Hypothesis God and Ockham’s razor

In 2009 it will be 150 years ago that Charles Darwin published his evolution theory. It will also be 400 years ago that Galileo Galilei was the first to discover the heavens by looking through a telescope. So, we are soon to celebrate both the International Darwin Year and the International Year of Astronomy.

Apart from celebrating these events and explaining to the public the powerful insights that evolution theory and astronomy have given us, science journalists will have an extra job to do. We can be sure that creationists, intelligent-design-dreamers and religious believers will do their utmost to cast doubt on the theory of evolution. And it will be our job to counteract.

The strategy of creationists and other believers will be the same as the one the tobacco industry has used in the debate about the health effects of smoking: casting doubt. The trick is easy: creationists point at those questions that science hasn’t answered yet – obviously always the most difficult nuts to crack – and conclude either that science doesn’t know anything about the origin of life, or that science and religion are two equally valuable ways to understand the world.

Both conclusions are of course invalid. If scientists don’t know all about a phenomenon, it doesn’t mean they know nothing. And whereas science produces knowledge, religion produces only beliefs. Scientists test their theories with experiments – the scientific method. Religion doesn’t have a validated method of investigation.

Interestingly enough, it is the freedom to doubt that has made science so successful, and it is the lack of doubt that has made religion often so problematic.

Personally, discussing evolution theory with creationists bores me to death. Their arguments are always the same and they have no facts to support their beliefs. Science, on the contrary, shows a still growing body of facts that support evolution theory. For example: the scientific Breakthrough of the Year 2005 – as chosen by the magazine Science – was the fact that we can now see evolution in action on the genetic level. A splendid discovery that deepens Darwin’s insights. No religious book has given us that insight.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter for creationists how large the body of scientific knowledge has grown. For them the discussion always comes down to questions that science has not yet answered, and of course to the question of what happened at the first moment. Hypothesis God can be used to ‘explain’ that the universe was ‘created’. But those that are happy with this hypothesis should be equally happy with the hypothesis that Cookie Monster created everything, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or that a bunch of drunken Gods and Goddesses were enjoying an orgy that created the world. And so on. No way to check any of these assumptions.

To save a lot of time and energy in discussing with creationists, let me give my shortest version to end the discussion with creationists.

It’s based on what philosophers call Ockham’s razor, named after the 14th century English philosopher William of Ockham. A modernized version Ockham’s razor reads: ‘don’t make more assumptions to explain a phenomenon than logically necessary’. Ockham’s razor cuts away superfluous assumptions. For example: the attraction between the earth and the moon can be explained by the theory of gravity. Adding the hypothesis that God created the earth, the moon and gravity, doesn’t explain more of the attraction between the earth and the moon. Therefore Hypothesis God is superfluous.

Everybody has the freedom to believe, but once you are interested in knowledge, then Hypothesis God is a superfluous assumption. We can explain a great deal of the visible universe by describing it in terms of matter, energy, space, time and gravity. We can make observations, do experiments and test our theories. But nowhere in our reasoning does Hypothesis God explain anything more than science does. On the contrary: Hypothesis God hasn’t given any insight in the universe that has been able to withstand experimental tests. Science has given plenty of insights that have been able to withstand experiments.

Only if we start thinking about the moment of creation – assuming that there was such a moment – does Hypothesis God do equally well or poor as the scientific hypothesis of a Big Bang. (But for all the 13.7 billion years after the beginning, astronomy does infinitely better than Hypothesis God…). As we have no way to test any theory about the first moment, we can assume any beginning, but it’s not science anymore.
Ockham’s razor is the shortest version I know to end the discussion with creationists. So, let’s sharpen Ockham’s razor. We’ll need it soon in the discussions with creationists, in whatever disguise.

Let’s start the New Year with launching a two-step rocket. The first step celebrates the International Year of Astronomy. The second step, automatically launched once the first step is already high up in the air, celebrates the International Darwin Year. This two-step rocket shows the power of science as a unified body of knowledge to understand the world: because it is the evolution of the universe that has led by chance to the evolution of life.

