Episode 117 – 6th January 2012

Is legalising assisted dying a good idea? Should we use primaries to pick our political candidates? And since when was the Daily Mail judge, jury and executioner?


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Daily Mail Justice (1:58) by Martin Robbins
Hungary for Constitutional Change (7:45) by Dave Landon Cole
Open Primaries (14:08) by Cory Hazlehurst
Pro-Assisted Dying (22:16) by Jennie Kermode (performed by Melinda Burton)
Anti-Assisted Dying (33:21) by William Lee
The Cost of Physics (40:38) by Adam Jacobs
Apocalypse Soon? (50:06) by Leila Johnston
Just World (60:29) by Dean Burnett
Blogger of the Year (67:02) by David Allen Green

Follow-Up Links:

Congratulations to Tim Ireland as Bloggerheads is our blog of the year 2011!

23 thoughts on “Episode 117 – 6th January 2012

  1. Re: Adam Jacob’s piece on the LHC.

    “I’m hope this piece doesn’t come across as anti-science.”

    Maybe not, but dangerously close. I’m not even sure where to begin…

    …how about the suggestion that scientists would be better off working on other things, and that it wouldn’t be a big deal just to retrain them for that. He utterly underestimates the complexity involved in training in and understanding a completely different branch of science, even for ‘clever people’, who is going to do this retraining, and how much will THAT cost, since we’re so worried about costs here. Not to mention the odd implication that scientists should just be happy that they’re doing science and just get what they’re given rather than following their particular interests (and, indeed, aptitudes – a brilliant particle physicist might turn out to be a rubbish geneticist).

    Or how about the idea that the LHC probably won’t turn up anything useful in any way and the dismissal of pure research as a luxury? It strikes me as ludicrously presumptuous of Adam to guess at what may or may not come out of the LHC. They are trying to verify one of the most fundamental aspects of our current understanding of physics. If it turns out our current model is wrong, the new physics that comes out of that could lead to technologies that nobody has even imagined yet, and even if the model turns out to be correct, pinning down the details is also likely to lead to new physics that, who knows, might somewhere down the road assist in the manufacture of medicines, computers and all that important stuff. It’s not as simple as finding a Higgs boson and then having to figure out a use for it, unless you have a simplistic view of the science (which Adam does, by his own admission).

    It’s about all the discoveries that go along with that, what they may lead to, and the new things that might come out of understanding the standard model a little better, or even having to replace it – things that are impossible to predict and ridiculous to dismiss with a shrug, doubting anything will come of it. And his reasoning that it takes such high energy to do anything Higgsy reveals the ignorance here – just because it may take a lot of energy and effort to find something out doesn’t mean that the results of those findings can’t be put to excellent uses that are difficult to predict in advance. And of course, the hunt for the Higgs is only the most well-known of projects the LHC is conducting.

    I’m sure you’re a lovely chap, Adam, but really this piece was embarrassing in its naivety.

  2. Well, Peter, happy to be proved wrong if I’ve missed something.

    I’m actually fairly well aware of what’s involved in retraining in a different branch of science, speaking as a medical statistician who used to be an organic chemist. It’s really not that hard, and I suspect most of the people who do particle physics are a lot smarter than I am. But as I pointed out in the piece, there’s actually plenty of useful stuff for physicists to do anyway.

    Of course it’s possible that some discoveries from high-energy physics will turn out to be useful in the future, but it really doesn’t seem likely to me based on progress so far. Have there yet been any practical applications to the physics of things more finely divided than protons, neutrons, and electrons? I’m not aware of any, but will gladly eat my words if I’m wrong about that.

    Anyway, it does strike me as socially irresponsible to trade the highly uncertain benefits of playing with toys like the LHC against the very real benefits of working on more pressing problems like sorting out malaria. Higgs bosons will still be there (or not there) for us to play with in the future.

  3. I have to agree with Peter. Adam’s piece seemed extraordinarily blinkered. As an organic chemist he should know that chemistry of any sort relies on the action of fundamental particles to be of any use whatever. I recommend Brian Cox’s lecture on particle physics for an insight into this as well as into the comparative costs of this kind of science.

    Remember the LASER? It was a neat technological curiosity when it was invented, but practically no-one had any idea what it could be used for. But look at it now. (Or rather, don’t look at it — you’ll damage your eyes…)

  4. Adam Jacobs has written better poddelusions…
    “Enough solar power to power the world”. I admit Kirk Sorenson has bewitched me with his pro nuclear propaganda , but I’m sorry to say that’s not true. Ok, if you take the mean power output from the sun, divide it by the fraction which hits the earth, it’s quite a large number, but you’re forgetting that most of the power is used; tocreate clouds, warm the air and make life possible, etc. Maybe I should add that to my list of potential pod cast I’ll get around to recording ‘one day’ :-(

  5. On Adam’s question: “What is the carbon footprint of CERN?”

    CERN gets it’s electricity from French nuclear power, so you could argue it’s quite green.

