Mawkish Christmas Filler

December 23rd, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 38 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday December 23, 2006
The Guardian

Christmas isn’t an easy time of year when you’re employed to say horrible things about people. I too have feelings of warmth towards my fellow man, and that’s why I’d like to take a special moment, to try to understand anti-science sentiment, not to attack it. Clearly my brain has gone soft.

The key mistake people make with science is to have expectations that are too broad. Science isn’t about love, or the meaning of life, and on both it will disappoint you. Science is, in fact, a branch of the entertainment industry.

When was the last time you saw an insect breathing, really close up? Amoeba in motion? When you stand on the heath, alone, do you find yourself remembering, from school, how plants move to follow the sun, how photosynthesis works, how stomata open and close, the reproductive strategies of plants, the sexual mixing, the purposes of the structures of a seed, of a flower?

People don’t believe in that stuff, in the way that they believe in a God: they like science. I don’t buy scientific explanations for real world phenomena just because I think they’re accurate, or because I think I can stand them up against the arguments of some wily creationist or social theorist in a squabble (I can, by the way).

People who like science usually just happen to think that the story it can tell us about the world is more interesting, more intricate, and more beautiful than anything anyone could make up and put in a holy book.

But look, this isn’t a fight, it’s Christmas. I don’t blame religion for wars, any more than I blame the Wright Brothers for carpet bombing or the Costa del Sol. I’m just not very interested in religion. Maybe if there was a religion that was invented after the enlightenment, after the invention of the microscope, the discovery of the atom, that incorporated a bit more of what we knew, it might have a bit more oomph.

But when you stand up “made in seven days” against the amazing findings of comparative anatomy, and everything that suggests about convergent and divergent evolution, the way that my hand is the same structure as a bat’s wing, the way that the green toed sloth has a symbiotic relationship with algae that provides it with green camouflage against a forest background, and more, I’m sorry, I know whose books I’m buying this Christmas.

From the moment we started to work out what was going on with the stars we realised that we weren’t the centre of attention in the universe, and the rules had to be rewritten. From a starting position of glorious pointlessness, we generate meaning for ourselves. You may not be the centre of the actual universe (you’re not, by the way) but maybe you can still be the centre of your girlfriend’s universe, or your kids’. And also, perhaps more importantly, even if you’re not important to the Milky Way, the Milky Way can still be important to you.

I’m not suggesting you should rush out and buy a cheap telescope. The maths to make it interesting is all far too complicated for Christmas. But microscopes have been around for 400 years, and I’m willing to bet good money you don’t have one in the house.

The shops are still open. You can imagine it’s Christmas in 1706 if you want to make it even more exciting. Argos do one for £24.99 and it goes up to 1200x magnification. At 400x magnification, just for perspective, you can see your own actual sperm (or those of a friend) wriggling on a slide. And that’s a pretty good way of getting some perspective. Don’t trust me, I write for the papers. Have a look for yourself.

Update from the comments (CDavis):

I went into Lidl (be calm, people) a week ago and bought a ‘Bresser Biolux AL’ microscope for about £40. I expected a crap tin thing. That’s not what I got.

This is an extraordinary piece of kit, and although it’s not as well-polished as a £1,000 pro scope it’s orders of magnitude nicer that the crappy 300x devices that were around when I was a kid. The image is crystal clear from its 20x to the max 1280x. It has LED illumination from below and from the side, both dimmable. It comes with 3 objectives, 2 eyepiecesand a Barlow. The slide stage has X and Y controls to move the subject. It’s housed in a wooden box complete with slides, cover slips and a kit of well-made tools for preparation – including a little microtome!

And the punchline: it has a USB CAMERA! This allows clear images at CIF resolution to be captured straight to a PC, and you can even make bloody movies! Still examples at

www.picasaweb.google.co.uk/chrisdavis999/Micro

Apologies for the outrageous plug, but I feel sure that I’d never have embarked on my life of sin if I’d been given one of these as a kid. I’m unconnected with the company or the device, which appears to be made in Germany for Meade, by Bresser GmbH. Their UK service centre is GeoLogistics Ltd., in Feltham. 0208 9173102.

If your kids don’t want one of these they’re defective and should be replaced.


