Tamiflu, Bad Pharma, and the UK Public Accounts Committee

The conclusion that millions of people have been exposed to a treatment, at enormous cost to the public purse, despite the fact that independent researchers have been unable to verify it as being effective or safe, should trouble us all.

Dr David Tovey writes about the lack of transparency in clinical trials, with specific reference to Tamiflu, and the ongoing public campaign after the publication of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma.


Research into the effects of “ex-gay” ministries

This is, actually, an under-researched area, but here’s a start:

The top three results for why people tried to change their sexual orientation included “To be a better Christian,” “I believed it was what God wanted me to do,” and “I feared I would be condemned by God.” After that comes such responses as a general desire to fit in, cultural pressures to conform, and a desire to please family and friends. But beyond the numbers lie the written responses of survey participants which illustrates the huge variety of their experiences

Question 8 asked why they quit the ex-gay movement. The top answer, by far, was that they failed to become straight. But one disturbing answer given by nearly a quarter of respondents was that they had had a nervous breakdown.

Only a relatively small minority of this particular sample, less than ten percent, say they weren’t harmed by their participation in the ex-gay movement.


It Must Be Beautiful: Great equations of modern science

My current reading is rather fascinating. It’s actually a reread. I picked it up, along with Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, in a bookshop in Naas. I was in Naas for a job interview (I’ve forgotten what the job was for, but this must have been a chemistry job before I got into writing code, so a couple of years ago now). I’d not heard of either book before, and both called out to me as books I absolutely had to buy. I’ve read both more than once, so the instinct was a good one.

The concept of “beauty” in a scientific equation is perhaps a tricky one, and not all the equations in this book actually are beautiful. The Drake equation stands out as an odd choice. (For a start, despite its name, it’s a formula, not an equation. Also, it is not, by any reasonable definition, beautiful. It’s an interesting subject, yes, and the article on it is very well written, but the formula is emphatically not beautiful: it’s an ugly kludge.) There’s a different author for each equation, and some talk quite a lot about mathematical beauty, while others seem uncomfortable with the concept the editor has chosen and skip over it quickly, with an embarrassed cough.

The essays on Dirac and Einstein (there are three essays on Einstein) all make a great deal about mathematical beauty, but then so did both of those physicists, particularly Dirac.

I quite liked David’s review on Good Reads and shuttledude’s review on Amazon.com. I agree with both that the writing is uneven, and the style of the essays is very varied, with some focusing directly on the equations themselves and others being more biographical sketches. I also agree with both that Robert May’s article on the logistic map and how chaos theory is applied to evolution, “The Best Possible Time to be Alive”, is absolutely top class: science writing at its best.

I do have a background in chemistry, and perhaps it is for this reason that I disagree with the assertions by David and Helen Joyce that chemical equations don’t count. I think the essay on the ozone layer and the effects of CFCs is perfectly at home in this book, and well written to boot. (There is, of course, real maths in chemistry too, but that’s not what’s covered in this chapter. It is mentioned that the rates of certain reactions seemed inconsistent, which lead to further research, but the mathematics of reaction kinetics (which is calculus) was not explored.)

From reading the reviews, it looks like the chapters are ordered differently in different editions. A few state conclusively that the book opens with the famous E=mc2. My edition, however, begins with an essay arguing that E=hf was actually Einstein’s most important work, even if it was Planck who came up with the equation itself.

The review by William G. Faris of the American Mathematical Society is rather in-depth, and is actually more an expansion on some of the mathematical concepts treated in the book than a typical review.

The authors of the chapters in this volume do a remarkable job of showing how each of the great equations is situated in a broad cultural context. The equation itself is at the center. But the geometry is something like that of a black hole; the actual equation remains nearly invisible to the general reader. One of the privileges of being a mathematician is that one is allowed a glimpse inside.

Is it a strength or a weakness of the book that in many of the essays the equation itself is “nearly invisible to the general reader”? (The Dirac equation is relegated to the notes at the end of the book.) Probably a weakness. The strongest essays in the book tackle their equations head-on. Once again I’ll mention the logistic map, and add Igor Aleksander on the Shannon equations. Next to those two I’d place the other biological entry, John Maynard Smith talking about evolution and game theory. And then I’d put the essay that other reviewers felt was out of place, Aisling Irwin on the Molina-Rowland chemical equations and the hole in the ozone layer.

A review by American Scientist, quoted in the book itself, praises specifically Christine Sutton’s essay on the Yang-Mills Equation (an essay which managed to cover interesting historical and biographical detail, and also tackle particle physics in great detail) and Roger Penrose’s article on the Einstein equation of general relativity.


NOM: Willing, deliberate liars

The National Organization for Marriage has been spreading a host of falsehoods about research into same-sex parenting. Every so I often I lob a tweet about this to Thomas Peters, NOM’s Communications Director. He never replies, which is a shame, because I’ve always wanted to know what he’d say when confronted with these blatant…inaccuracies.

Well, Rob Tisinai finally managed to get through to Thomas Peters. Anyone want three guesses on how he reacted? Well, here’s the answer:

So now I know what Thomas Peters will do when confronted with NOM’s falsehoods: He’ll act like facts don’t matter.

My my, what a surprise!

Peters’s response isn’t surprising either.


Were you there in the aspen grove?

I’ve always liked the name aspen. There’s something pleasing about it. And the trees are pleasing too. They’re related to the birch, and it was nice to see some real broad leaf trees when I was in Colorado: the dark pines were making me feel hemmed in: it was quite oppressive, really, and the scrub oak was no help: it served only to remind me that real oak trees didn’t grow there.

I didn’t get to see the Trembling Giant, which is in Utah. It’s an 80,000-year-old grove of aspens, which is actually one single colony (all the trees (roughly 47,000) share a root system), meaning that this is the oldest (and probably heaviest) known living organism. (Follow that link: it’s got more information, and some lovely photos.)

This beautiful aspen grove, is, of course, one of many proofs that the world is older than Ken Ham would care to admit. He wouldn’t accept that. Were you there?, he’d ask.

Well, no, of course not. And then again, yes. The past is ever-present, and we always see things as they were. Michael Busch reminds us that “what we perceive as now is a fuzzy stretch of time many hundredths of a second long”.

As PZ Myers says,

I pity those unable to see the grand arena they are a small part of, who want to deny that history is observable.