A happy New Year! Cheers!

The P-Word, Thomas Kuhn, and I

In a way, you can blame it on Thomas Kuhn. It was he who introduced too beautiful and brilliant a term in the early 1960s: paradigm shift. A term that writers of all sorts, particularly about business and information technology, have had no shame abusing since. Myself included. [I can’t help thinking that if the editors of Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had known that the term would be such a hit, they would have probably made it the title of the book.]

So I was reminded of my secret guilt about Kuhn’s term late in October, while attending the first conference for Arab science journalists, in Fez, Morocco. In the Q & A that followed a panel on “Finding Science Stories in the Arab World,” a man in the audience made a comment to this effect: “This sounds to me like all you [Arab science journalists] do is market or publicize Western science and Western paradigms. Unless the departure point in your work is an Arabic and Islamic paradigm of science, he added, your efforts amount to little.

The “P” word again!

Quick as ever with unsolicited opinions, I volunteered a response. I said that “Western science” was a problematic term to begin with. The conclusions of a paper in Nature are equally valid, and replicable, in China and Egypt, by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher. Science is, after all, culture-blind and verifiable. On the question of an Islamic paradigm for science, I believe I said that it was probably easier at this point in the development of Arabic journalism to train reporters than to produce scholars versed in philosophy of science. Then I sat down, content with my authoritative reply.

My contentment did not last long, though. First, several Muslim scholars have argued, fairly convincingly, that there is indeed a different Islamic paradigm of science. In Islam and Science, Muzaffar Iqbal writes that the Islamic view is that there is a unified human knowledge domain where knowledge of the worldly is tributary to knowledge of the divine. So we know God better, for instance, by investigating how trees grow or why dinosaurs disappeared. In other words, the secular-sacred dichotomy, deeply established in Western thought, may actually not have an equivalent in the Islamic worldview.

I’m not sure I completely agree with this, but I don’t know enough to suggest a counter-argument.

Second, to what extent do the paradigms we subscribe to (if unconsciously or unwittingly) affect our work and how we go about doing it? For example, I’ve written several articles about science initiatives in the Arab Gulf; would I have written them differently had I had a different, well, paradigm? But science policy features might not be a good test. How about when you are reporting on “hard science”? Will a reporter with the unified-knowledge paradigm approach a story about cloning differently from one who prefers for the secular and the sacred to stay separated?

Or is it that the whole talk about paradigms is nonsense, as Karl Popper would probably put it. Popper’s view of science was not that it developed according to paradigms that evolved over time. Rather, science was quite the same thing always. If it is falsifiable (or refutable — that is, can be proven wrong), it is science.

No doubt these are major questions. It is good to grapple with them — though I can’t say we must (for an excellent preview on these issues, please take a look at Lesson 5 of the online science journalism course). Still, I shall pay special attention to Popper’s ideas, at least as a red alert when I feel the urge to use the “P” word yet again.

Why science journalism is challenging yet thrilling

Hard and uninteresting stuff! Not really. Quite often a science journalist comes across research papers couched in difficult boring language – the sort of an essay you are tempted to only see as meant for the converted. But a keen look at the topic, even from a short abstract presentation, gives you an idea into the importance of the subject matter to the ordinary folks.

Researchers may not have any problems with the dull and jargon-laden work but for a journalist that is your enemy. Writing an interesting story means humanizing the research project, showing clearly what it means to the public in a carefully and accurately written piece.

These are some of the things that make covering research in science thrilling. For instance, if you can find what the discovery or the theory means to the average person then you are duty bound to give exciting straight news, which may be followed by a more in-depth feature giving all the necessary details.

Science journalism deals with covering of a professional field and the journalist must avoid falling into the trap of presenting his/her story meant for the pubic in jargon. It has to be in a language understood even by the less erudite readers – an easy, soft yet very catchy, an informative read.

