Monday, 23 February 2009

How not to do science

From a scientific point of view, this is about as wrong as you can be.

The journal Science last week had a story that on the surface looks like a minor spat between scientists but in reality has several unfortunate consequences. According to Science, an Israeli company (Nemesysco) is selling a device using Layered Voice Analysis (LVA), which they say can analyse voices to help determine whether the speaker is possibly being deceitful. They have a patent on the technique and have published some papers on the method of analysis. But they also claim that their device implements more than they have published because they think they have been ripped off by publishing too much in the past.

Enter Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda, two researchers in phonetics in Sweden, who have studied this device and came to the conclusion that it was not all it was cracked up to be, reporting their results in December 2007 in the peer reviewed publication The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law under the inflammatory title of Charlatanry in forensic speech science: A problem to be taken seriously. A founder of Nemesysco, Amir Liberman, took exception to what he described as a personal attack and asked his lawyers to contact the journal, who, being a small bi-annual publication could not afford any legal costs and pulled the article from their website. This led to the Science piece because Lacerda counter claimed that Liberman is attempting to stifle scientific development.

The LVA devices have been bought by 25 local administrations in the UK to assess callers with a view to further investigation for trying to defraud the benefits agencies. A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said that a decision will be made in 2010 as to whether to roll it out nationwide. The figures quoted from the London Borough of Harrow are insufficient to judge whether they could have saved just as much if they took a random selection of applicants rather than the ones LVA picked out. There is no comment on whether they considered the effect of the tool on matters of privacy, liberty or legality. Thoughts of the polygraph come to mind.

So, what do have here?

First, a company that wants to keep information to itself so it can make money from it. This in itself is a warning to the sceptical that there may be more to this than meets the eye.

Second, researchers who have tried to assess the device, and written a tactless article. Even if their blunt criticisms are valid, this is not the way to go about influencing people.

Third, a journal that apparently took a legal risk which its editors could have avoided by insisting on a rewording of the disputed article.

Fourth, customers, most notably people in a position of power, who have taken something on the say-so of a sales force without having had the efficacy independently assessed, and apparently with no plan to do an adequate assessment themselves.

My point in writing this piece is not to take any sides in this particular matter since I do not have the full facts, but to ask what they all thought they were doing. Science can provide data, but only when access to it is unconstrained and open to sceptical checking. The reporters of experimental results have a duty to do so in an unemotional and straightforward manner. One part of the task of journal editors is to ensure papers are civilised and clear. And customers who have an opportunity to acquire good data to make a decision that can be supported in public, but do not seem to be doing so, are misusing the data they are collecting. The only gainers in this sorry state are the lawyers.

But everyone could have been better off if they had all been more conscientious. Customers could get better data for a more compelling decision; editors could avoid legal disputes; authors could provide uncontroversial data to make a point; and companies could gain through better co-operation with academia and their users.

I might have shrugged this off as a case of Homo sapiens behaving typically apart from the understanding that there is a chance that every applicant for support from the state may eventually be subject to a dubious attack on their good name by the use of this device.

If we want to attract more to the sciences, then we need to be rigorous throughout. This story is an example of how to get it wrong all the way through, from idea to use.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Irreconcilable Conflict

Nick Spencer is Director of Studies at Theos, the public theology think tank. Denis Alexander is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Together they have published a report on the conflict between evolution and religion and how to resolve it whilst passing it to the newspapers for media attention.

The problem that Theos reveals is this:

Some of the main proponents of evolution associate it with Atheism. Some of the main defenders of Christian belief treat Genesis as a kind of (poor) proto-science making claims about the biological world. There is overwhelming evidence that evolution by natural selection is a fact that explains how life forms have evolved to their present state. So Christians who continue to treat Genesis as a kind of proto-science with God creating humans in their present form look like scientific dunces.