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38 Responses



  1. Daniel Rutter said,

    December 23, 2006 at 2:10 am

    So it’s a religion invented after Thomson weighed the electron that you’re after, is it, Ben?

    No problem, mate!

    Raelianism! Aum Supreme Truth! Scientology! The list goes on and on!

    Oh, and the Church of Satan is only 40 years old. It sounds like even more fun than Raelianism.

    Take your pick!

  2. bfwallis said,

    December 23, 2006 at 3:06 am

    Maybe if there was a religion that was invented after the enlightenment, after the invention of the microscope, the discovery of the atom, that incorporated a bit more of what we knew, it might have a bit more oomph.

    Must resist temptation to evangelize The Unitarian Universalist Association.

    Also, should a citizen of the USA use US or British spellings here? If the latter, then, of course, the above should be “evangelise.”

  3. claireatcthisspace said,

    December 23, 2006 at 3:08 am

    An Xmas Poem called -of the top of my head- or something like OTTOMH,

    so, or something like- XPOTTOMH (sounds like a place in northern England. Don’t worry, I live in northern England. Grand place. Honest)

    Merry Xmas to bad science users,
    Don’t let others think were are a bunch of loos are a very good service around Xmas time, especially in shopping centers and supermarkets for cutomers buying microscopes for their childrens Xmas presents,
    Be kind,
    Eat sweets,
    Have fun in peaks, the troughs will cancel them out sooner or later,
    Pinch your babys cheeks,
    To stop this rhyme here going on for weeks,
    Remebemr have a Happy Xmas for keeps!

    Claire (oh, I like the picture of the kitten)

  4. DavidJ said,

    December 23, 2006 at 8:35 am

    There is one religion that has certainly appeared after science got going – the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Full details here.

    www.venganza.org/

    Watch the video with oneof its prophets explaining intelligent falling.

  5. pseudomonas said,

    December 23, 2006 at 10:29 am

    bfwallis: Oxford spellings (as per the Oxford English Dictionary) generally (but not always) go for -ize
    (see www.ox.compsoc.net/oxnet/FAQs/ox.FAQ.html#53 for gory details)

  6. jjbp said,

    December 23, 2006 at 10:43 am

    A great wager for free pints is to bet a slightly knowledgeable pedant about the spelling of “-ise/-ize” words. You know you are on a winner they say something about American spellings- they leap at the OED as the source of official English. Every time someone has risen to my challenge the “-ize” ending comes first. I discovered this as a student and it was a useful source of beer money.

  7. ffutures said,

    December 23, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Agree whole-heartedly with most of this, except for one minor point – judging by my experiences buying microscopes for kids in the past, the sort of thing you’ll get for £24.99 in Argos is likely to be pretty crap. But there are real microscopes with proper glass lenses (not cheapo plastic) if you’re prepared to spend a little more and buy from someone who actually knows something about microscopes – and if you know what to look for, there are plenty of good ones around second hand, on eBay for example.

  8. hairnet said,

    December 23, 2006 at 11:29 am

    I cant reccomend a telescope for xmas more. I think they are truly fantastic. You might think that you know what a star looks like, but through a telescope it is breath taking,..
    For those on a budget you can get a decent pair of binoculars for much the same effect as a small scope.

  9. jackpt said,

    December 23, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    I don’t blame all wars on religion but I know of at least two on-going wars where it plays a big part. And plenty of old ones where a faith in something/somebody irrational has led to major bloodshed. Faith is generally a bad thing when it is faith in faith rather than faith in reason. The Wright Brothers didn’t promote faith in faith, god botherers generally do despite its occasional extremely negative consequences.

    As for the meaning of life, there were these replicating thingamajigs and eventually some got smart enough to think, which means they lack several of the excuses that apply to other thingamajigs.

    I’m fairly sure of that because of science.

  10. plockboy said,

    December 23, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    Re: jjbp – comment 5: I do tend to get a bit harrumphy about the Americanis(z?)ation of our spelling, but I seem to recall that there was an agreed convention among the science community a few years back, whereby (for example) they spelt ‘aluminium’ and we spelt ‘sulfur’. I’ve noticed us spelling ‘sulfur’ but still lots of ‘aluminum’. I’ll stick to ‘-ise’ despite my spellcheck highlighting it every time.