Research projects are time and again designed to fulfill specific basic and practical needs. But the secrets of many basic projects are not always presented in a ready-made write up, in the form of a press releases or in the work itself. As a science journalist, you must seek to interpret the nature and findings of the project. And also to give its practical value to the people without sensationalising it, in a manner that preserves its crucial matter-of-fact worth.

The journalist also has to contend with interviewing of a researcher[s], some of whom may not be interested in publicity. Some may even turn antagonistic towards publicity. The crux of the matter has over the years, mostly, been poor handling of scientific news through inaccuracies and sensationalism and that publicity will mean nothing if itʼs going to damage his/her professional career.

The science journalist must establish himself with the researchers, earning their confidence through accurate interpretation of works. This should also be done with institutions and organizations that scientists are working for or affiliated to.

But as a journalist it is equally important to discuss the research with other researchers and relevant organizations in that area of expertise, as it may be dangerous to rely only on one person as a source of information. Corroboration is a key ingredient in science journalism. These are some of the components that make science journalism challenging yet thrilling and fulfilling.

Why My Dog (And I) No Longer Watch CNN

In my home office we are boycotting CNN. Of course, my home office is a room at the back of my house occupied by myself and the family dog, a boxer named Dodger, who contributes by snoring musically while I work.

Nevertheless, we take this boycott seriously. We do not checkout the CNN website and we do not watch CNN broadcasts and our protest has spread to the adjoining room, where my husband, a fellow journalist, also now avoids the CNN for fear of being bitten (by the dog, thank you).

We abandoned the whole Cable News Network operation in the first week of December, the day after the organization announced that it was closing down its science, technology and environmental news department, firing its chief science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, six executive producers, and the rest of the science-savvy support staff.

Candidly, the boycott hasn’t been much a sacrifice. The basic news — economy, war, economy, corrupt politicians, economy — isn’t that hard to find elsewhere. But we’re standing on our principles. We will only invest our time in news operations, including the one I’m writing for now, which are smart enough to know that informed science coverage is absolutely an essential part of the news of the day.

Now, you might argue that I’m biased by the fact that I’m a career science journalist, a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, the North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. If you thought that meant I had hoped to one day cover science for CNN you would be wrong — they wouldn’t hire me anyway. I’m too short and funny looking. But you would be right that I am completely, irredeemably, biased on the subject.

I believe that science and technology shape, often dramatically, the world we live in today. I also believe such fast-moving changes need to be explained – thoroughly, skeptically, beautifully – to people who don’t work with or normally follow the world of science. So that when health officials urge us to get a winter flu shot, we can evaluate our own risks and benefits. So that the connections between industrial gases and global climate change are shown with clear logic. So that that when the National Research Council announces, as it last week, that the Bush administration has failed to effectively investigate the risks of nanotechnology, we can decide whether or not to worry.

This country has owned the best science communication system in the world. I believe that we should value, maintain and improve our ability to communicate about science, not dismantle it. CNN didn’t even bother to blame its decision to close down the science department on the standard budget cut line. Instead, its spokesperson suggested that all that acquired expertise simply wasn’t needed, that since Anderson Cooper and company were producing the Planet in Peril series, “there is no need for a separate unit.”

We at the home office would really enjoy hearing Anderson Cooper explain the complicated risks associated with exposure to nanoparticles. I would wake up the dog for that, even. But until that day, or until the CNN management gets a clue about the world we live in, this office will continue to get its news elsewhere.

This piece was originally printed on the Huffington Post on 14 December 2008.

El cambio climático propaga las exóticas epidemias del tercer mundo

Los vectores de transmisión de enfermedades como el dengue, el mal de chagas y otros tipos de zoonosis no conocen de clases sociales, ni de limitación geográfica: En busca de temperaturas más agradables, migran hacia los sectores urbanos y sectores que no han sido tradicionalmente endémicos

Nunca han sabido diferenciar entre una cosa y otra, pero como producto del calentamiento global y el incremento de las temperaturas en el planeta, los vectores transmisores de la enfermedad de Chagas en nuestro continente están aplicando aquella máxima científica de la supervivencia del más apto y están emigrando hacia las zonas que les ofrecen mejores condiciones climáticas.