    But what about all the nuclear waste hanging around I hear to ask?

    Well one of the many things particle physicists research is…using particle physics to deal with nuclear waste by drastically reducing the half-life of waste.

  6. @PaulJ:
    It’s a good few years since I worked in chemistry, but when I did, we got on just fine with protons, neutrons, and electrons. Did I miss the bit where chemistry got more sophisticated and started being able to apply knowledge of quarks and stuff?

    @Chris:
    I’ll admit I’m a little bit shaky on the precise details of how much solar power is available, so my figures there may have been wrong, but the point is that whether there’s enough to power everything or not, there is undoubtedly a heck of a lot more solar power available to us than we’re currently using. If the worlds best minds in physics were working on that rather than looking for elusive bosons, we could be a lot less dependent on fossil fuels than we are at the moment.

    @Kash:
    The argument about being powered by nuclear and therefore being green doesn’t really stack up, because if CERN wasn’t using the energy from the nuclear plants, something else that’s currently using fossil fuels could use it instead. However, your second point about using particle physics to reduce the half life of radioactive waste is the closest anyone’s come yet to making me think I might have been wrong. Do you have more details on that? How’s the research going, and what use does it make of the sort of high-energy stuff I was speaking against?

    I think what would be most likely to convince me I was wrong would be if anyone could point to any practical use of the advances we’ve made in particle physics since we learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons. Yes, getting that far was useful, and as PaulJ rightly points out, much of chemistry relies on knowing about fundamental particles at that level.

    But what about when we go a level further and start looking at quarks, neutrinos, and stuff like that? We’ve known about those things for about 50 years now, and as far as I’m aware there are no practical uses of any of them yet. It really didn’t take us 50 years to figure out what to do with lasers, for example. Did I miss something? If someone can tell me of a practical application of particle physics at the level of things more sophisticated than protons et al, then I shall happily admit that much of what I said in my piece was wrong.

    But even then, I’m still not sure I think it’s a better use of money than some of the other things I talked about. Maybe the next particle physics genius who could figure out everything that’s currently baffling everyone has just been born in sub-Saharan Africa, but will die before her 3rd birthday from an easily preventable disease. Wouldn’t stopping that sort of thing be a better thing to spend our money on?

  7. @Adam:

    I think there are several logical fallacies in your report and in your comments above.

    Sorry Adam. I enjoy your reports. They are well researched and make good, interesting points. But I thought this one was badly researched, full of holes, basic bad logic and plausible sounding factoids.

    I don’t normally get into SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET confrontations. But I couldn’t resist this time. The LHC is this generation’s Apollo Moon Landing. It’s that important.

    So here is my blog post that covers the logical fallacies I found.

    I haven’t been learning logical fallacies for long so I may have got things completely wrong. I’d recommend the excellent free Hunting Humbug guide.

  8. My two cents on Adam Jacobs piece
    1) I dont buy this thing, that we wont see the benifits of learning about fundamental particles, until some very late stage. Firstly it betrays a misunderstanding on how scientific ideas move forward, and how those ideas are employed through engineering. My mum suffers from Gastro-Intenstinal cancer. Part of her treatment diagnosis involved the use of PET Scans, a technology that grew directly out of this type of Science.

    2) and to use words like finding a ‘cure for cancer’ and not say ‘finding ways to improve life expectancy after diagnosis’ is tell-tail sign that you may not have thought this trough (but perhaps you wanted to be brief, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt)

    3) Your arguments regarding, the Science of solar power, vaccinations is a bit curious. Because for me the main problem with all those issues is a lack of political and economic will (and intellectual horsepower) which are the fundamental roadblocks. The Science related is well and truly resolved (in as far as it can be)…The problems of world poverty, disease have a political and economic component to it which for me is the stumbling block. Maybe if the Economists and policy makers incorporated the primacy of evidence and rigour of the scientists (which they so overwhelmingly lack at the moment) things would be better on that score
    4) Lastly I think there is an inherent contradiction in what you’r saying. Message is Science should produce things which we can put to use. I don’t think it should be that at all. Science should about the most objective investigation into nature (including societies) and the results or the type of results cant be predetermined in that way. And the information generated should be put to use for the good of society – i agree. And in any case, Scientists deal in the extremes of nature, whatever contraptions, tricks they develop in the course of their investigations will likely to help us in our not so extreme daily lives. Our entire edifice (modern world) is a testament to that.

