Medical sense reclaiming ground in Australia

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently that give me faith that medical science – and medical sense – are causing a reversal of some worrying trends.

Treatments that don’t work

In 2012 the previous Australian federal government asked the Australian chief medical officer for a review of “natural” therapies that were – and still are – covered by Medicare and many private insurance policies. Those treatments included naturopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, reiki and rolfing.

This was welcomed by anyone who approves of taxpayer money being spent on treatments for which there is clinical evidence.

The Australian newspaper has posted a couple of articles in recent days (which I haven’t linked because they’re behind paywalls) about leaks that that review will be released soon, and it will not be good for those alternative therapies. Homeopathy got an early knocking already last year. Bravo, I say.This letter to the Australian agrees.

It’s a shame that practices like acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese medicine were explicitly omitted from the review, but it’s still a very good step.

Homeopathic Literature

Homeopathic Literature

Anti-vaccine movement declines

In other good news, the Guardian reports that “the income and membership of the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVN) has significantly diminished in the past three years”. Both media and governments are treating the AVN appropriately (that is, they’re not pretending that theirs is an informed or balanced view), and people are responding.

Now for immunisation rates to climb back up.

The state of science research in Australia is slipping even further

I’ve harboured dreams of going back into a more scientific job in a few years. I miss doing science. But I’ve realised that to do so in Australia today would be foolish.

Knife cut paper with budget

Earlier this year I mentioned that CSIRO had had to make significant cuts following government reductions in their funding.

The bad news continues. Cuts of support staff mean that CSIRO scientistsaren’t spending all their time on doing actual science. And one of our Nobel-tipped researchers has been let go.

CSIRO isn’t the only agency being affected, though; these groups are losing nearly $310m between them:

  • The Australian Research Council (ARC)
  • The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO)
  • Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)
  • Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)
  • Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) program

While there was to be a new $110m+ medical research fund, the unwise doctor’s visit co-payment the Liberal government proposed to deliver it is likely to be abandoned.

An opposition party will always spin hyperbole, but the Australian Labor Partymakes a reasonable case that cuts to university and preventative health programs means the overall cuts to science are much bigger, despite their attempt at funding medical research. Someone who has been involved in research grant administration in North America agrees strongly with this view.

The ABC’s Fact Check department estimates that it’s true that science research spending as a percentage of GDP in Australia is as low as it’s been since they started keeping records.

Australia’s science and math skills are slipping, we’re only average on scientific citations, and our collaboration between industry and research is terrible.

It just doesn’t feel like an environment that values science.

News of the Obvious: Homeopathy is Nonsense


From Lifehacker:

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has released a new draft paper on the effectiveness of homeopathy following an in-depth analysis across 68 different health conditions.Unsurprisingly, the paper concludes that there is no reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective for treating any ailment. Rather, it’s a potentially dangerous pseudoscience that can dupe patients into rejecting conventional and effective treatments.

The emphasis is mine.

It will take a lot more than this restatement of obvious science before the scores of homeopathic “treatments” disappear from Australian pharmacy shelves, or before the government stops listening to “alternative” medicine lobby groups.

Primordial gravitational waves, and ants in the curl of space



You know a scientific discovery is big when it makes the regular news, and the apparent discovery of primordial gravitational waves has done that.

These results are believed to show what happened in the early universe, right after the Big Bang. If they survive peer review then they’ll be the final confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the first direct evidence of universal inflation. These are big deals because they further strengthen some already very strong theories.

For an interesting illustration of what led to the BICEP2 project and how it was carried out, read this story on Scienceblogs’ Dynamics of Cats.

Being a very clever ant, you realise that you can figure out something about the lake [in which you’re floating]!
For example, you realise that while it is a very deep lake, it is not infinitely deep.
In fact you can, eg by measuring some of the swirls, and where the waves break, figure there are shallows in some parts of the lake.

Why Do People Fear GMOs?

There’s a lot of public angst in several parts of the world about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In one way this is surprising, because there isplenty of evidence that they’re entirely safe.

But in another way it’s not so surprising: most people don’t have the biomedical knowledge to know that other species’ DNA is making its way into plants all the time.

