Posts Tagged‘evidence’

Death Valley’s Sailing Stones Mystery Revealed.

The Sailing Stones of Death Valley have been a scientific curiosity for numerous decades. These rocks seemingly spring to life at various times throughout the year, blazing long trials across the desert’s floor before coming back down to rest. Whilst there have been numerous theories as to what causes this movement, ranging from the plausible to the downright insane, no one had managed to verify just what exactly was going on with these strange rocks. Well now thanks to researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography we now have evidence of just what’s causing this to happen and it’s pretty fascinating.

The video largely supports the theory put forth by Ralph Lorenz some years ago whereby the the rocks are trapped within ice sheets which are then moved by the prevailing winds. What’s interesting about this video is that it shows why the previous experiments, which were largely inconclusive as to ice sheets being responsible, produced the data that they did. It also shows why there seems to be similarities between some movements whilst others seem to be completely random. Pretty much all of these can now be explained by the ice sheets breaking up and bumping off each other, leading to the wide variety of patterns and behaviours.

Like the video says this might not be the most exciting experiment to conduct however it’s always interesting when a long standing phenomena like this finally gets explained. We might not be able to use this knowledge to further other research or develop some novel product, however as we begin to explore further out into our universe knowledge of strange things like this becomes incredibly valuable. When we see phenomena like this elsewhere we’ll be able to deduce that similar processes are in action over there and thus further our understanding of the places we explore.

Why Plain Packaging Legislation is Bad Policy.

I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.

Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.

For reference the research I’m referring to are the Cancer Council’s Position Statement and the University of Sterling’s systemic review of plain packaging research.

The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:

The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.

I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.

The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:

Perceptions of harmfulness and strength  were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands;  would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.

Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.

The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:

Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.

It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.

We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.

Reworking The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

Anyone who’s been on the Internet for a while will be familiar with the idea that anonymity can to the worst coming out in the general populace. It’s not hard point to prove either, just wander over to any mildly popular video on YouTube and browse the comments section for a little while and you’ll see ready confirmation of the idea that regular people turn into total shitcocks the second they get the magical combination of anonymity and an audience. The idea was most aptly summed up by Penny Arcade in their Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory strip, something that has become kind of a reference piece sent to those poor souls who search for meaning as to why people are being mean to them on the Internet.

However it seems that the equation might need some reworking in light of new evidence coming from, of all places, South Korea.

I’ve long been of the thought that forcing people to use their real names would work in curtailing trolling to some degree as that removes one of the key parts of the fuckwad theory: anonymity. Indeed a site much more popular than mine said that the switch to Facebook comments, whilst dropping the total number of comments considerably, was highly effective in silencing the trolls on their site. Just over a year later however the same site posted an article saying that there’s considerable evidence that forcing users to use their real name had little effect on the total number of troll like comments citing research from South Korea and Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken the liberty of reading the study for you and whilst the methods they employed are a little bit… soft for determining what a troll post was they do serve as a good basis for hypothesizing about how effective real name policies are.

If there was a causative link between forcing people to use their real names online and a reduction in undesirable behaviour we would’ve seen some strong correlations in the Carnegie Mellon study. Whilst there was some effectiveness shown (a reduction of 30% in the use of swear words) taken in the context that troll posts only account for a minority of posts on the sites studied (about 13%) the overall impact is quite low. Indeed whilst TechCrunch did say that Facebook comments silenced the trolls they may have called it too early as the study showed that whilst there was a damper initially, overall the level remained largely static after a certain period of time.

What this means for the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory is that the key part of the equation, anonymity, can be removed and much the same result will be had. This is a somewhat harrowing discovery as it means that the simple act of putting a regular person in front of an audience can lead to them being a reprehensible individual. On the flip side though it could also be more indicative of the people themselves as the study showed that only a minority of users engage in such behaviour. It would be very interesting to see how that compares to real life interactions as I’m sure we all know people who act like online trolls in real life.

In light of this new evidence my stance on using real names as a troll reduction method is obviously flawed. I was never really in any favour of implementing such a system (I considered using Facebook comments here for a little while) but I thought its efficacy was unquestioned. My favourite method for combating trolls is a form of timed hellbanning where by the user will not appear to everyone else but to them they will appear like they are contributing. It’s a rather ugly solution if you permanently ban someone but time limited versions appear to work to great effect in turning trolls into contributing users.

It may just be that trolling is an inevitable part of any community and the best we can do is remediate it, rather than eliminate it.

Dogmatic vs Pragmatic: Rise of the Reddit Intellectuals.

I can’t say dogmatic beliefs always bugged me as I was your typical non-practising Christian up until the age of about 13. At that age though, soon after my (voluntary) exodus  from an Anglican high school, things about religion stopped making sense for me. Whilst I didn’t call my atheist then I was definitely without a religion but it wasn’t until some years later that I came across the identifier. For me the process of becoming atheist was one of mounting evidence overwhelming the scripture that was presented to me as gospel truth, pushing me down a path of rational thinking. Since then I’ve tried to focus much of life on evidence based ideals rather than succumbing to dogmatic ideas.

