08 March 2015

Shane on BBC's The Big Questions


Should you know what's in your genes? That was the central (literally and figuratively) in BBC's popular Sunday Morning debate programme "The Big Questions" on 8 March 2015. My goal, as your humble scientist and doctor person - to explain how the Human Genome Project and the work surrounding it has brought a wealth of information and real tangible benefit to patients with rare diseases.

As any of you who are regular viewers of #BBCTBQ (as its hashtag goes) will know, there often follows a fairly dyspeptic exchange with more heat than light frequently generated. My principal "opponent" was a psychologist by the name of Oliver James, who takes the view that genes don't really tell us very much about variation in human psychology or IQ, and therefore it's a waste of time. I disagree on both points, but even if he was right about his first point (and he's not), it would be like saying bananas are no good because you can't use them to make marmalade.

Medicine marches on, and as we uncover more about our genes, we are learning how to make life better for people. That strikes me as a worthy goal. However there are tons of examples that we can point to right here and now that show that sequencing the human genome was perhaps one of the best investments that science has ever made. We are reaping the benefits of the genome right now, despite the naysayers.

Gastric juices a little too alkaline? Fix that by watching the YouTube of my section (kindly uploaded by that nice lady from Catholic Voices). Enjoy!

[Thanks to Mentorn Media - they own the screen grab]

26 February 2015

From the ends of the Earth to a clinic near you

Well, the inaugural Northern Ireland Science Festival (@niscifest, #niscifest) is in full swing! As part of the programme, we've had the NI Final of the wonderful international FameLab competition - a chance for scientists, engineers and medics to crawl out from our daily grind and regale a venue full of slightly tipsy but highly enthusiastic punters with three concentrated minutes of scientific brilliance. Here is my effort:



The winner was the wonderful Emer Maguire from Strabane, so well done to the Tyrone contingent! I'll post her video too - you'll like it. Trust me.

20 January 2015

The Fine Tuning Case AGAINST Theism

It has to be a set-up job. It can't have appeared this way by chance alone. The odds against it are 10^130 to one. If you vary just one of the initial constants of the Universe just a teensy little bit, stars, galaxies, planets, life and humans could not possibly have arisen. Therefore there must be an intelligent designer - a God - behind the whole thing. For these circumstances to have arisen without a designer stretches credibility to its breaking point. The most likely explanation of the exquisite degree of fine tuning we see in our vast universe is that God is real; (as philosophers rather quaintly put it) the Universe is more likely under Theism than under Naturalism.

So the most common variants of the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) go. And, I have to say, I think it is a pretty good argument - at least at a visceral level. It feels right. There are of course numerous objections available to those of us who do not believe in gods. For one, we don't know what the distribution of life-permitting universes looks like within whatever parameter-space of universal constants we choose to set up. This makes it very hard to set probabilities based on a naive linear model. Maybe if you altered two or more universal constants (such as the speed of light and the strength of gravity) at the same time, rather than one or the other, you might slide to a place on the graph where life is back in business again. Maybe there are gazillions of life-permitting points or zones in this space, and "our" one is just a fairly small one among many. Or perhaps ALL possible universes "exist" in some vast hyperreality or multiverse (and there are good physics-based reasons for thinking this may actually be the case). Or (as many physicists now think) some of the constants are not independent, but constrain each other into a certain range. Maybe the rate of expansion of the universe is tied in some fundamental but undiscovered way to the speed of light, so the number of degrees of freedom a cosmic knob-twiddler would have to play with could be severely constrained. And there are more objections, some of which seem sensible to me, but others seem a little far-fetched.

However, in this little post I am going to take it as accepted that Fine Tuning is a real thing, however it is to be explained. And I am going to show that Christians who use the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) are actually making a fundamental whopping error - they are undermining their own case substantially. By Christians, I mean those apologists who typically try to press the FTA into service as an argument for a personal God who intervenes in the world and impregnates virgins and sends his son to die for our sins and resurrects him and finds parking spots for believers and delivers nice weather for church barbecues. That sort of God. You know the type.

While I'm at it, I'm going to show that the crazier sort of Christian - the Young Earth Creationist - is so spectacularly undercut by the FTA that they really should step as far away from it as possible - they don't know it, but it's creationist kryptonite. Yet like little moths to the flame, they flutter closer and closer... It kills the other forms of creationism too, but more on that anon.