  9. Regarding Adam’s piece.

    Surely the World Wide Web, a by-product of CERN, is a good enough justification for all the expense? Who knows, it may even catch on…

  10. @Kash

    Thanks for your very detailed blog post. I’ve left a reply there, and suspect that further discussion will be more appropriate on your own blog than here.

    @Quackonomics

    A thoughtful response to my piece, which deserves a good reply. Let’s see if I can live up to the challenge:

    1. PET scans are indeed a useful technology, but I’m not convinced they grew out of “this type of science”. PET scanning is quite an old technology, dating from the 1950s. The important bit of science on which it is based is that of radioactive decay, which we have known about for a long time. Yes, understanding about quarks and neutrinos and things allows us to know exactly why PET scanning works, but I don’t think that understanding is essential to being able to use the technology, is it? The point I made was that refining our understanding of matter to ever more detailed levels was useful up to a point (and discovering radioactive decay was certainly a useful thing), but it’s possible that we may have now passed that point.

    2. Well it’s true that I didn’t want to get into a discussion of exactly what we might do for cancer, and it’s also true that there will almost certainly never be any such thing as “a cure for cancer”, but it’s a perfectly worthy goal to discover cures for individual cancers. We’re still a long way off doing that in most cases, but it’s a good thing to aim for and possible in principle, isn’t it?

    3. You make a fair point in that, when talking about other things we might spend our money on if we didn’t spend it on particle physics, I failed to make a clear distinction between scientific research and the simple application of existing knowledge. So if we assume that money spent on particle physics would otherwise only be spent on research, then you’re right that it’s not going to eradicate polio, because we already know how to do that. There are, of course, plenty of areas of genuine research that we could choose, such as developing a safe and effective malaria vaccine, or improving solar power technology to the point where it can become completely mainstream. We could also relax the assumption that money not spent on the LHC would necessarily be spent on research and could be available for things like polio eradication, so I think my point still stands. Nonetheless, I concede that I should have made the distinction more clearly in my piece and my failure to do so perhaps made for a slightly confused argument.

    4. I didn’t actually claim that science must produce things we can put to use. I acknowledged that knowledge for its own sake has a value. What I do believe, however, is that science that produces only knowledge and no practical applications has less of a value than science that produces practical applications that improve society. My argument is that the knowledge we will gain from high energy particle physics experiments, while it undoubtedly has a value, does not have enough value to justify the billions we’re spending on it.

    @Steve

    It’s true that many discoveries made along the way by those researching particle physics have been useful, and the WWW is a great example of that. But I would question the assumption that doing particle physics is the most efficient way of making the discoveries that are made along the way. What if CERN had been completely dedicated to improving internet communications? Don’t you think they might have not only invented the WWW, but done far more useful things besides?

  11. @Adam.

    RE: PET scanners.
    Yes, they are based on radioactive decay which was established outside of particle physics. But I thought the detectors were perfected in particle physics labs. Every time I read about uses of particle physics research, the PET scanner example comes up.

  12. @Adam I am happy to revisit the PET Scan example (though I still think, it was perfected in particle Physics)..and again the ‘uses of Scientific discoveries’ are the domain of engineering/commerce. The job of these type of Scientists is to investigate nature and it seems to me that you want to penalize them for doing their job to well and the fact that rest of the disciplines cannot seem to catch up. And again, the contraptions, the tricks they employ in their investigation are used (if in a slightly more nuanced and subtle way) into all sorts of every day stuff. Innovation is a very complex process, you can’t just throw money at it from a macro-policy stand point and expect results. I think the best way to boost innovation in an economy is to invest in the quality of Science that you’r doing..improve of the Scientific Institutions. The process is much more of a hodge-podge, you cant have reductionist “Insert Money – Get New Cure for Disease” attitude (Plus you could think of the LHC as a superuniversity where cutting edge research is going on, at probably a lesser expense – though I dont have the source of the top of my head, I’ll try to find it) …

    and I appreciate you took the time to read my response (shows intellectual honesty) however – and maybe its a failure of articulation on my part – the main point was actually that the impediments of the problems of poverty, disease eradication, climate change are not Science, but Economic and Political institutions because they always have the final say in what happens policy-wise. In fact in many developing countries, even the easier low-hanging fruits of primary education/improving immunizations are not plucked because of the failure of Politicians/Economists/Policy makers to understand empirical evidence.

