Monthly Archives: October 2008

“Maverick” Scientists Find Friends In Creationists

What do you get when you mix fringe scientists with creationists? As close to an anti-science scouts jamboree as is possible.

But that’s what happened according to this article in New Scientist recently. The reason both camps get on famously is a great opening to examine the scientific method, and why some scientists are considered “fringe” and why creationists will never qualify in the arena of science.

“You cannot overestimate how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down,” claims self-confessed “maverick” psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz. His audience, a crowd of uncritical creationists and dualists at the international symposium called Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness.

He goes on: “I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”

All this ranting about materialism and a non-materialist causation is not new but it’s completely bunk. Jeffrey Schwartz and fellow neuroscience researcher at the University of Montreal Mario Beauregard, claim that current models on consciousness do not explain the true nature of consciousness. In essence, they subscribe to the “ghost in the machine” essentially a non-material soul type of entity that animates the mind from a purely biological brain. The scientific consensus on this subject is that a purely naturalistic model of the brain explains the phenomenon of mind and consciousness quite adequately, although the research in the field is still very much ongoing. Both Schwartz and Beauregard have science backgrounds, yet both signed the creationist “Dissent from Darwinism” petition at the conference, much to the delight of the Seattle-based creationist organisation, the Discovery Institute.

The act of signing such a petition is really a complete submission into nonsense. That aside, let’s look at what in fact Schwartz and Beauregard are efectively saying. They are claiming that science is interested only with material causes and is therefore excluding other, supernatural areas that the two feel are valid. What they fail to recognise is that science can only deal with what occurs naturally because science is naturalistic methodology for examining the cause and effect universe. Non-material causes cannot be validated or falsified and therefore only exist in the realm of the imagination. Science can only be employed when the claim is natural. Darwin’s much attacked yet blatantly misunderstood theory of evolution is the best explanation of how life as we know it came to be given the evidence. For anyone involved in science, signing a creationist petition, which no doubt carries the belief that the world is less than 10,000 years old and was created by the Christian God, is simply career suicide.

This is exactly why the method of science was invented in the first place – to separate objective analysis of the natural world from the biases, leanings, ideologies and fallibility of human perception and reasoning. Schwartz and cohorts are not undermining science by taking on the scientific community like this, they are confirming why science is important. Real science is a meritocracy and therefore by definition separates ideas that are speculative from those that are based on evidence and sound logic. Ideas that are both untestable (creationism), lack a plausible mechanism (creationism and dualism) and unfalsifiable (both again) lie outside the realm of nature and therefore are off-limits from the scientific method.

Further to that, science is completely indifferent to specific claims, it is simply a method for testing claims, providing they can be tested. Science is not decided by vote, in a courtroom or by petition. The method does not care how a person feels about a belief. This is why science is important – beliefs drive us to accept claims on emotion thereby putting us at odds with what may actually be true and preventing new data from changing our previously accepted notions. The evidence is the evidence, the facts the facts. The problem with believers in various supernatural or pseudoscientific phenomenon is that should thier ideology run up against a scientific finding (as history attests) then it is science that is wrong! People just aren’t humble when it comes to the beliefs.

To further steamroll the ideas put forth by Schwartz, Beauregard and there new creationist pals is that both dualism and creationism rely heavily on the argument from ignorance (it’s true because you can’t prove it isn’t true) and the argument from personal incredulity (I don’t know personally therefore your claim isn’t true). Creationism goes one step further and adds the argument from authority (it’s true because it’s in the bible).

Distortion of logic and science is par for the course when dealing with people absolutely convinced that their view of reality is correct. Of course, all these petitions and rallying cries to bring down science is just a smokescreen for introducing some ideology that has had it’s toes stepped on by science. In this case the supernatural Christian story of creation. One really must reconsider their ideological leanings if it requires them to launch a smear campaign on science in order to support their ideology.

For a scientific rant about his topic, take a peak here at PZ Meyers Blog Pharyngula. For a more detailed expose visit Dr Steven Novella’s blog Neurologica, specifically this post.


The Pattern Creators And The Need For Critical Thinking

ONE thing that is particularly striking about human beings is the way in which we form beliefs. Even more striking is the fact that we have evolved to more than just believe a proposition, we subconsciously filter and colour reality in order to confirm our beliefs. This cyclical nature of beliefs – make an association then sort reality to validate it – has a great evolutionary strength while also being a great weakness.

Understanding the various mechanisms by which we convince ourselves of reality is an important first step in evolving our beliefs in a constantly changing environment. When the ability to intuit a cause and effect relationship in our environment was developing in the human population, the world was much different. Environmental change was much slower. The necessity to change mental models of reality was not as essential as it is today.