Let's look at the fundamental premise of the FTA. I haven't set this out as a formal philosophical argument - I'm not a formal philosopher, but I've played enough of 'em on TV to have a smattering. If I ever decide to write this up for a proper journal (ha!), I'll put in bullet points and specialist jargon, or maybe a nice philosophically literate person will do that for me. But I'm sitting on the sofa with a whisky (a very nice 12 year-old Glenfiddich) and I'm feeling relaxed. Anyway, the relevant premise is that the constants of the universe are arranged just so - from the beginning - that if they had been even a tiny tiny bit different, a life-permitting universe could not have formed, and we could not be here to wonder about it. Maybe the universe would have collapsed immediately after the Big Bang. Or it would have blown out too fast for hydrogen to form into clumps leading to galaxies or stars. Or gravity would have been too weak to allow galaxies to form - or too strong, resulting in a universe full of nothing but black holes. Or if the Strong Nuclear Force had been any different, everything would be neutrons. Or if the Weak Nuclear Force had been different, there could never have been carbon or oxygen.

If we accept that premise, we are in an interesting position. IF such fine tuning is true, then the arrangement of matter we find in the universe is a natural outworking of those initial constant or conditions. God did not have to intervene. Praise the Lord, our theists might say. He's a lazy bastard who doesn't like to do more work than necessary. Our creationist chums would do well to feel distinctly uncomfortable here, because this only works if the universe really is as old as scientists say it is - about 13.7 billion years. If the universe is, say, 6000 years old, as most creationists assert (including several members of the Stormont Assembly in Belfast, which it pains me to note), then they have a truly INCREDIBLE problem explaining how, if God made the world in 6 days at any time in the last few thousand years, the very cosmic settings they appeal to to prove the existence of God happen to fit exquisitely into cosmological models that point back 13.7 billion years - and only work if the Universe is indeed that old. If creationism were true (fantasise with me a moment here), it is utterly inexplicable why (say) the rate of expansion of the universe and the strength of gravitation should be so closely balanced. I'll perhaps develop this further in a subsequent post, but it should be immediately obvious that a creationist faced with the FTA is forced to resort to the most absurd and pathetic special pleading that can be imagined.

But let's leave Ken Ham and his creationist cronies - what about the more sophisticated theists who want to have this naturally-evolving universe with knobs on - those knobs being specific timed interventions by God that are outside the normal natural run of things? Interventions that we might term "miracles"? One theist I discussed this with suggested that perhaps there is no route to life existing, even in this lovely life-permitting universe, without God pinging it over the barrier and then letting it evolve. The evolutionary system needs to be set up by God for it to work.

But we can't let this slide - for one thing, we don't really know how life actually began, but we have some very good ideas that constrain our hypotheses. It is considered very likely by most biologists and physicists that conditions suitable for life exist on other planets, and that conditions suitable for the *origin* of life exist too. While it is entirely possible that we are the only intelligent life in our galaxy, there is nothing about life as we know it - at least at the bacterial level - that makes it seem inherently unlikely. However, let's assume they're right, and God needed to give life an extra kick over the line to get it going. And perhaps another kick to get it to evolve multicellularity. And another to get mammals. And another to get apes. And then another to make a Man out of an ape, in the image of the creator.

We can't exclude all these little fine tuning tweaks or kicks or miracles or whatever we want to call them - at least not out of hand. However, here is the key problem. IF God (a "theistic" interventionist god, mark you!) is willing and able to make these little adjustments to the universe on-the-fly, then we are back to the same problem the creationists have - WHY are the *initial* constants so *ridiculously* fine tuned to mean that 300,000 years after the Big Bang electrons would be recaptured by protons to form hydrogen from the primordial plasma, and the gravitational force strong enough to form galaxies over the next few million years, but not too strong to collapse the whole Big Shebang back into a black hole or singularity? Why did those first stars burn for a few million years, and go supernova, spewing out their carbon and their oxygen and their iron etc into the interstellar dust clouds, only to reform into more stars and planets to recapitulate the cycle?

If we really *did* have an interventionist "theistic" God, we would have no need of such insanely delicate initial tuning - He would, as is his proposed modus operandi when it comes to life and messiahs and barbecues, fix it on-the-fly, and create life in a much larger array of universes that are more sloppily tuned. So why was the option of sorting out the carbon unavailable to God *during* the life of the Universe? Why could he not have created iron or oxygen in one of the (presumably millions) of other universe configurations available to him? Why choose to place Humans, the pinnacle of his evolved creation (because he uses evolution, remember), in the ONE configuration that didn't require any additional input from him after the Big Bang? If God is not constrained, why create a Universe that seems to show he *is* constrained? Surely the Sloppy Tuning Argument would be more convincing than a Fine Tuning Argument?

