The Dawkins Delusion

On sibling site I talk tech, which often includes warning people about spams and scams and, of course phishing. So, it is with some embarrassment that I confess to being slightly caught off guard by a new twitter follower with the handle @richard_dawkins. He followed me first, a fact revealed by the excellent Topify service which emails you new followers and lets you reply to that email to follow them back.

It was the weekend, I was busily adding science twitter types to my scientwist list and without double checking added what turns out to be a fake Richard Dawkins to the list (now removed, of course). Actually, the tweets from the fake Dicky, look quite interesting but the bio points to a web page that is simply an Amazon associate frontpage selling his various books so that the fraudster makes a few pennies from each sale.

It was pharma consultant Sally Church (aka @MaverickNY) who planted the first seed of doubt, with the simple query: “Is that the real Dawkins or a fake/bot?” Joerg Heber and KEJames confirmed Sally’s suspicions. @ayasawada suggested the first few tweets were “too good to be true.” And, in response to my exposing the delusion, @dnotice asked simply, is he god?

Joerg even pointed to a discussion on the official Dawkins site that emphasises that he hadn’t even heard of Twitter until the first fake Dawkins crawled out from under a stone. He points out that even the @THE_REAL_DAWKINS is not the real Dawkins, although confesses he was taken in for a moment too. @mstuhmer pointed out that he’s actually a flying spaghetti monster, now I’m not sure whether he was referring to Dawkins or the fake Dawkins, or simply responding to the tweet by @dnotice.

Ironically, I’ve spoken to Dawkins once or twice and should have been more suspicious of a tweep claiming to be from him. In my defence, I did send a direct message (DM) to the faker with a query the answer to which only the good Professor would know (re a book we co-wrote many years ago). Needless, to say there has been no reply.

So, apologies to anyone on twitter who chose to follow the fake Dicky D after my mentioning him in a tweet.

If Twitter has plans to charge corporates and perhaps celebs for the privilege of using its services, then they are going to have to begin verifying users so that fakers cannot cybersquat twitter IDs. Or, am I being deluded in thinking that could be possible.

Earth Hour

Is Earth Hour a great way to raise global awareness of how much energy we are wasting and the possible consequences or our actions? Or, is it simply a cop out so that we can all feel we did "our bit" for the environment without expending any real effort?

With just hours to go for us Brits before we have to switch off the lights, I conducted an ad hoc strawpoll on twitter, here are a few of the early responses.

  • 4KM (Re: more than turning off lights). We’re turning down heat, 100-mile diet today, not driving, planting radishes in organic    
  • wburris Earth Hour is so everyone can pretend they are doing something to save the planet

  • VeronicaMcG Yes Earth Hour could be/do more, but this step to coordinate Int’l grassroots action, awareness & cooperation is worthwhile.


  • tpolytmus I hope people are walking to these EarthHour meetups. (seen on #flickr)

  • sanmccarron Yes we should, but makes a statement to all. Bringing in one at a time.

  • ianwalker@sciencebase Earth Hour just sounds like another event to make people feel they’re doing something without having to change their lifestyles

  • TheTDog@sciencebase i think the idea is raise awareness about saving energy

  • Seema84@sciencebase I agree. If people put their TV’s on and other stuff it doesn’t make any sense

  • dnotice@sciencebase You could switch the colours in your internet browser: I’ve now got black backgrounds & white text…

    • Copper Tone Alchemist

      copper-alchemistSpring has sprung for the Alchemist, who, under the northern sun, takes on a marginal copper tone this week.

      First up, a new copper catalyst that can take a sideways swipe at organic aromatic compounds and make them go all meta. We also have copper nanorods for 3D computer chips.

      After two decades of trying, it seems buckyballs are to finally come of age with the development of these all-carbon soccerball molecules as drug delivery agents for novel multiple sclerosis (MS) drugs.