Esto, más allá de lucir como un simple capricho adaptativo de los chinches, podría suponer la propagación de la enfermedad hasta zonas urbanas que no son habituales espacios endémicos, según lo afirmaron diferentes expertos congregados en el Foro Internacional de Eco Salud 2008, que se lleva a cabo en la ciudad mexicana de Mérida.

El mismo hecho del cambio de domiciliación del vector también supone que la enfermedad, que tradicionalmente ha afectado a los habitantes de las zonas rurales y más desposeídas, ya no se circunscriba a estos espacios y traspase las barreras de las clases sociales. Un ejemplo de ello lo tuvimos recientemente en Venezuela, cuando urbanizaciones de las clases medias de la ciudad capital fueron visitadas por el llamado chipo que generó una alarma colectiva entre la población citadina a principios del año 2008.

Precisamente, es el mal de chagas una de esas enfermedades catalogadas actualmente como “reemergentes” en el contexto de un planeta más caliente, entre las que también se encuentran el dengue y más de 100 tipos de zoonosis que se transmiten por el contacto entre el hombre con animales, incluso aquellos domesticados.

Chipo transmisor del Mal de Chagas | Archivo

Eventos naturales que también refuerzan su potencial destructivo por el cambio climático -como los huracanes y alteraciones en los ciclos de precipitación- están incidiendo en la distribución de estos vectores y su migración hacia sitios a los que no pertenecían antes como huéspedes. Tal es el caso del Aedes aegipty -mosquito transmisor del dengue- que ya se ha llegado hasta los Estados Unidos, luego de resistirse por años a la erradicación en buena parte de los países de nuestro continente.

La respuesta de la ciencia no se está haciendo esperar, aunque habría que evaluar hasta qué punto nuestros Estados están dispuestos a desembolsar mayor cantidad de recursos para enfrentar epidemias más agresivas o lo que sería lo ideal aún, para prevenirlas ¿Será posible teniendo como marco el derrumbe de la economía mundial?¿Sufrirá nuevamente la investigación y aplicación científica la marginación ante la “emergencia monetaria” y la radicalización de las crisis políticas y sociales que ya son el pan nuestro de todos los días en el hemisferio?
Lo que bien ya conocemos por la experiencia acumulada es que no hay progreso social pensable sin un avance científico que se traduzca en beneficios directos para los sectores sociales más perjudicados y lo que es más importante aún desde este concepto integrador de la EcoSalud, que involucre la participación activa de las comunidades. Es vital instruirlas a mejorar las relaciones con su medio ambiente y así influir en un incremento en su calidad de vida.

El planeta está en deadline y lo reclama.

Original: http://www.el-nacional.com/www/site/p_contenido.php?q=


EcoHealth Forum does not end here

I was catching a connecting flight in Mexico City on my way back from the EcoHealth Forum 2008 when the conference logo on a hand-made bag jumped at me. It got me thinking how the conference days have come and gone, but the work of climate scientists, researchers, journalists, and policy makers is just getting started.

The environment-friendly bag made from natural maguey cactus fibers belonged to a young man who most certainly took back home more than just a bag filled with research documents, conference notes, and unforgettable momentos of his trip to Mérida, Mexico. He was carrying the hope the world will not simply sit back and watch how our environment and health will deteriorate as a result of global warming.

The young man is among 700 green enthusiasts from about 70 countries who participated in the International EcoHealth Forum 2008. By comparison, about 400 people showed up at the Montreal conference in 2003, a clear indication climate change is a growing concern.

To put it in the words of Dr. Mario Henry Rodríguez López, conference chair and head of Mexican National Institute of Public Health: “It is fantastic to see the amount of young people that came to (the conference). It is inspirational to see new blood into the movement,” he said in his closing remarks at the gala dinner Dec. 4. “Many people after the conference say `thanks God it is finished,` but it is not finished. We are just starting; we are leaving this city with new ideas, with new impetus to change the world.”