    I’d love a telescope myself, but they aren’t so handy as a microscope (had one when I was a kid), it’s bloody cold out on the patio this time of year, and the combination of skyglare and overcast makes viewing a bit iffy at the moment. Binoculars are great for satellites, comets, and planets, thoough.

  11. CDavis said,

    December 23, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    I went into Lidl (be calm, people) a week ago and bought a ‘Bresser Biolux AL’ microscope for about £40. I expected a crap tin thing. That’s not what I got.

    This is an extraordinary piece of kit, and although it’s not as well-polished as a £1,000 pro scope it’s orders of magnitude nicer that the crappy 300x devices that were around when I was a kid. The image is crystal clear from its 20x to the max 1280x. It has LED illumination from below and from the side, both dimmable. It comes with 3 objectives, 2 eyepiecesand a Barlow. The slide stage has X and Y controls to move the subject. It’s housed in a wooden box complete with slides, cover slips and a kit of well-made tools for preparation – including a little microtome!

    And the punchline: it has a USB CAMERA! This allows clear images at CIF resolution to be captured straight to a PC, and you can even make bloody movies! Still examples at picasaweb.google.co.uk/chrisdavis999/Micro

    Apologies for the outrageous plug, but I feel sure that I’d never have embarked on my life of sin if I’d been given one of these as a kid. I’m unconnected with the company or the device, which appears to be made in Germany for Meade, by Bresser GmbH. Their UK service centre is GeoLogistics Ltd., in Feltham. 0208 9173102.

    If your kids don’t want one of these they’re defective and should be replaced.

    CD

  12. Tristan said,

    December 23, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    Ben, I appreciate it’s that time of year when everyone’s nice to each other and all that, but I really look forward to seeing you be mean to/about someone each week and can’t help but feel a little cheated when you aren’t.

    Oh well, merry christmas everyone.

  13. jackpt said,

    December 23, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    CDavis #10, I spotted one of those in my local Lidl’s upcoming offers catalogue a while ago and if I see one I’m going to buy it. I like Lidl, shop carefully and there’s real bargains (as a rule of thumb most stuff that’s sold abroad also is good quality). The only thing re the microscope is that the stores rotate their specials, so if anyone is interested it’s worth checking on their website using your postcode.

  14. dolfinack said,

    December 23, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    Well Done Ben, can’t agree more on the enjoyment one can get out of a decent microscope. As an all-day-long-microscoping-for-a-living type person, I can honestly say I still get a wee kick out of small stuff made big. An early appreciation of science truly is the best gift one can give a child at christmas time. You might just light a spark with them that will last a lifetime

  15. Bob O'H said,

    December 23, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    I think Ben wants a bucket of bile for Christmas – he seems to have run out.

    Bob

  16. nohassel said,

    December 23, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    CDavis – wow, impressive results for 40 quid. Thanks for the tip.

  17. Ken Zetie said,

    December 23, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Re: telescopes. Rather than a cheap telescope get a pair of binoculars. From my back garden I can show my kids the difference between Betelgeuse (red giant, 20x more massive than the sun, Orion’s right shoulder, really clear this time of year) and Rigel (blue supergiant, Orion’s left foot). Once you’ve seen the colour in binocs you can actually see it by eye. Opens your mind to the whole realm of stars. Early in the new year you’ll be able to see a few planets. Again, with binocs you can see that they are discs not points (unlike stars). And you can see the shape of Venus. Most impressive, from my backyard you can see the Galilean Moons of Jupiter with binocs. These are the things that brought the Catholic geocentric view of the universe tumbling down – suddenly, something orbitted another planet, not the Earth so we were not centre of everything. What could be more enlightening?

    I notice Ben mentioned pkants following the sun. I always enjoyed learnings about phototropism and so on. My favourite was a response in the presence of light (not a motion towards/away) which is a photonasty. I always reckoned it was like a video nasty only with stills…

    Ken

  18. Will said,

    December 23, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    Ken: unfortunately, you can’t see shit in London. Damn, I wish I had a universal on/off switch for all the lights. If I believed what I saw, then I could estimate that there is between 20 and 30 stars in the universe!!!

  19. Bob O'H said,

    December 23, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    The post just reminded me about squirrels:
    xkcd.com/c167.html

    And a merry Newtonmass to you all!