In an age of science and technological advancement, beliefs require modification at a much greater rate. Our ability to create patterns from noise in our environment is one thing humans do very well. This ability accounts for how we have moved beyond adapting to the environment and on to adapting the environment to suit our needs.

All well and good you say, where is the problem with being able to create patterns and models of our world? The answer is that we are very good at it. Too good at it, in fact. We can infer patterns where there are none and we are hardwired to find patterns when they may not represent reality accurately. People see the face of Satan in the collapsing World Trade Center towers, or believe their horoscope prediction actually did come true, thereby confirming to them that astrology is real.

It is the fallability of the various innate pattern making and cognitive abilities that led to objective analysis and a formal scientific method. While subjectivity on an issue can vary widely according to factors such as education, cultural, religious, gender and prior beliefs, objective findings via science do not vary. The nature of science is convergence, i.e. as we learn more, theories are cut and refined until we have a closer picture of reality. Ultimately the theories that survive follow the evidence and are further refined by testing. Science is the learning process refined in to a methodology.

Common patterns have been noted been scientists and philosophers for centuries. We now have a system of logic and logical fallacies that allow us to spot these errors in judgement that underpin propositions and beliefs about reality.

In the next few posts I will outline how logical fallacies are employed in support of beliefs and propositions that aren’t scientific in nature (untestable) or erroneous in one way or another. These mental model creating mechanisms are of immense value in learning to tame irrationality by disciplining ourselves to think more critically. I will also outline some of the findings from psychology and neuroscience that highlight cognitive mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of reality. 

Science is by nature not a democracy – science is a meritocracy. The price of admission into science is a high level of scholarship and accuracy in following the methods of science.

Science isn’t a democracy but because of human fallability and irrational tendencies, science is a key component in true democracy.

Effluent Scrap Lands Brothers In The…

6/05/2004 12:00:00  


IT’S just a joke, says North Waikato farmer Bill Cox in response to a $900 fine imposed on him for obstructing two Environment Waikato officers investigating a complaint.

Mr Cox’s brother Don was fined $500 and the pair were ordered to pay $452 in legal costs at the Hamilton District court recently.

The council officers and and two police offers turned up at the Cox property in May 2001 to check on a report of illegal spreading of effluent on a tanker track.

“They were worried about effluent getting into water courses, which is why I confined the spreading to the tanker track,” Mr Cox says.

He says he denied access to the officers because they wouldn’t sign his OSH book.

He also says the effluent spreading was within the framework of his resource consent.

“These guys haven’t been through safety courses and they don’t respect personal safety policy.

“Everyone else rings up and makes an appointment, but these bureaucrats think they can just march on to your property. Farmers are sick of it.

“They say I am belligerent, but if they went down to my cowshed without my consent and were electrocuted, who is belligerent then?”

Despite losing the case, Mr Cox says the issue has now gone to Parliament, because people are not legally required to sign on entry to business premises.

He points to the 1994 death of beekeeper Ken Richards, as a result of a bridge collapse on Keith and Margaret Berryman’s King Country property, as a case where an OSH book could have saved the farmer plenty of unnecessary heartache.

“At some point there will be major injuries in the rural sector, because these council guys aren’t trained.

“It’s not a question of if, but when.”

Environment Waikato Resource Use manager Chris McLay says the council took a serious view of “unwanted and aggressive behaviour towards its staff”.

The council sought the maximum penalty of $1500 and an order for Mr Cox to do an anger management course, which he says he is not going to do.

The case has cost Mr Cox $18,000 and is one of many between the regional council and himself.

He says he and his lawyer have reason to consider taking legal action against the council soon.

How to Afford The Family Farm

4/07/2005 8:33:41 AM
RURAL property prices have ballooned too far for the next generation to be able to afford the family farm.In many cases, it’s just not feasible for children of farming families to buy the property off the parents.

Recent figures from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand show the median farm price in May was $930,000.

The median price for a dairy farm was a cool $2 million.

These are hefty figures for anyone, let alone an aspiring young farmer. When faced with the prospect of being chained to a huge debt during several years many just can’t see how “the hell” they can do it.

This puts the parents at odds ,because how can they go on to retire with adequate funds behind them and keep the farm in the family?

Traditional ways of financing the farm could be to lease part of it, and therefore compromise farm production.

The answer: Well, one company is taking popular theories about farm succession and turning them upside down. In fact, it has come up with a plan so shrewd it should receive a PhD from Cambridge.

NZSE-listed Blue Chip New Zealand devised a succession planning solution that uses equity from a rural property for investment in the fast-growing residential property market.