      The Alchemist also learns from C&EN how chemical manufacturers and legislators alike are banning toxic ingredients from consumer plastics. In electrochemical news, researchers are using magnets to move microscopic particles, which they can then track through the fluctuations in the magnetic field.

      Finally, if you didn’t already know, the launch of the journal Nature Chemistry apparently represents a new prospect for the chemistry community with added molecular bells and whistles that make print journals look a bit flat.

      Get the full skinny in my Alchemist column on

      Very Personal Data Rights

      iris-recognitionAcross the globe privacy laws and property rights are confused. Having usually been established in centuries past it is unlikely that any established legal system can cope easily with the requirements of the digital age. Nowhere is this more likely to hold true than when discussing the use of peoples’ biometric information, which are very personal data indeed.

      Biometric information might include iris or retinal scans, digitized fingerprints, DNA samples, even lip-recognition knee X-rays, or any of dozens of other measurements and readings that could be collected from an individual and that would be unique to that person.

      Yue Liu of the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, in Oslo, suggests that there is a legal precedent for treating biometric information as personal property rather than data acquired. She adds that the viability of her argument should apply equally well to the legal systems of both the United States and the European Union.

      Some observers have previously argued that because current legal systems are inadequate in protecting society from data misuse that ascribing property rights to digital information might allow its regulation and protection. Others have argued that these so-called inadequacies do not exist and that present legal frameworks are perfectly able to cope with the digital age without the addition of yet another layer of regulation.

      I asked Liu what aspect of the term property she was concerned with. “My paper about property right and biometric information, doesn’t refer to ‘intellectual property, I was only talking about it as a ‘personal property’,” she told me, “Because biometric information is some kind of bodily information , I don’t think it is very accurate to regard it as an intellectual property, but I think it may make sense to regard it as a property of an individual since it is so intimately linked with our body.”

      To my mind, however, I think Liu is missing a trick. I think biometric information is more akin to intellectual property (data gathered about a person’s blood type, fingerprints, iris pattern) than property in the old-school sense of something we own like our clothes, a car or a homes.

      If someone steals the shirt of your back, then you no longer have that piece of apparel, that is conventional theft. Whereas someone manufacturing an unlicensed generic version of a patented invention has stolen the intellectual property but not the physical property of an individual example of that invention. If someone steals your biometric data, then surely that is more akin to the latter example than taking a piece of clothing.

      I get the feeling that Liu’s paper argues the idea into a corner. Would a judge equate biometric information with a physical possession? I suspect that they are more likely to equate biometrics to other forms of data and IP rather than possessions.

      Liu argues that neither side of the debate is without controversy. No law is wholly capable of coping with all situations but in the context of biometric information a property-rights based law might operate to protect the individual, their biometric data, and prevent misuse.

      “Strictly speaking there was not yet any precedent that treat biometric information as personal property,” she concedes, “The precedent I mentioned was just something that might be compared to or is related to biometric
      information.” Genetic information, human tissues, voice recordings,
      and pictures, all might be considered as related in this way. “I attempted to find some legal basis that might be used for treating biometric information as personal property, and I found it possible both in the United States and EU legal system,” Liu asserts.

      We are increasingly using online social media, digitized medical records, and plastic money and store loyalty cards. It is becoming obvious that information generated by our transactions with websites, sellers, banks, healthcare workers, and others is being transformed into a commodity to be sold by the information industries. There are obvious benefits for that industry to gathering and marketing such information. However, privacy remains a controversial aspect of any such transaction even in the case of medical data where the data might have long-term social benefits through improvements in healthcare that result from its analysis.

      Biometric information is a special category of personal information. It is usually a unique representation of a person’s identity and is, by definition, intimately linked to that person’s body.

      “Does that indicate that in the context of biometrics, the argument about using property rights as a protection measure for personal information will find more legal justification?” asks Liu.

      Given that our personal data is becoming increasingly marketable, it may be beneficial to recognize a property right in relation to the commercial exploitation of our biometric data, asserts Liu. “Such data, being intimately linked to individuals and helping to make them special and unique, ought arguably to belong to the individual from whom they are ultimately derived,” she says.