    Bob

  20. Ken Zetie said,

    December 23, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    Re 17: Will…all kids of reasons for not living in London…

    Actually, all said and done I only live a little west of twon – just beyond the M25 and that’s good enough to see some remarkable ‘shit’. Nothing like real darkness though.

    Having started an astronomy club at school we’re still waiting for our solar filter, the sun being one of the few stars worth looking at from London.

    cheers

    Ken

  21. fg said,

    December 23, 2006 at 9:50 pm

    Ben, I know you were on about stuff you can see with a naked eye, but nevertheless my list of Science’s “Wow!-factor” includes all of quantum mechanics (try Paul Davies’ In search of Schrödinger’s Cat), and much of the incredible things going on in our cells – like, for example, the way “stem” cell “lines” ensure they remain free of damaged proteins (summarised here). But such feelings aren’t incompatible with religion, whatever Richard Dawkins and some parts of “the organised religions” would have you believe. Indeed my sense of wonder over science is isomorphic with my sense of God – although I accept that evolution+nurture has simply made me this way. (And incidentally, I despair of the people who think God sat down with a sketch pad and decided the universe would be “just so”; it’s an incredible, fantastic, amazing universe, full of astounding phenomena, and only an idiot would think otherwise.) And so I can genuinely wish everyone a Merry Christmas – and a back-to-grumpily normal new year.

    (And PS Claire, I volunteer the kitten for a re-run of Schrödinger’s Cat – in the name of Science, you understand.)

  22. AitchJay said,

    December 23, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Merry Cristmas Ben, and everyone.

  23. CTWARD said,

    December 23, 2006 at 10:33 pm

    Judging by the spilling in some of the posts above some of us are already well into the festive spirit. Merry Christmas everyone, I’m off to Lidl.

  24. raygirvan said,

    December 24, 2006 at 2:20 am

    CDavis: Lidl

    Brilliant: I wants one. We have a Lidl nearby. Thanks.

    Best wishes for the season.

    Ray and Clare

  25. Twm said,

    December 24, 2006 at 4:26 am

    That’s great about the Lidl microscope. I have been looking for good/cheap microscope for a few weeks.
    I finished reading John Postgate’s “The Outer Reaches of life” which really sums up why Science is important to me. Postgate manages to write about something seemingly obscure as bacteria which such interest and conviction to passing on the knowledge.
    After reading the book, I feel a lot more at one with the world, knowing just how much we rely on our little multiplying friends and hence the sudden urgency for microscope.

    One of my favourite quotes is from Economist John Maynard Keynes, in response to accusations of inconsitencies in his arguments/thinking he replied “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

    For years, I was quite happy with my view of sperm as being little tadpole like dudes bouncing along looking for an egg. But when I was advised to freeze some sperm before an operation, I kept asking loads of questions – I wanted to know more., like how do you count sperm?
    The kind doctor took me into the lab to see my sperm swimming around on a screen.
    My anthropomorphising of sperm was a perfectly acceptable model of how sperm worked for my day to day needs, but staring at those little speedy fellas on the screen and realising that they have no eyes, no sense of the world and that I had no concept of how the fuck they worked really had a profound effect on me and I suddenly developed a thirst for knowledge of the micro.

    The reductionist view of the world – the aim that everything should be explained as simply but as correctly as possible gives us a project that will last at least long as humanity, there is no time where we will just down tools and declare a new compete religion. And that’s an amazing and beautiful thing.
    Watching the power of 10, like a shot of morphine fills us with numbing high of a seemingly coherent universe shortly followed by a lingering nausea as it’s simultaniously too large and too small to comprehend. We probably even realise that there is contentment with a macro level of understanding but that’s no longer a possibility. We’ve started so we must finish.

    Maybe watching this at the turn of a new year is helpful…
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=a15KgyXBX24

  26. roy pennington said,

    December 24, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Good start for the year, Ben. Tell me, were microscopes or telescopes at any time ever banned by law (religious or otherwise)? I feel a conspiracy / false history starting………

  27. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 27, 2006 at 2:38 am

    Probably the Taliban banned both instruments (I have no idea), and of course China and Cambodia at different times made it difficult to wear spectacles. The early telescope was initially a military tool, but the secret got out rather quickly. Any optician could make one.