It should be clear from the above that it's not just creationists who are left flailing around by the FTA - theists are too. Of course, the most likely type of God *given* Fine Tuning is a deistic God - one who starts the whole thing off and then does not intervene. Once we postulate an interventionist God, we can't fall back on the ballistic FTA, because every additional action ascribed to God becomes hopelessly ad hoc, and suggests that the Universe didn't *need* to be fine tuned.

So Christians need to decide - IS the Universe Fine Tuned? If so, then a theistic interventionist God is highly unlikely. If not, then why are we even having this discussion? They should drop the FTA. If the God of Classical Theism exists, then the apparent Fine Tuning of the Universe is utterly inexplicable.

I, of course, don't think that any God exists. I don't think we need one. But Fine Tuning, if true, is an argument against the God of Classical Theism.




Comments welcome! I'm on Twitter as @shanemuk

04 January 2015

Thinking about peace in Israel/Palestine

Peace on the Sea of Galilee
Making peace is never easy - or, rather, it's all to easy to come up with what "should" happen, but translating that into a reality that everyone will look back on in years to come and say "That was a great idea!" is somewhat tricky. As anyone who knows me is all too aware, I have an immense affection for Israel, the Occupied Territories and Jordan - I have had the enormous good fortune to have spent a tiny amount of time in the region, but that time is all too short, and really only sums up to about 12 weeks in total over the past twenty-something years. However it has been long enough to allow me to meet some lovely people and make some great friends.

It's also sufficiently long for me to have some grasp of how difficult making a long term peace is likely to be (and boy, we've proved that!), yet short enough for me to be able to wander in with a classic Irish naïveté, and pronounce my diagnosis and recommended course of treatment to fix all woes and create a veritable paradise in, well, Paradise.

The background to the current situation should be pretty familiar to everyone by now - Israel proper currently maintains an occupation of the West Bank territory which was (along with the Gaza Strip, which is at present under blockade and has recently suffered from a disastrous bombardment from Israeli forces in response to rocket fire from Hamas) to form the basis of a Palestinian state. Much of daily life in the West Bank has been handed over to the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, but security remains under Israeli control. At the same time, many Israeli "settlements" have sprung up and been expanded, in contravention of international law. The Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu has frequently unilaterally expanded and developed these settlements in what many have seen as deliberate attempts to redraw the landscape and to prevent a Palestinian state developing. And of course there has been the ongoing violence with terrorist attacks coming from both the Palestinians and the "Price Taggers" of the settler movement. It's a lot more complex than just that of course, but that will do for now.

For many years now I have been a supporter of the "Two State Solution", whereby Israel and the Palestinians reach agreement on setting up the State of Palestine, and, using the 1967 borders and agreed land-swaps, we move to a situation of two states living side by side with a formal peace agreement, and everyone in the Middle East region uses this as the basis for a comprehensive peace that removes the Palestine/Israel issue from the grudge books forever. I have to say I still do support that plan, but repeated settlement expansion, with supporting infrastructure, Palestinian and settler violence, the "Palestine Wall", show-boating at the United Nations, corrupt politicians in both the Israeli government and the PA, cack-handed interventions from abroad, the awful tragedy unfolding in Iraq and Syria with the wars there and the emergence of Daesh/IS - all these factors seem to make a two-state solution a pipe dream. In addition there is a massive imbalance between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, with Israel very much having the upper hand. In this situation, despite the declarations of the American government and the EU, and even with the declared support of the Israeli government, it looks like the Occupation is unbreakable, and a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River simply unachievable.

There are those within Israel, such as the current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett - a hawk if ever there was one, and many many others - who wish to see complete annexation of the West Bank, but this introduces a major problem. What to do with all those non-Jewish people who would suddenly become citizens of the avowedly Jewish state of Israel? Annexation of the West Bank would mean that the Jewish majority in the combined state could not be assured. Bennett's solution is to introduce a form of Apartheid, whereby Jewish citizens would have greater rights than non-Jews. However, not everyone sees it this way.

President Reuven Rivlin has an impeccable right-wing pedigree, and is a proponent of a single state, with guarantees of equality for all. Although he has generally been seen as a hardliner, it seems that this dream may not reflect reality. How would Israel guarantee its Jewish character if it lost a Jewish majority? Furthermore, even within Jewish people there is such a diversity of belief, practice and daily life that the category may not even be all that meaningful.