      The liberal discourse on property rights during the nineteenth century focused on individual freedoms and rights and led us through enormous changes of the industrial age and throughout the twentieth century. If the twenty-first century is the digital age, then perhaps it is time to begin a new discourse regarding our individual rights and freedoms regarding the use of our very personal data.

      Research Blogging IconYue Liu (2009). Property rights for biometric information — a protection measure? International Journal of Private Law, 2 (3), 244-259

      Disease Mongering or Medicalization

      medicalizationThe medicalization of many social facets of our lives, multitasking pharmaceuticals and disease mongering are problems we should face head on.

      The overlap between business ethics and medical ethics represent a moral minefield. Nowhere more so than in the domain of newly recognised and previously untreated disorders, syndromes and diseases, among them social anxiety disorder, non-physiological erectile dysfunction, aging, fibromyalgia, adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), restless leg syndrome and female sexual dysfunction.

      And for those who only read this far, my take away message is not to claim that such conditions are not real to those who suffer from them. Indeed, I actually suffer from irritable legs syndrome (as does my dad). It’s very real, very uncomfortable, and a real problem especially when it hits in a crowded and stuffy theatre with no option to take a hot bath or go for a jog to alleviate the unscratchable symptoms. Personally, I would love to have some way to make it stop when it gets bad and if that were a once a week pill, so be it.

      Diagnoses can be very real and finding effective treatments certainly worthwhile, but it is the interests of patients that should be served and not purely those of pharma industry shareholders when a condition is medicalized.

      Some observers have suggested that the process of medicalization, in which issues and problems have migrated into the scientific realm coincides with the demise of traditional values. They suggest that this migration may involve less of an improvement in understanding our biology and more of a change in social attitudes and terminology, with people suffering ambiguous symptoms and their advocates essentially feeding the beast.

      This is sometimes no bad thing if it means previously unrecognised medical problems can be treated on the basis of scientific evidence rather than so-called received wisdom. However, medicalization is more often than not considered disease mongering. Writing in IJBGE, Geoffrey Poitras of the Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, points out that there are two threads to the process of medicalization.

      The first is social medicalization, which he describes as a form of social control in which individuals and their problems are taken into the fold of the medical establishment and can be manipulated. “One unexplored aspect of medicalization is associated with recreational drug use, from Valium to Viagra, threatening to ‘scientifically’ engineer various forms of drug addiction under the guise of medical treatment,” Poitras told Sciencebase.

      The second thread is economic medicalization, the “transformation of the process for doing clinical trials into exercises that are motivated more as marketing vehicles than needed R&D.” This, he adds, is driven by the pharmaceutical companies and by the medical profession which benefits financially from the need to recruit patients into trials for fledgling disorders.

      Another aspect of economic medicalization concerns the multitasking of drugs, more formally known as off-label prescription usage. Having gone through costly R&D, there is an economic incentive to find additional applications for any given approved drug.

      Market researcher Megann Willson does lots of work interviewing physicians so finds medicalization an interesting concept. She points out that plain old garden variety depression in women now has a secondary indication called “premenstrual dysphoric disorder”. In that case, she asks, “Is the disorder truly latent or did we create a new indication and then find what we want to find?” She says that in Canada, “the acceptance or approval of a new drug indication is governed as much by reimbursement formulae as it is by whether there’s a good health rationale.”

      Similarly, another area of female health that has been medicalized is post-partum depression, says Torr-Brown. “The real solution may be to increase socialization options for mothers with newborns,” she says, “Also, not sending them home after 24 hours at the hospital might help. In countries where there is good support for new mothers, post-partum depression is almost unheard of. We put it down to hormones, but in reality it may be the sense of being alone in the face of an overwhelming new challenge in caring for a new born.”

