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January 2014 Archives

From time to time I've heard it suggested that Isaac Newton was an astrologer (most recently in the comments section here), usually by way of implying that, if Newton thought astrology was OK, then it must be. Now, Newton is viewed as being one of those thinkers responsible for sparking the Age of Enlightenment and a significant contributor to the 'Scientific Revolution', so it seems a bit unlikely that he'd be deeply into the rather unscientiific tenets of astrology - but not impossible. As the late Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, it's rather unfair to view thinkers who lived hundreds of years ago through lenses focused on today. So I looked a bit more deeply.

Fortunately it's fairly easy to check these claims out. For example, Cambridge University holds a very large collection of Newton's papers, available in digitisal format. The astronomical section, which might reasonably be expected to contain notes or commentary on matters astrological, doesn't appear to do so; nor does the section of 'notes' & copies of letters on general astronomical topics. (I hadn't realised Newton was into the chronology of 'ancient kingoms': Greeks, Medes & Persians, & so on.) Cosmography and astronomy =/= astrology.

In addition, Robert van Gent has looked into the issue rather carefully. He notes that

One of the foremost Newton scholars, the English historian of science Derek Thomas Whiteside, has stated that he never found any reference to astrology among the 50 million words which have been preserved from Newton's hand.

Newton had a sizeable library of at least 1752 books - but surprisingly, while we rightly remember him for his major contributions to mathematics, physics, and astronomy, van Gent found that there were just

126 (7.2%) on mathematics, 52 (3.0%) on physics and only 33 (1.9%) on astronomy.

There were also just four books about astrology, one of which was a rebuttal of its claims. It's also noteworthy that Newton himself apparently commented to his nephew, who was gathering material for a biography, that he

was "soon convinced of the vanity & emptiness of the pretended science of Judicial astrology" 

after his early studies in geometry and calculus.

Was Newton an astrologer? No.

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Over the last couple of weeks the NZ Herald ran some excellent articles on new scientific discoveries and their significance for our lives. It was great! So it was rather sad to see this rather uncritical piece on Ken Ring's claim that whale strandings can predict earthquakes - and heartening to see a quote from Peter Griffin, calling Ring's suggestion what it is: pseudoscience. Peter's also gone into more detail on his own blog, but there's a couple of things I'd like to add.

Whale strandings happen relatively frequently, alas! They are not all close in time to major earthquakes and, as Peter points out in his post, any supposed 'predictions' based on them are incredibly vague - not what you'd call an effective early warning system! Back in 2010, at the time of the Canterbury earthquakes, this was Ring's explanation for his putative link between strandings & quakes (comment #89):

The whales have as usual stranded around an earthquake-rich time, because the earthquakes under the sea get them when they chase krill etc along the ocean floor in the undersea trenches. The shell shocked whales then float up and the tide brings them in.  

So back then it appears that he thought that whales responded to tectonic events (pretty useless as advance warning). I asked for additional detail at the time (comment #94):

Krill are a key food item for baleen whales, but not toothed whales. Yet baleen whales seem to strand relatively infrequently . Sperm whales (which are toothed whales) do dive deeply - after squid, not krill - but there are no reports of mass sperm whale beachings round NZ in the recent past: something one might have expected if your 'large earthquakes cause strandings' idea had something in it. (Most sperm whale strandings are of solitary animals.) Why no mass strandings along the Canterbury coastline?

I got more bad science in response: 

I don't know what indivdual species prefer to chase and eat, or where they chase them, all that is largely immaterial. Many species gravitate towards the ocean floor, especially when the moon is in northern declination and downward currents are instigated, which is when many strandings seem to occur. There is all sorts of feed there.

And so the conversation went on (I doubt there's much to eat on the deep ocean floor if you're a big whale)...

The point is, all this is fairly easy to find using a quick google search. It would have been rather nice if the Herald had done this.


Also, I see KR saying on Twitter that

Earthquakes cause whales and dolphins to beach themselves. There is some rather irrefutable science behind it.

Please can someone with a Twitter account (all right, Kimberley, I'll sign up!) ask just what that science is? 