    The earliest microscope was essentially a drop of water, I think. Again difficult to ban…

    Let me describe as apocryphal – instead of taking the effort to check – the claim that one of Galileo’s inquisitors pronounced that there was no need to look through Galileo’s telescope at his claimed wonders to know that they weren’t really there. I have an idea that it wasn’t satellites of Jupiter but imperfections on the Moon that upset them, but, as I say, I ain’t checking. Because the Moon was in the heavens, it ought to be perfect, like any other heavenly thing. Aristotle said so.

  28. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 27, 2006 at 2:40 am

    Oh, and probably you couldn’t export them from America to socialist countries – the good ones (the instruments, not the countries). Maybe still can’t. Nowadays socialists can’t afford the things anyway, I expect – unless they go to Lidl apparently…

  29. sven said,

    December 27, 2006 at 10:51 am

    For those without a microscope (and even for those with one, as these things are pretty difficult to see): Snow Crystals.

    As for phototropism, Plants-In-Motion has some very nice time-lapse photos of the phenomenon, along with other plant motion.

  30. sven said,

    December 27, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Sorry for the broken link.

    Plants-In-Motion

  31. ZoeinDerby said,

    December 27, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    I take the point about religions but there are some that have been developed since the Enlightenment, for example Unitarianism which, although one of the original ‘heresies’ of Christianity, did not really take off until the 17th century in the form of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and later, in a big way, in the 18th century. It was Unitarians who were largely responsible for the establishment of the Lunar Society and later the Derby Philosophical Society (and where would chemistry be without the work of Joseph Priestley?) and in the 19th century for the Co-operative Movement. Take a look at the Hibbert Assembly website for information on the scientific achievements of Unitarians, amongst other topics.

    Over the past 15 years I have met some fascinating people at Essex Unitarian Church (Kensington), including a BBC documentary-maker and Ted Gaebler, author of Reinventing Government. The Unitarian chapel in Hampstead has been advertised on its noticeboard as “Heaven for heretics”. Information on Unitarian congregations and special-interest groups can be found at www.unitarian.org.uk

    There are, of course, other religious and philosophical movements that are both socially progressive and scientifically literate, the Religious Society of Friends and the Liberal and Reform synagogues being the obvious ones. The problem seems to be that, in order for religions to attract the attention of the media at present, they need to be run by and for bigots, which is why no newspaper requesting a “Muslim” point of view bothers to consult the Ismailis.

  32. fg said,

    December 27, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    ‘Nother slogan based T-shirt, which is tasteful and inflammatory:

    farm1.static.flickr.com/123/335256922_bd314c7aab.jpg

  33. kim said,

    December 28, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    I see Ben’s column on the Durham trials has made one of the readers’ choices of the year in today’s Guardian.

  34. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 30, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    Tesco still has some not-as-splendid-as-Lidl microscopes for ten quid. They may or may not be naff, but possibly good enough to have some fun with. Lidl, on the other hand, tends not to keep things for very long.

  35. Delster said,

    January 5, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    assuming for a moment that God did create the universe….. can you think of any more elegant mechanism, for him (her / them) to have used, to develop life than evolution?

  36. birdoman said,

    January 10, 2007 at 3:10 am

    re: 32

    If a God did create the Universe, we can infer that he has powers beyond our imagination, and has essentially (within the universe) infinite power. Therefore God’s conception of elegant mechanism would presumably be in terms outside of our conception. Although that could leave us with evolution as a surface level by-product, only elegant to our interpretation! And then there’s instant creation! That’s always a nifty trick.

  37. claireatcthisspace said,

    January 21, 2007 at 3:33 am

    fg,

    Quote ” (And PS Claire, I volunteer the kitten for a re-run of Schrödinger’s Cat – in the name of Science, you understand.)”-fg

    Ok. That’s interesting! A re-run.

    The past history, with no history, of a past history. Could kitten really claim a past history of a past history, if a re-run was run, with a kitten that would re-run and accelerate to the point that would be past the past history, or would the run before the re-run, in which the past of the past history was the run, run past the re-run of the past history?

    Or does it just like Kitten Nibbles?

    Claire

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