As a supporter of the Two State Solution, however, I feel it may be time to think again about all this. Let's suppose we actually get a State of Palestine based on the West Bank (plus land swaps etc etc) - what then? In reality it's going to be a pretty paltry affair; there will probably always be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan river, effectively enclosing the state. It will probably be rather poor, because it's going to be hard for it to trade, it will be forever dependent on aid from the US and Europe, and its only water will come via Israel, making it difficult to grow an agricultural sector. It's likely that the price will be "land swaps" which will effectively be border re-drafts around Arab populations close to the border, effectively dumping large numbers of Israel's non-Jewish population into the new state, while Israel will of course integrate the settlements into its share of the land. Travel will become more difficult than it already is, and many of the low-paid labourers who previously had jobs in Israel will (as is happening already) find their jobs taken by transient migrants from the Far East.

Will minorities (eg Christians and Druze) fare well in a new Palestinian State? Certainly at present there doesn't seem to be any indication that Daesh/ISIS are making much headway in the West Bank, but in a volatile region where resentment is unlikely to be assuaged by the mere presence of a state-of-their-own, I think the Palestinian Authority would have cause to be nervous, and this nervousness would hardly sit well with Israel. How would tourism fare? Would the Palestinian government be able to assure the safety of foreigners? Also, apart from "having a state", does this really address the grievances of the very many descendants of the Palestinian refugees who were forcibly expelled from their homes in 1948? A Palestinian State with a "Right of Return" for multiple ex-refugees into Israel proper seems like an organisational nightmare.

And all the while, the Occupation remains a nagging sore that taints relationships between Europe, US and the Middle East. Is it time for a re-think? I am going to make a proposal. I accept that I am not Israeli or Palestinian. However, the "Holy Land" is part of my heritage. Both the fantasy and reality of the region played a large part in making me who I am, and I feel I have a stake, however small. I offer this proposal entirely humbly, realising that it may be a pipe dream, and fully aware of many shortcomings it may have. However, I submit it with the rider that every other solution that has been suggested so far has been a failure, and the status quo is actively harming both Israelis and Palestinians.

My suggestion is this: the Palestinians should call the bluff of Netanyahu, Bennett and the UN and request full annexation by Israel of the West Bank. The state will be called Israel Palestine. Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 Green Line can stay. The capital will be Jerusalem, and there will be a single parliament. People born within the region (historic Palestine) will be citizens of the united state, but will be able to declare either Palestine or Israel on their passports. The fundamental equality of all citizens will be declared in the constitution (including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity etc). The state must remain the declared homeland of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. Particular provision will be made for Jewish, Muslim and Christian people, recognising the central importance of New Israel Palestine to all these faiths - and to those who identify as secular, humanist, or atheist. All groups will have access to the holy sites (including the Temple Mount) on a negotiated basis. No-one will be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. Hebrew and Arabic will enjoy joint official status. Jews and non-Jews will be able to serve in the army (which will be much reduced because of improvements in the security situation). All Arab states in the region will formally sign peace deals with New Israel Palestine.

Pie in the sky? Very probably. Reasons why it can't work? Probably lots (I can think of plenty). But maybe we need to think a little outside the box here. This is not a recipe - it is a scenario. But if the Palestinians were to present this to the United Nations, with a commitment to peace and co-operation within the new structures set up under the new partnership-based state, is this so much worse than continued stalling and eventual Israeli annexation of the West Bank anyway? Maybe it's time for a radical change in direction and thinking. But one thing's for sure - the status quo sucks too, and everyone will be dead before things get much better. And it will allow a much more united response to what is going on in Syria and Iraq, and that can only be a good thing.

19 July 2014

Lamarck Fish Merchandise!

Well, after a small amount of prompting, I've set up a CafePress shop, where you can buy your very own branded wear with Nigel the Lamarckian Fish Giraffe Beast proudly displayed. On you go - shop 'til you drop!

12 June 2014

Interesting bad soil problem...


Houston, we have a problem.

I've been a little concerned about the soil in my front garden, so tried a little experiment. I had a few spare tomato seedlings, so after leaving them outside for a week or so to acclimatise them to the cold, I planted them into the soil directly, with plenty of water etc. Within two days there was a real transformation - the leaves became very bleached and almost cigarette-paper thin, and silvery on the undersides. 

Any thoughts on what is going on? This area of the garden is usually rather wet, and I think we're seeing the effect of acid soil. The undersoil is very compact, but usually waterlogged, and couch grass is a big feature. I'm planning to put down a load of lime, but would appreciate any advice!

11 June 2014