      But, as alluded to earlier, there can be a positive side to medicalization from the individual’s point of view, suggests health strategist Christopher Ervin. “There is a potential good,” he says, “with hopes that people become more aware of their bodies and the functioning of the systems.” However, he also points out that people will begin to consider the human body as a perfect machine, and that any ailment can be instantly fixed with a pill. “I think [medicalization] will raise unrealistic expectations of the healthcare system to ‘cure’ people,” he adds, “Also it will absolve people from making efforts to care for themselves and better manage their health independently.”

      Medical lawyer David Marshall agrees that the relabelling of any ‘normal’ human condition as a ‘medical problem’ is controversial. The label premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a case in point in which some observers suggest that it results from a patriarchal medical profession hoping to medicalize the menstrual cycle to justify marketing pharmaceuticals to treat the disorder, he explains. “This requires us to make a distinction based on supposed motives. If there is such a thing, pure medical research is engaged in the dispassionate search for a better understanding of human biology. As an incidental by-product of this better understanding, new forms of treatment or cure may emerge,” Marshall adds.

      Big pharma exists to make big profits and this leads research down avenues where no competitor drugs exists. “The absence of drugs is often because the ‘problems’ are not considered medical,” suggests Marshall, “So, for example, major drug companies have spent several billion dollars trying to produce weight loss drugs when, arguably, excess weight is a lifestyle choice not a disorder (the confusion arising because hypertension and cardiovascular disease are co-morbidities to obesity).”

      “In principle, the identification of a new disease or disorder is good for those that suffer without treatment because it offers hope,” adds Marshall, “But the creation of a new disease or disorder for the purpose of marketing a drug is only benefiting the pharmaceutical industry.”

      So is medicalization a menace? In Norway, ADHD is “treated” by starting children at school later in Norway rather than prescribing Ritalin. Is normal sadness, through reclassification as a major depressive disorder, stifling the creativity often associated with melancholy? And, what is the true nature of the therapeutic options for people labelled mentally ill?And, what about the medicalization of childhood?

      Sheryl Torr-Brown offers a useful perspective from 20 years experience in the industry. “I think [medicalizatio] is probably neither a good nor bad thing but somewhere in between,” she told Sciencebase, “If there is genuine reason to believe that the quality of life can be improved by the medicalization (and thus potentially treatment) of a previously latent condition, then it can be good.”

      However, she points out that the very definition of quality-of-life has to be questioned. This is a controversial area in an age of rampant pill-popping with the expectation of instant fixes with no side effects. “Is ADHD a treatable condition, or a variant of human personality that confers advantage in systems less inclined to conformity and control than ours,” she asks.

      “In that vast grey zone called healthcare, where along the spectrum between a true latent or rare disorder, a psycho-social behaviour variant or just a kink in the system does it necessitate pharmaceutical intervention,” asks Ervin.

      It’s worth repeating, pharma companies enjoy increased profits because of medicalization, but that does not mean that we should not be treating previously latent disorders. Quality of life might be improved for countless individuals with new treatments whether pharmacological, physical or psychological. We should all think more critically about our options, although that can be difficult for some people simply not trained in critical thinking. “I think if individuals were able to think critically about their options, medicalization would be workable,” adds Torr-Brown. After all, your particular take on the human condition may one day be recognised as a disorder by the medical profession, but it remains your choice as to whether take the medicine.

      Research Blogging IconPoitras, G. (2009). Business ethics, medical ethics and economic medicalization International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJBGE.2009.023789

      Recognising Eight Funny Patterns

      people-laughingA horse walks into a bar, orders a beer, and the bartender asks…Bud or Miller? Of course, you know the real punchline…the bartender actually asks the equine punter “why the long face?”. There, that’s two of the world’s eight jokes in the first sentence.

      According to evolutionary theorist Alastair Clarke there are only eight types of joke, eight patterns of humour that exist across all cultures regardless of creed, race, or personal taste, from the earliest souk to the Broadway stage.