The solution that Theos offer is to offer a way of interpreting natural selection so that it is seen as the work of God rather than something opposed to God. They note that modern biblical scholarship has no place for the biblical literalism of Genesis. Instead, the correct way to read Genesis is as an allegory for something – anything but just don't take it literally. Once Christians stop reading the bible literally and start treating the biological world as God's way of bringing biological diversity into being (p27) there will be no conflict between the science of evolution and religion or so Theos contend. [They skip the issue of why would a benevolent God who cares for each and every one of us use a process that inevitably results in so many living forms going to waste]

To their credit Theos appear to recognise that if God is no longer required to explain the origin of modern life forms then like a naughty child he needs something to keep him occupied. So rather than make him redundant they throw him the role of playing with the cosmological constants. Theos suggests that this is a role on which all theists can agree on.

"All theists believe in "design" in the sense in which they believe in a God who has intentions and purposes for the universe. They also believe that God has "designed" the properties of the universe (by fine tuning the physical constants that underwrite the universe, for example) to facilitate the existence of intelligent life." (P40-41)

Theos are quick to point out that the above view is not the same as Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design attempts to masquerade as a scientific theory and cling to some aspect of the biological world that cannot currently be explained by natural selection such as the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is a tail like structure that functions as to propel bacteria. ID theorists contend that this feature is `irreducibly complex' and cannot be explained via natural selection as arising out of simpler components. They hold that this complexity is indicative of a designer or engineer who must have made the component so it filled this function. IDer's don't say who the designer is: it could be time traveling scientists from the future, alien life forms, or an invisible imperceptible man with a fondness for E. coli and other such bacteria. The main point is that the explanation of such forms are in opposition to explanations via natural selection. However, none of these alternatives to evolution have any positive evidence that entitles them to be treated seriously.

Hence Theos rightly reject ID for the nonsense that it is. ID is not an alternative scientific hypothesis to natural selection because there are no criteria by which it can be tested. Further, such groundless speculation of unknown designers with a love of bacteria does nothing to help us understand how such facets of the natural world arose. Hence, the reason why ID does not appear in science journals is not because of some conspiracy to keep out pro-religious views, but because there are no research programs suggested by ID that would help us to better understand the natural world. In short, ID is not scientific and it has an explanatory value of zero.

The deep irony in all this is that whilst Theos rightly note that the program of ID is explanatory vacuous they fail to see that the "God did it" style of explanation is equally empty of content. Cosmologists pay no heed of such claims as they do not improve our understanding of the universe one iota and with time cosmology will make God's role in the heavens as redundant as Darwin made God's role on earth.

Theos share with IDers a common strategy. Both require some part of the world that has not currently been explained, and both erroneously take the lack of evidence in this area as positive evidence for some alternative form of explanation. Theological statements about the natural world are, like the pronouncements of irreducible complexity, continually in revision and empty of any explanatory value.

At last the conflict between science and religion is clearly revealed – science is continually showing the statements of religion to be empty hand waving gestures that reside in places we do not fully understand. Theos may continue to provide theological commentary on areas of the universe we do not fully understand - whilst the rest of us rightly treat these pronouncements as arrant clap trap for the simple minded.

Further Reading
  • The original Theos article.
  • Two reports of the story in the press are found here and here.
  • Jerry Coyne has a very illuminating article on the subject of science and religion.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Is the PM serious about science?

Last week the PM has launched a new campaign to encourage public interest in science and show people its importance to their everyday lives as well as to the strength of the UK economy. A reception at Number 10 was followed by "a debate about how science can be taken to a wider audience to encourage more public involvement and understanding."

Given today's survey results showing a quarter of our fellow brits to believe in creationism that seems timely. And I'd be the last to begrudge Terry Pratchett, Kathy Sykes et al, a free drink.

But is it real? Will the PM do anything useful?

Last Tuesday (bear with me, it's relevant) I heard Professor Sir Michael Brady give the Turing Memorial Lecture at the IET. At the end he was asked what government should do to encourage science. After bemoaning the standards of some, unnamed, universities he said: The government should pay physics teachers more. The response, unsurprisingly, was spontaneous applause.

He ought, of course, to have said science not physics but everyone makes mistakes when they ad lib.

To inspire pupils to do science we ought to pay science teachers more than, say, English teachers. We ought to reward students who study science and not, well, certain other less useful things.

The public education campaign is valuable to - though no substitute for money - but Brown should start by following Obama's lead. He should apply science to government policy making. That would set a good example and do good directly.

Come on Gordon. Let's see some action!