This not only keeps the farm in the family without burdening the children with massive debt, but also allows the parents to retire on a nice income.

The spin-off is that there is no need to subdivide the land for maximum return, which as I mentioned last week, has got to be a good thing.

Blue Chip general manager Jonathan Woodhams says farm succession is a common dilemma for many rural families.

“A farm is more than an investment to farmers. There is much emotional decision making in these matters that is too hard.

“Each family has different requirements, depending on the number of children and the structure they want to set up, but all our clients have the same objective – to create long-term wealth and financial security without having to sell the farm.

“Using non-farm assets is something no other company offers.”

He says an individual plan is formulated, depending on goals, asset base and present farm income.

“It’s about showing farmers a smart way to achieve their goals. It can be tailored to how much risk someone wants to take on.

“It’s totally passive from the clients’ point of view – it’s totally managed.”

Blue Chip advisers guide clients through the process and even inform their accountant and solicitor on how the plan works.

Mr Woodhams says it’s all part of keeping plans as simple as possible.

“Our aim is to allow people to make investments that are as low risk as possible, with an easy exit strategy.

“We also put plenty of effort into improving our corporate governance, because clients need the assurance that the company will be there for the long-term.

“Saving and investing is a long-term plan and the sooner people start planning the sooner they achieve their goals.”

For you local Blue Chip consultant visit

Blow Out Investigated

17/08/2004 12:00:00 AM
FOLLOWING disasters, whether natural or man made, there are always questions asked.On Sunday morning, July 18, a 100m stretch of the Rangitaiki River stopbank just north of Edgcumbe gave way under the volume of water that three days of consistent heavy rain produced.

This occurred just hours before a peak flow 5m above normal levels. Water poured through the stopbank and on to farmland, roads and houses on the Rangitaiki Plains.

The Fonterra Dairy factory just out of Edgecumbe was also hit by the floodwater.

No one doubts that this is a huge volume of water, but questions have arisen because Rangitaiki River stopbanks are made to 100-year flow standards.

Environment Bay of Plenty has commissioned an independent investigation to find out why it was breached.

“We need to know exactly what happened so we can take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” says EBoP chief executive Jeff Jones.

“This is extremely important to EBoP and the communities living in the shadow of our stopbanks.”

Mr Jones says the stopbanks are designed to hold floodwater — not to fail.

“The Rangitaiki River stopbank should not have breached like it did, even with the huge amount of pressure that was on it,” Mr Jones says.

“It didn’t fail because water overtopped it, as can sometimes happen, it just blew out.”

The Edgecumbe earthquake in 1987 and major floods in the region in 1998 have raised concerns about Rangitaiki stopbanks and their stability.

They have been investigated and reinforced during the years to prevent the kind of breaches seen last month.

The Government will provide more assistance to flood-affected parts of Bay of Plenty, including agricultural recovery, repairing schools, fixing roads and giving direct help to low income earners and people who had to be evacuated.

This brings the total Government support to an estimated $30 million.

Northern Farmers Find Enlightment at Levet Field Day

13/11/2003 1:00:20 AM

A LARGE audience packed into Gordon Levet’s woolshed near Wellsford in Northland last month for a serving of knowledge from a respected line-up of speakers.

Celebrating 50 years as a sheep breeder, Mr Levet brought together a group of scientists who had come to know him through his contributions to science of worm and footrot resistance to name a few.

“He certainly has challenged conventional thinking — question everything, accept nothing is his catch-cry,” says Lincoln University geneticist Jon Hickford.

“It’s a miracle an event like this can happen. You wouldn’t be able to get this sort of turn-out if it was held at Lincoln. You would be lucky to get people from the next department to come to it.

“It shows the level of respect there is for Gordon and what he has done for farming and science.”

The speakers at the October 22 field day included Amy Bell (CSIRO), Jon Hickford (Lincoln University), John McEwen (Invermay), Nick Nicholson (Wool Exporters Council), Chris Morris (AgResearch Ruakura), Professor Brian Kirkpatrick (University of Wisconsin) and Mr Levet himself.

After a farm tour at mid-day and a light lunch, attendees found a wool bale to sit on, ready to be enlightened.

Former Northern sheep breeder John Reeves kicked the event off, before Mr Morris talked about breeding for resistance of worms, ryegrass staggers and parasites.

Mr Nicholson followed up with his comments on the fickle and unpredictable state of the wool market.

Mr Levet spoke about his experience in breeding for resistance and how to go about building a flock tolerant to footrot and resistant to worms.

Mrs Bell talked about CSIRO’s Armidale findings and success in breeding for worm resistance, with particular reference to barbers pole worm.