Since then the atheist movement has come a long way with many on and offline communities sprouting up. For someone like me who grew up not knowing any other atheists it’s been great to know that there are so many like minded people out there. Honestly though it’s not like I had much of a hard time with the idea, Australia as a general rule is pretty secular and someone’s religion is never really a topic of conversation. The only time I was close to some potential trouble was when I was meeting my now wife’s family who were devoutly religious, but even they were accepting of someone who was not of their faith (and to their credit didn’t even try to convert me).

What has started to irk me though is the rise of what I like to call Reddit Intellectuals. Don’t take the name too seriously (I’ve already had a couple long time Redditors take offence to it, but I mean no harm) as it’s not a rule I apply to all Redditors generally. More it’s symptomatic of communities and the group think that they generate, not something that I directly blame on Reddit itself. No the Reddit Intellectuals are those who have taken up the generally held beliefs of the wider Reddit community, usually under the atheist subreddit, as dogmatic principle without undergoing any kind of pragmatic process. For these people the ideas of the Reddit community are simply a straight up replacement for religion, held in the same high regard as believers hold in their faith.

The reason this rubs me the wrong way is because instead of rationally deciding that faith is not for them they are instead adopting someone else’s world view, in essence becoming dogmatic atheists. For me this greatly undermines the principle of the atheism, eroding the idea that we’ve looked at the evidence, decided that religion doesn’t make any rational sense and then left it on our own volition. To just simply “believe” the ideas of atheism means that you’ve put no rational thought into the idea and would just as likely have joined the Church of Cthulhu had they made a shiny website with an active community.

Indeed the problem isn’t just isolated to atheist circles, I could have easily coined the term Wikipedian Intellectuals to the same effect. Any online community has the tendency to generate individuals with dogmatic beliefs that reflect the majority’s opinion and depending on what that community is centred around that will determine what kind of followers they generate. Reddit and Wikipedia are just 2 examples of communities that generate people who believe they’re smarter than others simply because they can look up (or have already read) something on a website. In reality true understanding comes from being able to read those sources and then verify them with others. Just simply reading a site and not doing at least some rudimentary fact checking on it (and for something like Wikipedia that’s incredibly easy to do, they give you the links!) is akin to accepting dogmatic beliefs because you read them in a book that that nice guy at church gave you.

Thankfully people like this are the minority and are relatively easy to weed out once you start probing their knowledge. These communities also tend to be somewhat self correcting as once new evidence comes out that refutes a popular stance the rational actors amongst them will shift their view point much quicker than the dogmatic ones, making their identification quite easy.

Maybe its the engineer in me or the IT professional who’s run up against the saying “because this is the way we’ve always done it” far too often but I find dogmatic beliefs have a tendency to be harmful for both the individual and the group. The Reddit Intellectuals are just the symptom of those who have not developed the critical thinking skills to come to the same conclusions by themselves. I don’t pretend to know of a solution to this but if you find yourself believing something that’s been written on the Internet holistically without verification you might want take a step back. You could be one of the Reddit Intellectuals.

PAGG Stack: An Anecdotal Review.

As I’ve alluded to in the past I’m somewhat of a fitness buff, mostly to balance out my predominately sedentary lifestyle of IT work and computer games. Of course when these two worlds collide I end up applying the same kind of iterative process I would to any IT problem or challenge in a game to fitness and the past couple years have been no exception. I mentioned in the past that I was doing CrossFit and since then I’ve tried several other workouts to build muscle; meal plans and supplement regimes in order to maximise the benefits I get from exercising. 2 months ago I decided to give the PAGG stack from the 4 Hour Body a go after hitting another plateau in my training and I thought I’d share my experiences with it.

Here’s a little background on me so you can put this in perspective (this is at the start of using PAGG):

  • Height: 187cm
  • Weight: 89KG
  • Body Fat: 18%
The particular PAGG stack I used consisted of these supplements:
I was also taking about 4 fish oil capsules a day as well as a daily multi-vitamin.

I took the PAGG stack as recommended: AGG 3 times a day, PAGG before bed and didn’t take it every Sunday. I wasn’t 100% with sticking to this, I’d say I was about 90% on time with it (meaning about 1 in every 10 times I’d miss taking it at the right time) but I believe that I was still close enough for it to be considered effective. I didn’t make any radical changes to my diet or exercise regime during this time either, so most changes can be ascribed to PAGG stack.

So as it stands right now I’ve gained approximately 2KGs whilst going down to 17%. Whilst it wasn’t the extreme fat burning I was expecting there was a definite downward trend when I was using PAGG. Since I’m trying to gain muscle at the moment its quiet possible that the supposed fat burning of PAGG is being muted somewhat as my caloric intake is somewhere around the 2800~3000 range every day. That being said since I didn’t change my diet during this time (and I’ve been on the same diet for a good 4 months prior) the additional 2KGs of muscle gain would appear to be attributable to taking PAGG.

