who challenged their world view, I'm sure. So it's incredibly annoying when, long, long after the thing they disagreed with has been proven correct and become a fact of everyday life, they suddenly accept it as if they always did. That's quite galling, but then it's especially irritating when said person then feels the need to tell you all about the impressive things they've done or learned about the new 'thing' they've taken on board. Good example, the Internet. I know many people who dismissed the Internet as an irrelevance, a sad outlet for people who didn't know how the real world works. This opinion, it turned out, was wrong. These are the same people who, quite recently,felt the need to regale me with tails of their first computer and how they now send 'e-mails' to people they know. Brilliant.

People on the comedy scene get this often, if they're new acts. You often get people bemoaning the lack of 'proper' comedy like Jim Bowen and Bernard Manning, hating younger comics with their swearing and views about things like racial equality and non-violence. This is usually on the back of never seeing a modern comic ever, as soon as they do they can change their minds. Peter Kay doesn't count though, he pays up to this 'proper comedy' angle. Fat wanker.

But an example of this sort of behaviour spanning centuries is in the news. The pope has given praise to Galileo. Remember him? Shattered many of the church's convictions about the place of the Earth in the heavens via the scandalous method of looking at things? Rather than just guessing and accepting because a man in a white dress told him it was the way of things? Contrary to popular belief, the catholic church didn't torture or just jail him on the spot, there was a long drawn out series of accusations and conspiracy to entrap him, but many of the higher ups were on his side so he got away from the worst of it. But that being said, he was jailed at home until he died eventually.

I'm not saying it was right to do that, but it was indicative of the times; church was in charge, don't piss off the church. Even if you're right. Especially if you're right in fact, then they really needed to shut you up as thoroughly as possible. But all this was long ago.

The pope now praises Galileo, and I'm not sure why. Granted, the catholic church could use a major revamp in order to improve it's image and fit in with the modern world (which is 4.3 billion or 6000 years old if you're a true believer, but neither rule out the fact that it's developing and changing). The pope now saying he did good work seems to emphasise the church's lack of understanding of the modern world, not help reduce it. It's been over 400 years! If some guy came up to you and said 'hey, this electricity stuff, it's good isn't it! I reckon there could be some use to be had from it', your first thought wouldn't be 'My, what a cool and insightful person, he clearly is in touch with modern society and I think I might see what else he has to say and live my life according to his teachings and beliefs'. Unlikely.

I thought this about when Tony Blair apologised for the role of Great Britain in the slave trade. Say what you will about Blair, I sincerely doubt he was responsible for slavery. Some people said it was an insufficient apology. This may be a controversial opinion this maybe, but I don't think he should have had to do that; not because nobody should apologise for slavery, far from it, but there's no-one alive to day who could make an apology that was genuinely meant. Everyone who did it is dead now, and whether or not they regretted it we'll generally never know. If there are people out there who have fortunes based on industries that were founded on slave labour and they then chose to donate all their wealth to looking after slave's descendants suffering hard times then yes, that would be a good apology. But they wouldn't be speaking for the whole, so it's still not sufficient.

Deep eh? Ah well, point is, the pope's an idiot. We all know Galileo was right. We've been to Mars(in robotic form at least, and I have no idea what the church thinks of robots), there's a Hubble telescope which has taken photos that people use as desktop screensavers, and we weren't all covertly sat around waiting for the pope's approval before we admitted such things were real. There was no real need to pledge the support for Galileo as it's way too late to change anything. No doubt the pope of 2183 will state that Isaac Newton was quite clever actually, and in 2542 the Pope will issue a statement saying 'you know what, that Hawking was on to something".

Friday, 5 December 2008

Art V Science: Personification

Greetings, seasons wishes and merry new year and all that. First December entry, so I thought I'd get into the spirit of things. And why not start with a bit of self-indulgence and talk about my recent talk? Why not indeed.

I recently did the monthly Science Cafe, which was three days ago as I write this. It's a monthly forum for the open discussion of Science ideas and thinking, or just something novel about the field of science that someone wants to talk about. It's all good, and takes place in the lovely cafe-bar at the Gate, not too far from where I live. So far, so good.

I've never done this before, but am currently promoting an upcoming gig (see link above) which is billed as a science-themed comedy night. Now, I am totally aware that this may be a stupid idea. It may all go horribly wrong, it may be the most confusing gig ever, but I don't think it will be. My hypothesis is that it will be great and a novel experience. But I don't know, this gig is in every way experimental, which is somewhat appropriate.

But if I feel this way, and I'm the one who organised it, surely others will have stronger doubts? Curiosity alone may not be enough to get an audience, which is integral to any gig. So, what we need is strong evidence to support the claim that Science can be funny. Unfortunately, I can't provide that. All I can show are my own efforts at this (see what I did there? Self depreciation? It's all the rage). And that's what I was doing at Science cafe. The concept of science being a valid source of comedy most people consider inter sting in it's own right, but I was to put together a semi-talk, semi-routine to both provide a sneak preview of the gig and a talking point for the assembled masses.

It was a good night. The highlight of which was an almost literal personification of the ongoing clash between art and science. Here's my report of the evening, which may differ wildly if you ask anyone else. That's the problem with subjectivity, it's subjective.

Evening began with the first speaker, Science journalist Dr. Toby Murcott, discussing his talk about 'Why Scientists are always wrong, and why it's a good thing'. The main point he makes is that scientific reports can't offer what the media demands as a straightforward yes or no. When a scientist makes the claim that they definitely know something, then they will invariably be proven wrong with further research. Fair point, but I sort of disagree with the 'scientists are always wrong' claim on similar grounds as that in itself is a definite conclusion. Several examples he used could easily be picked apart, and the people I was with didn't really buy what he was saying, finding their own opinions reaffirmed rather than challenged. But that can happen in any debate, so no worries.