Mr Hickford spoke about the gene marker test he and his colleagues have come up with for breeding for footrot tolerance.

Professor Kirkpatrick discussed his studies into twinning genes in cattle, with reference to Mr Levet’s cow that has produced two sets of triplets.

Finally, Mr McEwen backed up the ideas of some of the other speakers on disease resistance and production.

Mr Levet’s stance on breeding for resistance as opposed to resilience was a big talking point.

“Resilience is no good for barbers pole, because it’s a blood sucker, and while you have that you are going to get dead lambs — it’s as simple as that,” said Mr Levet.

“It might be good for South Island farmers who don’t have high occurrences of barbers pole worm, but for the North Island it’s different.

“I know farmers in the Waikato region who say barbers pole worm is the main killer of their sheep.

“Besides, why would you pursue resilience when it is only 10% inheritable, while resistance is 25% inheritable?”

A central theme in Mr Levet’s comments was the need for worms in sheep.

“Sheep need worms as much as worms need sheep. Without worms the animal’s immune system is weaker.

“Scientists in Britain are even saying the same things about humans.

“If you drench extensively then you are killing off the majority of worms and, at the same time, creating super-worms resistant to drenches.

“Breeding for worm resistance means managing the worm levels in an animal’s gut.”

For all concerned the day was considered a success.

Semi-retired Maungataroto sheep farmer Alan Davey says it was interesting to compare approaches and see where the industry is going.

“Times have moved on and you have to move with them.

“I have been around the sheep industry worldwide and we are streets ahead of the United States and British farmers.

“If you were to hold a meeting like this over in Britain, farmers would be scratching their heads with this material.

“In talking about footrot they would say, well you can treat it with this — they wouldn’t know too much about breeding for tolerance and genetic selection. That is just the level they are at.”

Meat and Wool Innovation research and development manager Mark Aspin said the speakers made the event come alive.

“It was an interesting and varied diet of speakers which was good, because farmers like hearing it from the horse’s mouth.

“You can see we are making progress, but it’s about application and that is where the challenge is.

“We might not get a super-model sheep, but it’s a worthwhile goal.”

Director of the former Wool Board Tom Mandeno says the information delivered at the event is badly needed.

“Feet are a big problem, because they hold back productivity in so many other areas — farmers can handle most things, but feet can cause real problems.”

Most attendees were involved with sheep breeding and the wool industry, though Mr Levet says four goat breeders were present.

International Array of Speakers at Levet Field Day

18/09/2003 10:00:08 PM

TO celebrate 50 years of sheep breeding, well-respected Wellsford farmer Gordon Levet will be holding an on-farm field day on October 22.

Mr Levet says it will “focus on the attributes my sheep have excelled in”.

He took over the farm in the early 1950s from his father and uncle, who began farming there in 1922, and runs it with wife Trish.

Renowned among the agricultural science circles, Mr Levet is well known for breeding resistance to footrot and facial eczema in his sheep, as well as 15 years of testing for worm resistance /d longer than any breeder in New Zealand.

The field day, which runs from 10am to 4pm, includes several notable speakers, including Professor Brian Kirkpatrick of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Amy Bell of CSIRO Livestock Industries Australia.

New Zealand speakers, apart from Mr Levet, include Dr John Hickford of Lincoln University; Dr Chris Morris, a geneticist from Ruakura AgResearch; his colleague, Dr John McEwen of Invermay, Dunedin; and Nick Nicholson, Wool Experters’ Council.

Mr Levet says the topics covered and the calibre of the speakers is generating interest among those in the sheep breeding industry.

“I am pretty well known among the scientific community in New Zealand, so it didn’t take much to convince these experts to speak,” he says.

“I have tended to challenge conventional thinking and I have sent some pretty heated letters to scientists during the years.”

And, he says, with some success. He has made scientists discard several years of research after disproving their theories in his own trials.

Aside from being informative, Mr Levet says there are other reasons for farmers to attend.

“Apart from my stud sheep, there is a cow that in three calvings has had three sets of triplets.

“Three clones of this cow, presently at Ruakura, will also be on the farm. She has got to be a freak — one in many millions.”

Mr Levet says finding the fertility gene in cattle is the holy grail of ag science.

The Levet farm now boasts 19 lots of farm forestry from 0.5ha to 10ha each. Trees range from eucalypts, macrocapa, hardwoods and poplars, among others.

All this diversity will be on show at the field day, which is sponsored by Wrightson, Richmond and Ballance. A light lunch will be provided and a tour of the property is sure to be an eye-opening experience.

Contact Gordon Levet, phone 09 423-7034