And, as this article from Cosmos points out, we have a psychological tendency to fear man-made risks more than natural ones. We also fear risks imposed on us more than ones we decide to subject ourselves to, which is why I think it would be fine to label GMO ingredients in a non-panicky way.

Research into human cognition and risk perception psychology has found that…the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. To be blunt: we are not as smart as we think we are…The brain is first and foremost in charge of keeping us alive and it uses everything it can to figure out whether something might pose a risk, including not only conscious reasoning but all the subconscious animal instincts we have evolved to make quick protective judgments about whether something feels scary. Many of those instincts have been identified, and several of them help explain why that angry young man in the coffee shop is so afraid of GMOs.


Games I made in a Python class: play them

A few weeks ago I finished my third free online Coursera course: An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I used to do a lot of programming, but it’s been a long time. I’d never done Python before but didn’t find it a difficult language to get my head around.

It was challenging, though. They covered a lot in the video lectures in each of the 8 weeks, moving very quickly through topics. There were quizzes and programming assignments every week. The amount and depth of work for a free course was considerable.

It focused on interactive programs – that is, games you can play – which was sort of new for me. It was also my first foray into object-oriented programming, which is well-suited for games. This was a challenging change of mindset at first but by the end I really got into it.

We created all our games in an online tool so that we could submit them for peer gaming. You can play the games I created, if you like. Here are a couple of the later ones. After clicking each link you’ll get a screen with the code on it; click the Run button (the one in the upper left with the little arrow) to play the game. Note that these probably won’t work in Internet Explorer, but they should work in Chrome, Firefox, or probably Safari.

Pong. Yep, the game with the two paddles and the bouncy ball. This is made for two players. The player on the left uses the W and S keys to move their paddle up and down; the player on the right uses the Up and Down arrow keys to move theirs. Note that we didn’t implement complicated bounces off the corners of the paddles; the ball either bounces back if it hits the front of the paddle or counts as a miss. There’s a  button to let you restart the game and score.

Memory. This is a single-player game where you turn over two cards at a time by clicking on them with the mouse. If the two you pick match they stay turned over; if they don’t they flip back when you click the next card. The object is to try to match them all in as few clicks as you can. Again, there’s a restart button.

Blackjack. A simple version of the classic card game. A single player plays against a dealer. You can hit (get an additional card) or stand (let the dealer take some); the winner is the closest to 21 without busting (going over). Dealer wins ties, and hits as long as he’s showing less than 16. After a game finishes, hit the Deal button for a new game.

RiceRocks. A simple version of the classic arcade game Asteroids. This one took us two weeks. Single player, but with fancy images and sound (which the course supplied). Use the Left and Right arrow keys to rotate your ship, use the Up arrow key to thrust forward, and the Space bar to shoot. You have three lives. Sorry, no hyperspace or flying saucers. After playing you’ll need to hit the Reset button on the code screen (the back arrow, the last button) or close the browser tab to make the sound stop. Sorry.

There’s a lot of geeky enjoyment built into these games. Enjoy.


Because of black holes, we have wifi

Mathematicians and physicists predicted the existence of black holes before we ever found them; perhaps unsurprising since they don’t give off any light. But eventually we figured out that they really could exist, and then we predicted that they should in fact emit radiation, and then we found that radiation and all sorts of other hints that tell us they’re actually there.

Black hole (don't be scared, it's just an artist's rendering)

That makes it sound easy, but it was extremely hard. Filtering out all the radiation we get from space to identify just some bits of it as coming from matter as it falls into a black hole is very tricky. Scientists used a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis which can identify differentfrequencies of signal from one incoming mashed-up signal. And their analysis worked in identifying stuff that was radiating as a result of black holes.

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Later on some clever scientists at CSIRO in Australia were trying to solve the problem of how lots of people in the same space, or that were moving around, could have their computers all networked. Running a wire to everyone is impractical. Using a radio signal would be possible but at the relatively low powers, short ranges, and confined spaces needed they got lots of signal reflections that made the incoming signal a bit mashed-up.

But these clever folks remembered what the black hole scientists had done and used Fourier techniques to disentangle the signals they needed from that mashed-up mess. And wifi communication was born.