    May I recommend reading “Poor Economics” by Ester Duflo & Abijhit Banerjee, they deal with these issue quite vividly and lucidly. And perhaps that may prove useful in informing your thinking on Science and evidenced based public policy. Here is the amazon link http://www.amazon.ca/Poor-Economics-Radical-Rethinking-Poverty/dp/1586487981

  13. @Quackonomics

    It sounds like we agree about more things than we disagree about. It’s certainly true that the fruits of scientific research are uncertain, and I’m certainly not arguing against academic blue-sky research in general. What I’m arguing against is only a small subset of that which is a) very expensive and b) appears to have a lower probability than many other areas of producing anything of practical value.

    And as for what you say about political & economic institutions, I agree 100%. While I do think we might be able to make more money available for what I consider the “worthy stuff” if we spent less on things like the LHC, I certainly agree that it’s pretty small beer compared with all the other problems we face in getting our political institutions to take such problems seriously.

  14. @Adam

    This is a statements that I definitely have a problem with:
    ” appears to have a lower probability than many other areas of producing anything of practical value.”

    Where are you getting this idea from? Do you have a source? Do you know that this is the case? Or is this an assumption?

    This could be a “Factoid Propagation” logical fallacy, which is:

    “The advocate advances or states a mere proposition as though it is either:
    (a) an objectively established fact; or
    (b) so taken-for-granted by ‘reasonable people’ that it is ‘beyond question’.”

    Though you did use the word “appears”, which might be a get-out-jail-free card.

  15. @Kash

    Yes, I deliberately used the word “appears”, as I can’t be 100% confident that I’m right about it. However, my reasons for believing it to be true are that I don’t think that any practical use has come of any particle physics discoveries made in the last 50 years, and anything that needs the sort of energies available in the LHC before it does anything is really not likely to be practical for use in your living room.

    But that is, as you say, an assumption, which could turn out to be wrong.

  16. [A]nything that needs the sort of energies available in the LHC before it does anything is really not likely to be practical for use in your living room. This doesn’t convince me. The amount of energy required to launch a satellite makes it impractical to do it at home, but that doesn’t stop satellites having a use in my living room.

    Likewise, the ISIS neutron source uses a lot of energy, but in the past month work done there has revealed new way to tackle E.Coli. This might lead to lower carpet cleaning bills due to less projectile vomiting, though the scientists seem more interested in the saving lives applications of their work.

    In the past three months the Diamond Light Synchrotron has contributed to studies on heart valves, palaeoclimatology, Huntingdon’s Disease, reading ancient documents and nanotoxicology. I’ll concede it uses electrons, and these were discovered in 1897, but it wasn’t a case of Thompson finding them and everything after that being a footnote. It takes incremental steps in knowledge to be able to build modern synchrotrons. Here’s three papers from 2011 on current research in imaging. It’s not yet a solved problem. The only reason for rejecting discoveries made about electrons or neutrons is that they’re not true Scotsmen.

    The argument based on ‘simple economics’ is worse because it’s not based on simple economics. There is no cost/benefit analysis. It’s a moral argument that expensive is bad and it applies to any expensive project. The LHC subscription is £34m a year, In contrast the operating costs for Diamond Light and ISIS were £75m in 2008. There’s no economic comparison between the two projects, so it’s not clear why Adam decided the LHC was the problem. Shutting the Harwell facilities would, beside deal a catastrophic blow to UK science, save more money. Or would it? Do we need to know the economic output to make that kind of judgement?

    Adam’s argument is based on what he believes which is further justified by other things he believes or assumptions he makes. It’s not a fact based argument. We just have to take his word for it that shutting the LHC is a good idea.

    Is that good enough for a sceptic?

  17. To change the subject completely for a moment, I think we’re ignoring some of the other fine contributions to this episode.

    I’d like to nominate Dave Landon Cole for “contribution of the week”, as he made some fantastically important points. I’m a bit of a political geek, and Hungary is a country I take a passing interest in, so I was rather ashamed that I wasn’t aware of the stuff that Dave talked about. I was vaguely aware that they had a new constitution and that it was a bit controversial, but that was really the limit of what I knew about it until I heard Dave’s piece.

    What’s going on in Hungary is clearly very scary, and it’s pretty scandalous that I didn’t hear anything about it from our mainstream media.

  18. OK, now back to the LHC stuff:

    @Kash:
    Glad I’m making you think. That was really the entire aim of the piece, so that makes it all worthwhile!

    @Alun
    You make some worthwhile points, but I don’t think anything you say contradicts my assertion that knowledge of particle physics at the level of things more sophisticated than protons, neutrons, and electrons is yet to find a practical use.

    You are, however, completely right to pick me up for my inappropriate use of the phrase “simple economics”. Economics is rarely simple, and in this case it revolves around many uncertainties, assumptions, and value judgement.

    @Michael
    Oh yes, completely agree!

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