To Be Confirmed

Posts Tagged ‘science

The media is going crazy over this swine flu thing at the moment. I personally think everybody needs to calm down.

There is no doubt that S-OIV H1N1 can be dangerous but it is important to keep a little sense of perspective on the subject. Data at this stage can be misleading but at the moment, according to a paper recently published by the British Medical Journal, this is a disease which has a case-fatality ratio similar to seasonal flu (around 0.5%).   

Anyway, if you do want more information about Swine Flu it is best to go to a reputable source, don’t take it from the papers or the TV, or me for that matter. Here are a couple of great resources for all your swine flu needs;

The NHS run a fantastic service called Behind The Headlines which “provides an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news.” Or health stories without the bull shit.

This is their page on Swine Flu.

If you want to delve further and you don’t have access to medical journals then I suggest you check out The Lancet’s page on swine flu (emphasis mine).

“The Lancet‘s H1N1 Resource Centre is the result of a collaborative effort by the editors of over 40 Elsevier-published journals and 11 learned societies who have agreed to make freely available on this site any relevant content. All papers have been selected by a Lanceteditor, grouped by topic and fulltext pdfs made available to download free of charge.”    

What more could you ask for? Here’s a link!


Ben Goldacre just linked to this article on his twitter page. Having critised the media in this post, credit where credit is due.


A recent fun test of Astrology on Richard Wiseman’s website reminded me of the fact that despite being extremely sceptical of this crazy belief/pseudoscience I had never taken more than a passing interest in it so perhaps it was unfair of me to dismiss it out of hand.

The first thing to consider is that astrology is made up of two distinct camps, there is the side of it we all know, this is sun signs, newspaper columns and phone lines. Then there is the more studious side which is more complex and involves charts, journals, and data from astronomers. It is important to note that although astronomy and astrology were perhaps indecipherable in the past the two are now very different and separate disciplines. One is science the other, well, let’s see shall we…

Without going into too much detail the general overlaying principle of astrology is that the movement of celestial bodies, both real and hypothetical, have a direct influence on our personalities. From extrapolating data from the position of celestial bodies and their movements astrologers create birth charts which are used to aid interpretation of past and present events and also make predictions for the future. The very stripped down form of this that we are all familiar with are the twelve signs of the zodiac that we all supposedly fit into depending on the month of our birth. I cannot give a precise example of, say, all Libras are supposedly introvert or all Aquarians are argumentative because as we will see later no two astrologers can agree. It is in this fundamental premise of astrology that lies its biggest problem. As yet there is no known or proposed mechanism or force that is created by celestial bodies that should have a direct effect on our personalities. As far as astrologers are concerned it just effects us, don’t ask why unless you are happy with the nebulous answer of its ‘energy’. Energy is detectable, no such energy that should have a manipulative effect on our personalities has been detected.

As I touched on early another large underlying problem is that you can rarely get two practitioners of astrology to agree. With no coherent standardised method or practice to adhere to it seems that they can just interpret the charts however takes their fancy.   Various studies have been conducted to find out precisely how well astrologers agree on what a given birth chart indicates. To date a total of 28 studies have put this to the test using a total of 559 astrologers and 762 birth charts. Each test looked at how well 5 to 30 astrologers agreed on what a given chart indicated about its owner. Despite some of these studies involving the world’s best astrologers the average agreement among astrologers was 54.9%, or better than chance in barely 1 out of 10 cases.

As if this study alone isn’t bad enough, here is an extract from a review of the meta-analyses from 300 empirical studies on the fantastic website

“When applied to nearly 300 empirical astrological studies, many of them by astrologers, meta-analysis reveals zero support for effect sizes of around r = 0.7 that are representative of astrological claims. Mean effect size and number of studies are: sun sign self-attribution 0.070 (26) and controls -0.020 (9), matching birth charts to owners 0.034 (54), picking own chart 0.020 (11), agreement between astrologers 0.098 (26), Gauquelin’s tests of signs and aspects 0.007 (62) and planets 0.044 (35), lunar effects 0.012 (50), and radio propagation effects 0.010 (10). If you are looking for something where nothing is true and everything is permitted, then astrology seems to be an excellent choice.”

Those numbers in brackets are the numbers of studies by the way not the number of participants. There is no astrologer out there that can reasonably claim that astrology has not been given a fair chance by science.

So a glaring question now presents itself, if there is all this evidence against astrology why do people still believe it? How do people get fooled? The majority just read the newspaper columns and take it as a bit of fun, then there are those that take it further; It is easy to think that these people are naive or foolish but it wouldn’t be fair. People believe this because they are convinced they have seen it work. Much like the cold reading technique that ‘psychics’ use astrologers can be just as adept at picking up clues from looking at their subjects, seeing their posture, fashion sense, age or simply listening to their accent/dialect. These clues combined with a creative use of language and an ability to make blatantly ambiguous statements seem profound can be very convincing, especially when you don’t have all the evidence in front of you to call on. And more importantly, especially in an environment arranged by the astrologers themselves, not test conditions.

For further reading on astrology   

Astronomical Society Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic’s Resource List

A great study was conducted by a researcher at the University of California named Shawn Carlson. A decent review of this study is worth reading here:

Or you could read the full article in Nature here:

Here’s another study in which “participants were unable to identify their own astrological charts at a greater-than-chance level.”

Here’s another one, which states “this test leaves no doubt that astrology does not have any predictive power as far as academic ability is concerned.”