As for me, the EcoHealth Forum was an eye-opener and a confirmation of the essential role journalists play in broadening public consciousness of environmental and health issues.

The forum dedicated a considerable amount of time tackling the close link between climate change and the emergence of mosquito-borne viral diseases, such as malaria and dengue, in developing countries.

As global temperature continues to increase, glaciers to melt, sea levels to rise, the potential of frequent bouts of extreme weather (heat waves, heavy precipitation, intense hurricanes) will accelerate, heightening the risk of illnesses and stress-related disorders. The elderly, young children and the poor are at highest risk of being hit. Poorly designed irrigation and water storage systems, inadequate housing, poor waste disposal, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity are facilitating the transmission of mosquito-borne viral diseases.

Malaria, the most deadly vector borne-disease, kills over 1.2 million people annually, mostly African children under the age of five, while dengue is the world´s fastest growing vector-borne disease. As many as 2.5 billion people worldwide live in areas where dengue viruses can be transmitted, according to World Health Organization.

This is only a fraction of the grim picture climate scientists are painting today. But if climate change concerns continue to expand, the next EcoHealth Forum, which will be held in London, England, in 2010, will undoubtedly attest to that.

The downside of ecotourism

Contact with tourists and even researchers is exposing great apes in conservation areas in Africa to human pathogens. Mountain gorillas in a protected park in Uganda were found to share the same bacteria with the people living in the surrounding area, tourist guides and the scientists who studied them.

“Many of these apes haven’t had any contact with humans before. Because we have the same physiology, it’s likely that they get human diseases”, says veterinarian Innocent Rwego, from Makerere University , in Kampala, Uganda. His conclusions were presented yesterday in the International EcoHealth Forum, held in Merida from 1-5 December.

The study was carried in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park area, in southeastern Uganda. Rwego compared the Escherichia coli bacteria found in fecal samples of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei)  with those identified in humans.

He showed that genetic similarity was higher between the bacteria found in humans and in gorillas exposed to the daily contact with tourists. The similarity was smaller in animals that only had contact with researchers and even smaller in those who hadn’t had any contact with humans at all.

The study found also that the bacteria found in gorillas that had contact with tourists had the higher resistance to the antibiotics most commonly used in Uganda.

Rwego believes that restricting ecotourism in the region wouldn’t be a solution for this problem. “Tourism is a source of income for local communities living around these conservation areas”, he explains. “If we limit it, it will have a bigger impact on the population.”

“If we follow the he health and vaccination rules, we are likely to reduce any problem of transmission”, Rwego says. “Besides, there should be policies by government to reduce migration of people from other rural areas to the areas where ecotourism is flourishing.”

Read here a more complete version of this story (in Portuguese).

Vulgarisation de la science – Les journalistes sollicités

L’unanimité est faite sur la nécessité d’établir un lien plus étroit entre les professionnels de l’information et la communauté des scientifiques.

La vulgarisation des résultats de la recherche et autres connaissances scientifiques est une nécessité vitale qui s’impose d’elle-même. Une table ronde regroupant des journalistes scientifiques du Mexique a permis de réaffirmer le rôle de la presse dans la vulgarisation de la connaissance science scientifique. C’était le mardi 2 décembre, au 2e jour de la conférence Ecosanté 2008 « Le journalisme doit servir à la propagation des connaissances scientifiques et ses répercussions sur la santé et le développement communautaire d’une manière positive ». C’est la substance des travaux des experts en communication au cours de table ronde intitulée « journalisme scientifique pour le bien-être commun ».

Les échanges étaient coordonnés par le Président de la Fondation Ealy, Enrique Bustamante. Les journalistes mexicains, Austin del Castillo, Fernando Patiño, Ramón Pérez et Cesar Angulo, ont profité de l’occasion pour souligner la nécessité de l’engagement des journalistes de la presse écrite et audiovisuelle pour améliorer la couverture des sujets scientifiques.