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This is something that I posted on Making Sense of Fluoride, but thought I'd re-post here; it deserves to be widely read. I've highlighted some of the main points made by the authors as they address issues frequently raised by those opposed to community water fluoridation.

The Science-Based Medicine blog is an excellent resource and well-worth adding to your regular reading list. A few days ago Clay Jones (a paediatric hospitalist) & Grant Ritchey (DDS) posted an article entitled "Preventing Tooth Decay in Kids: Fluoride and the Role of Non-Dentist Health Care Providers". It's reasonably long but contains a number of key points.

The first is that "there are a number of stumbling blocks that prevent children from receiving appropriate dental care" - including distance from/accessibility to a provider, not to mention the costs involved. 

Secondly, that the majority of people will be affected by caries: " [r]oughly 90% of us will have some degree of tooth decay during our lifetime"; that this prevalence increases over time, and that - sadly but unsurprisingly - it is most marked in poorer sectors of society. Interestingly they also characterise caries as infectious - because the bacteria involved can be & are spread from mouth to mouth. (Consequently they advise against 'spit-cleaning' a child's dummy, which sounds just about as insanitary as popping it straight back in from a sojourn on the floor.) And there's also a genetic component, which means that "[t]ooth decay truly is a complex, multifaceted process that clearly isn’t as simple as forgetting to floss every day or even the socioeconomic status."

There's a description of the effect of fluoride on tooth enamel, which says quite explicitly that "when exposed to fluoride either systemically during tooth development or topically via toothpaste, fluoridated water, or professional application, becomes strengthened." Jones & Ritchey agree that dental and skeletal fluorosis are problems when ingesting higher levels of fluoride, but add a caveat that bears repeating: "It must be emphasized that skeletal and severe fluorosis of the teeth do not occur as a result of any sort of community water fluoridation, or because of fluoride in toothpastes or professional fluoride treatments [my emphasis]. They occur in areas with naturally occurring fluoride levels far in excess of what is safe, and are rare in the United States. In these areas, a defluoridation process must be undertaken to return the water concentration of fluoride to safe and optimal levels."

And they have some strong words to say on the so-called 'fluoride controversy'.

As I said, it's a long-ish piece but well worth reading in its entirety.

For those interested in reading more on this issue, my colleague Ken Perrot has written extensively on fluoridation over at Open Parachute: here, for example.

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I do quite a bit of reading around the topic of pseudoscience (& in fact I've just got hold of a copy of Michael Gordin's book, "The Pseudoscience Wars"). So I was interested, & pleased to see a recent TEDx blog post on this very issue - their descriptions of what constitutes good science and pseudoscience are both apt & timely.

The context: the blog post is a response to claims by one Mike Adams that TEDx is really really biased & so won't allow people with 'alternative' views (my quote marks) to give presentations. My blog buddy Grant has previously commented on how TEDx could ensure the quality of presentations (see here, for example) - from a perspective that's definitely not shared by the proprietor of naturalnews; his posts & the discussions they've attracted are well worth reading.

The TEDx markers of 'good' and 'bad' science should be widely read:

Marks of good science:
  • It makes claims that can be tested and verified.
  • It has been published in a peer-reviewed journal (but beware... there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren't).
  • It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field.
  • It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.
  • Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation.
  • It does not fly in the fact of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge.
  • The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a PhD or other bona fide high-level scientific qualification.

Marks of bad science:

  • Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth.
  • Is not based on experiments that can be reproduced by others.
  • Contains experimental flaws or is based on data that does not convincingly corroborate the experimenter's theoretical claims.
  • Comes from overconfident fringe experts.
  • Uses over-simplified interpretations of legitimate studies,
  • And may combine with imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested theories.
  • Speaks dismissively of mainstream science.
  • includes some of the red flags listed in the two sections below [for which you'll need to go to the original article.]

I'm sure my colleague Ken (of Open Parachute) will agree, on the basis of our shared experiences on various 'alternative' FB sites, that these characterisations are fairly accurate :)



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