      Clarke previously suggested that humour is essentially the recognition of a surprising pattern or the recognition of a deviation from a pattern. He has now defined the precise nature of the patterns involved, and demonstrates that there are a mere eight of them that give rise to universal humour.

      “Amusing childish games such as peek-a-boo and clap hands all exhibit the precise mechanism of humour as it appears in any adult form,” Clarke explains, “Peek-a-boo can elicit a humorous response in infants as young as four months, and is, effectively, a simple process of surprise repetition, forming a clear, basic pattern. As the infant develops, the patterns in childish humour become more complex and compounded and attain spatial as well as temporal elements until, finally, the child begins to grapple with the patterns involved in linguistic humour.”

      The patterns are positive repetition, division, completion, translation, applicative and qualitative recontextualization, opposition and scale.

      “The eight patterns divide into two main categories,” explains Clarke, “The first four are patterns of fidelity, by which we recognize the repetition of units within the same context, and the second four are patterns of magnitude, by which we recognize the same unit repeated in multiple contexts.”

      “What this all means is that the basic faculty of pattern recognition equips us to compare multiple units for their appropriateness within a certain context, effectively selecting the best tool for the job, and then to apply our chosen unit to as wide a range of contexts as possible, effectively discovering the largest number of jobs that tool is good for.”

      For decades researchers have concentrated on limited areas of humour and have each argued for causality based on their specific interest. Now that we have pattern recognition theory, all previous explanations are accommodated by a single overarching concept present in all of them.

      “Basically humour is all about information processing, accelerating faculties that enable us to analyse and then manipulate incoming data,” adds Clarke.

      The Eight Patterns Of Humour is currently available as a free eBook. Follow me on twitter and tweet me and I’ll DM the link. Or, if you’re a Sciencebase RSS or email subscriber drop me a line.

      The Spicy Disciplinarian

      turmeric-spicesFour more fascinating research discoveries feature in my column on SpectroscopyNOW this week, covering research into the medicinal effects of curry powder, cyst analysis, why nicotine does not kill instantly, and bristling nano balls.

      The spicy disciplinarian – Solid state NMR has been used to explain why curcumin, one of the physiologically active components of the yellow spice turmeric has wound healing and other medicinal properties.

      Atomic cyst assistance – Researchers in Turkey are using atomic absorption spectroscopy to analyse the levels metal ions and phosphorus in samples of fluid from breast cyst. They have observed a marked difference between the ratios of ions in the two main types of cyst one of which is more closely associated with the development of breast cancer.

      Nicotine’s smoking gun – Years of structural work and wider studies have finally culminated in an explanation for nicotine’s overwhelming affinity for brain receptors and the addictive molecule’s almost total disregard for the nicotine receptors found in muscle tissues.

      Bristling nano balls – A mathematical analysis of inorganic nanoparticles explains why they form complex structures with a layer of hydrophilic polymer chains.

      Alchemist Goes Green

      green-alchemistThis week The Alchemist goes green offering a survey of environmental news related to the chemical sciences.

      First up is the development of porous materials that can extract hydrogen from mixtures of gases. Next, solar energy could be used to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide back into useful hydrocarbon fuel methane, while chicken manure offers a fowl approach to bioremediating oil-contaminated soil.

      On the global scale, NASA hopes to work with Cisco Systems to create a Planetary Skin to monitor worldwide carbon build up, and chemistry and computing have been combined to explain why Antarctica cooled from its former sub-tropical conditions of 35 million years ago to the icecap we see today.

      Finally, the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement is awarded to two scientists for their work on understanding the human impact on climate change.

      Get all the headlines and links in this week’s Alchemist.

      Staying in with Friends on a Wireless Mesh

      staying-in-with-friendsThe difference between staying in with friends and going out? Obvious, really. But, translate that idea to networks and you have the basis of self-organized virtual communities, according to Panayotis Antoniadis of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, in Paris France.