My turn then. Went very well, started talking about my background, school, education, tendencies, and my experience at dealing with the general public, always throwing in as many punchlines or humorous anecdotes as I could, most of which worked very well. This was reassuring, as it's always a risk when you try and do comedy in front of people who aren't out for comedy. It can help or hinder. If it's a music night or something like that, it can be annoying as people think you're just getting in the way. Whereas when it's more a whatever you'd define what I was doing as, people aren't expecting to be made to laugh, so it can be more effective.

Did my talk thing, got laughs, people liked, I got given a card, jobs a goodun. Break, then Q and A with me and the first guy. Most questions are aimed at the first speaker, as he made an actual claim that could be questioned/challenged, whereas my talk seemed to result in a more sort of 'fair enough' response. I said science can be funny, effectively demonstrated it, no worries.

During the Q and A, someone mentioned that school seem to favour arts over sciences when teaching. Toby came up with some reasoning, can't remember it now. At this point, our roles seemed to be that of someone asks him a question, he gives a very long answer, I jump in at the end with a humorous observation, move on. I simplified his argument, in what I thought was a clearly jokey manner, by pointing out that schools need high pass levels, and arts are easier, turning to the rest of the room and declaring "We've all thought it, don't deny it!". Much laughter. Followed by shriek of disapproval.

Intense looking middle-aged woman at the back takes exception to my ribbing. She did an arts degree. There followed some back and forth which seemed to kick off a room-wide debate. I will know highlight the main point made and my thoughts therein, and where they deviate from what I said if this occurred.

Arts woman:
"I have an arts degree" (I can't disprove that either way, lets take it as true).

"Arts subjects are just as hard as science!" (I had made no claim to the contrary, it was clearly a joke I thought, but her statement was overconfident, as she has no basis of comparison to test her claims, at best it seems to be based largely on the fact that she found her arts subject difficult but assumed she's equally/more intelligent than most people)

"Anyone could do science if you (an aggressive 'you', meaning all scientists present) just demystified it!" (A bizarre claim. Science, with it's rigid structure, logic, cause and effect mentality and absolute adherence to the laws of nature, where every claim has to be rigorously tested with approved methods and be sanctioned by a group of well informed experts and every published piece has to be explained meticulously, that's mysterious. Whereas arts, a largely subjective medium based on a shared belief system, personal opinion and with no measurable qualities, that's perfectly normal. In fairness, someone nearby immediately replied 'you could say that about arts'. Arts lady attempted to be more precise)

"But you can do arts, and you can't do science. (looks at me) I could get up and do stand-up (she really couldn't, but I was very tempted to let her try) but I couldn't just go and be a neuroscientist if I wanted! (no, she couldn't. This seemed to mean that you have to be a scientist to do science, whereas anyone can be an artist, a claim which normally enrages artists as it cheapens their profession/talent/livelihood etc. She appears to resent the fact that us scientists keep it away from the public. This is clearly just a malicious attempt on our part to keep 'normal' people in awe of us. Rather than, say, some rational attempt to stop the system collapsing entirely. Would you fly on a plain where the pilot was someone who just fancied having a go? I doubt it. Everyone is allowed to do science, as long as they know how things work, and that takes a bit of learning. What do you get if you do 'science' without knowing how things work? Homeopathy, bogus medication and Gillian McKeith, that's what you get).

Me in response
"I don't believe that scientists are any more intelligent than artists overall" (This is true, it's a ridiculous thing to say, like all women are bad drivers, such a sweeping statement can never be true. Plus I've met some incredibly stupid people who are qualified scientists. A scientist invented homeopathy, don't forget)

"I would never claim to be more intelligent than someone just because I'm a scientist" (I wouldn't it's true) Art's lady: You're not more intelligent than me (All evidence to the contrary thus far). Me: That's what I said (in a way). Arts lady: ....

"Science is seen as complex and difficult, so anyone who does it is believed to be more intelligent, but it's just another form of intelligence. You could have someone who's just as good at music as I am at Neuroscience, that would make us equally "intelligent" (I didn't mention the quote marks while talking out loud, but you get the idea) But you ask most people they'll say I'm the smarter one. I have no clue whatsoever as to how music works, but because it's more common, to more people it's not as impressive, that's the only reason scientists are seen as they are. If people can get over this misconception then we'll all be happier." (I believe all this)

This went on for some time, I managed to maintain the moral high-ground by not getting into a slanging match. It was obvious that most people in the room were not on her side, and I was coming across as the more rational, thoughtful, considerate person. it was Obama V McCain all over again (this is what I was told afterwards, not an arrogant self-appraisal)

The sad thing is I believe what I said. She'd turned up to an event called science cafe clearly expecting a dispute and to score some points off the arrogant boffins who think they're so smart, and she was going to get her argument even if no-one was willing to give it. So what we got was the scientist on one side, making calm statements, taking opinions on board and thinking rationally about the claims being made, and the artist on the other side, shouting passionately about their own opinions which made no sense and no-one agreed with but fuelled largely by self belief. Ironic how the person defending the artists was probably the worst possible ambassador. But not to worry, she'll be fine, she clearly was the sort of person who's convinced they've won a non existent argument in spite of all evidence.

But it was a fun night overall. I hope she comes to the gig this Sunday, it'll be a rude awakening. I was being polite and restrained because of where we were. Some of my fellow comics aren't so generous, if she wants to shout her mouth off again she might as well paint a target on her face. So, if anyone's free, anyone fancy walking round an art gallery shouting 'This Is Bollocks'! as loud as possible? See if they show similar restraint?

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