Doing some extra research into the matter though it looks like the potential fat burning/muscle building effects that I experienced could be solely due to the EGCG in the stack. Indeed for the other components there is either no research showing efficacy (Policosanol, as 4HB even states), experimental evidence in certain models (ALA) or mixed experimental results (Allicin). Anecdotally the combination does appear to work, at least for me, but it’s entirely possible that EGCG is responsible for those changes alone. I’d do another round of anecdotal testing on myself to see how it goes, but I’ve got my eye on a new stack that I’m hoping will get close to ECA for efficacy.

Would I recommend PAGG for anyone? I would, at least for 2 months just to see if it works for you. If you buy the components individually it’s actually pretty cheap, on the order of about $30~$40/month, and you should be able to see benefits within a short enough time frame to know if its worth you continuing or not. Personally for me, whilst it did appear to work, I’ve decided to switch to some other supplements that have a bit more scientific backing on them and see how they turn out. If there’s one thing that I learnt from this is that EGCG is potentially quite powerful and should you not want to be downing 16+ pills a day then your best place to start would be with just that.

God of the Gaps.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are incredibly smart and religious. To me they seem to be diametrically opposed as education goes up the evidence for God’s existence starts to come under question, usually to the point of pushing people to be either agnostic or atheist. For me it was mostly my distaste for the study of religion (I found it boring) and the ham fisted approach that my science teacher had to reconciling the Anglican school teachings with actual science.

For those both gifted and religious the most common explanation I get is the things we can’t yet explain come under the purview of a god or the God. I watched a video of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently that sums up why that approach is fundamentally flawed:

Taken to its logical extreme, as in as our knowledge approaches the limit of all we can ever know, God then can only exist in infinitesimally smaller gaps. Logically then the belief in such an entity seems irrational as God is then just an ever shrinking pocket of ignorance. You can of course neatly sidestep this argument by saying you fully believe in your faith regardless of what science says and I’ll neatly sidestep any argument with you on the matter because I’m sure neither of us will walk away happy from it 😉

Rationality Wins: Australia not Entertaining the Anti-Vaccine Movement.

I don’t have kids and probably won’t for another few years but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand some of the things that parents go through. I used to work in child care back in the day and by far the biggest concern any of the parents had was their child’s health. As a care giver every child’s health was my concern as disease has a tendency to spread rapidly in those situations and one sick kid can mean dozens if not taken care of correctly. This, amongst numerous other reasons, is why I fail to understand why some parents refuse to vaccinate their children as otherwise you’re putting them (and other children) at a great risk.

Now I know the reasons why most parents don’t vaccinate their children. Mostly it has to do with their concern that vaccines, in particular the triple shot MMR, will cause their child to develop an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The controversy surrounding this is well known but it is suffice to say that all the evidence and scientific research shows that vaccines can not and do not lead to ASDs. Any correlation that can be drawn between the two is simply that and can not be used as a basis for causation. The fact of the matter is that so far the only proven cause for autism is genetics and any environmental factors are either still under investigation or have been thoroughly disproved. To say otherwise at this point is unscientific conjecture and it would be reckless to base your child’s health decisions on such things.

The usual retort people have for the decision not to vaccinate is that it’s their decision and they should have the choice to make it. At this point the crazed libertarian in me starts shrieking out in support of them and I’d agree with him, right up until I get to the point of where their decisions start to impact others. Whilst the decision not to vaccinate your child is not only a bad decision for them it’s also a bad thing for society at large. Herd immunity requires a certain number of people to be immune to a disease before the non-immune can benefit from their protection. The anti-vaccination movement has had a big enough impact that for certain diseases we’re actually below that critical threshold and those who can’t be made immune, like those who are too young, end up paying the price.

Thankfully I live in Australia a place where the government has finally decided to hit people who refuse to vaccinate their children where it hurts, in their wallet:

Parents who do not have their children fully immunised will be stripped of family tax benefits under a scheme announced by the Federal Government.

The Government says 11 per cent of five-year-olds are not immunised and has announced a shake-up of the system which will take effect from July 1 next year.

Under the changes, families who refuse vaccinations face losing up to $2,100 per child in benefits.

That number of unvaccinated children is rather scary as the herd immunity level for pertussis (whooping cough) and measles is above that vaccination rate. Now this change won’t convince everyone, there are some that to refuse to vaccinate on principle, but hopefully it will drive the numbers up high enough that it won’t matter any more. As it stands now we’re in danger of seeing a resurgence of these diseases that, to put it simply, we shouldn’t have to.

This isn’t one of those ethical grey areas where you can justify your decision based on whatever you believe in, the fact is that if you’re child isn’t vaccinated they are not only at risk themselves but they also put others at risk. The only time I’d support someone not vaccinating their children is if they kept them away from all other children which I think everyone will agree would be far more damaging to them than a shot in the arm. So if the Australian government isn’t going to entertain the anti-vaccination movement neither should you and if you still feel the need to go against the grain because of some whacky view you saw on the Internet then I’m glad you’re getting slugged for it. Maybe then you’ll think twice about the callous decision you’re making.