      Writing in the IJWBC (reference below), Antoniadis and Benedicte Le Grand discuss the bootstrapping problem of starting such a virtual community. I’ve discussed scientific virtual communities which relate to this previously. They suggest that it should be possible to kickstart a community by inheriting the social context and trust values from existing centralized web communities such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

      Allowing a community to self-organize rather than to create it using a single centrally managed web service and servers would have significant benefits, not least it would avoid reliance on a single organization or company. It would, of course, require members of the community to contribute different types of resources (e.g., bandwidth and storage), which is common to file-sharing systems known as Peer-to-Peer (P2P) systems. “Unfortunately,” says Antoniadis, “such cooperation cannot be taken for granted.”

      The team hopes to face this obstacle by introducing the notion of a “cross-layer incentive mechanism.” Such an approach would encourage users to contribute resources at a low-level to gain privileges or simple kudos at a higher social level within the community.

      “We believe that this type of incentive mechanism will play a central role towards the realization of self-organised virtual communities and enable users to take advantage of the attractiveness and value of web-based communities, on the one hand, and the externalities and flexibility of P2P networks, on the other hand,” the researchers explain.

      They are taking what they say are the first steps towards such a solution by developing a way to categorize the different types of social incentives and by providing insights for the design of the appropriate social software required to map member behaviour at the resource-sharing layer with suitable rewards at the social layer. Of course, some web 2.0 communities would say that kudos and trust-based communities already exist, but this approach abstracts it from the centralised model.

      “The goal of the proposed system is not to grow to the level of the Internet but provide the means to small communities of people that trust each other to communicate in a privacy-preserving way, socialize and exchange resources,” Antoniadis told Sciencebase. “It is the digital analogue of ‘staying home with friends’ instead of ‘going out’,” he says. “Such communities could even be built on top of wireless user-owned networks without the need for the Internet at all, but on a much smaller scale and for different types of communication.”

      Such wireless networks are known as “mesh” networks. Antoniadis and colleagues describe how a wireless mesh community might be built in a recent issue of IEEE Technology and Society.

      Such a community would avoid the centralised nature of MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Ning by creating a network that shared out the necessary back-office tasks (storage, file sharing, newsfeed rendering, instant messaging (Skype is P2P in this sense already), and graphics distribution. This would make the community distributed rather than federalized so that it would no longer be reliant on a single organization or its servers. In one sense, you might say it would be like a small-scale internet.

      Information about a new project with similar goals can be found here.

      Research Blogging IconPanayotis Antoniadis, & Benedicte Le Grand (2009). Self-organised virtual communities: bridging the gap between web-based communities and P2P systems Int. J. Web Based Communities, 5 (2)

      Cranberries and Urinary Tract Infections

      ProanthocyanidinIt’s not the acidity of cranberry juice that prevent urinary track infections and cystitis, it’s natural chemicals in the tarty juice that prevent pathogenic bacteria from adhering to the cells that line the urinary tract. That’s according to research in the Journal of Medicinal Food.

      Urinary tract infections (UTIs) cost $2b annually in the US and are a major burden on healthcare systems. They are common in patients with a urinary catheter in place, but some people are also more susceptible to such infections than others, particularly after sexual activity, although the infections are rarely sexually transmitted in nature.

      Adhesion of Escherichia coli bacteria (which live in the lower gut) to cells lining the urinary tract is the first step in the development of a UTI. Chemicals found in cranberry products called proanthocyanidins (PACs) prevent this microbe from adhering to these urinary tract epithelial cells by affecting the surface properties of the bacteria.

      Paola Pinzón-Arango, Yatao Liu, and Terri Camesano, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, exposed E. coli grown in culture to either light cranberry juice cocktail or cranberry PACs and measured the adhesion forces between the bacteria and a silicon surface using atomic force microscopy. They demonstrated that the longer the bacteria were exposed to either the cranberry juice or the PACS the less able were the bacteria to adhere.

      Cranberries, one of only three species of fruits native to North America, have a long history of medicinal food use. Native Americans used the fruit for the treatment of bladder and kidney ailments.