Fernando Patiño du journalisme scientifique et chargé de la communication à l’Institut national de la santé publique a indiqué que la diffusion des informations sur les avancées scientifiques dans des domaines tels que la santé publique, peut contribuer à améliorer l’expérience de vie des populations dans la mesure où une bonne communication permettra de prévenir ou d’identifier les maladies.
César Angulo, journalistes spécialisé dans des questions d’environnement et lauréat du Prix national de la diversité biologique 2006, dit que les informations diffusées par les médias doivent être orientées dans une approche d’éducation et de sensibilisation visant à aider les personnes et les groupes sociaux à résoudre les problèmes liés à leur environnement et les et ceux liés à la santé, par le biais d’informations utiles qui incite à la prise de décision et à la mise en œuvre des actions appropriées

Ramón Pérez, Directeur de la Communication de l’Agence fédérale de l’environnement à la délégation du Yucatan, a déclaré que les médias peuvent inciter les gens à assumer un rôle plus responsable envers les problèmes d’environnement au niveau local, régional et mondial.
Dans le même temps, Agustin Castillo de Milenio du Daily News de Guadalajara, qui a récemment été récompensé par la Fondation Reuters et l’UICN, a parlé de la contamination de l’eau qui touchent les communautés, y compris sociale, santé publique, ainsi que les enjeux politiques et économiques qui rendent ce problème plus complexe.

Au terme de l’échange, le consensus s’est fait sur la nécessité d’établir un lien entre la communauté scientifique et les médias, pour combler le vide d’informations scientifiques orienté vers le grand public.

Cet article a été publié dans le journal “La Nouvelle Expression”

Vers un avenir est incertain

La première session plénière était consacrée aux sujets liés aux changements climatiques.

La première séance plénière du Forum international ÉCOSANTÉ abordé les questions du changement climatique et ses impacts sur la vie humaine à différents niveaux et disciplines, telles que les émissions de gaz à Mexico, les problèmes de paludisme en Afrique et de la vulnérabilité de la santé humaine résultat du réchauffement de la planète et le changement global, avec la participation de trois éminents scientifiques et de chercheurs, animée par le Dr. Jonathan Patz.

La première présentation a été faite par Leonora Rojas de la ville de Mexico. Il a parlé de l’efficacité et de meilleures pratiques dans l’usage de carburants pour éviter des émissions de gaz nocifs, en mentionnant des études sur ce sujet qui ont été faites dans la ville de Mexico, en disant que la solution à ce problème consiste à utiliser des combustibles de haute qualité et un usage efficace.

Mercedes Pascual, de l’institut de Technologie de Massachusetts, a abordé la question du paludisme en Afrique et son lien avec les changements climatiques et le réchauffement de la planète. Il a indiqué que chaque année quelques 110 mille personnes meurent sur ce continent des suites de maladies comme le paludisme. En ce qui concerne la résistance au médicament, Mercedes Pascual a fait savoir que c’est un problème presque aussi grave que le changement climatique lui-même, avec ses corollaires que sont; l’élévation des températures, l’augmentation des précipitations, ce qui pourrait doubler ou tripler les cas de paludisme dans Afrique, notamment dans les zones endémiques comme le Kenya, l’Ouganda, le Rwanda et le Burundi. Ici un nouveau modèle ce contamination caractérisé par la perte préalable de l’immunité qui cède par la suite à l’infection, a prospéré. La conséquence de cette nouvelle donnée épidémiologique est souvent la mort. Marilyn Aparicio, de la Commission nationale des changements climatiques de la Bolivie s’est intéressée à la fonte des glaciers. Elle a dit qu’il y a des glaciers qui sont décongelés raison des températures élevées qui ont fait fondre la neige dans les régions arides et sèches, causant d’autres phénomènes météorologiques tels que le gel et la sécheresse qui sont désastreuses pour l’agriculture et compromettent ainsi la sécurité alimentaire.

Cet article a été publié dans le journal “La Nouvelle Expression”