Journalism Politics Science Technology

On the OLPC Movement…

A couple of months ago I was asked by Icon Magazine to write a review of the OLPC XO laptop for the developing world. You can read the finished article in their January issue or on their site (OLPC review on However, since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the context and background to the review I wrote and decided that I wanted to elaborate around it a bit. I’ve also wanted to put up a version in public that hadn’t been edited for length (however judiciously). Hence this post – firstly some background to the piece and then the piece itself.

When I read a review of the XO I expect to stumble across some fairly standard positions. I expect the article to question whether the developing world really needs a laptop. I expect them to talk about the ecological impact of these laptops. I expect them to decry the project as (at best) utopianist folly and (at worst) some form of western naïve semi-colonial oppression. Most of these arguments make no sense to me at all.

The first position seems to be based on the assumption that the people of the developing world be better off gradually developing their economies through farming to manufacturing and ending up gradually in high technology industries. I personally think this ideology dooms these countries to always playing catch-up to the west. If there’s any chance of them leap-frogging great swathes of industrialisation to create a working and creative population that can compete on a world stage, then I don’t understand how any of us could stand up in good conscience and decry it.

Environmental damage through a proliferation of laptops seems to me to be probably indisputable, but what’s the alternative? Is it fair for rich countries to consume vast amounts of resources but stop poor countries having access to the same services ‘for the good of the world’? Can we really in good conscience deny other people what we take for granted? Perhaps if we were sending out hundreds of millions of Macs or PCs there might be an argument here, but the XOs are massively less damaging to the world than any of those devices.

The utopian accusation may have some truth to it. It’s difficult to know precisely how much chance a project like this has of success. And it’s difficult to know whether the technologists behind it are busily projecting their own ideologies onto developing countries in defiance of what those countries actually want. Probably the only way we’ll find out for sure would be to provide the machines to a few disparate groups of young people across the world and see how they develop–see what opportunities it opens up for them. Personally, I find the arguments convincing. I think there is a net benefit to come out of this. I think it will help. But it’s pretty tricky to distinguish your own beliefs from your prejudices. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being so confident.

For me, it comes down to the way we want to operate in the world. It’s extremely easy to adopt a pose of scepticism and cynicism about any attempt to change things or push them forwards. I’ve said before about a particularly aggravating tech commentator that naysaying is a sure-fire way to look sensible and intelligent without any of the effort of actually having to think. I stand by that, and I think the OLPC project has had its fair share of this kind of thinking.

Personally though, I believe that it’s possible to work for the good of all and improve the world. I think it’s a decent and honourable thing to apply whatever means you have at your disposal to raising the aspirations and possibilities of one of the planet’s most squandered resources–its residents. And I do buy the geek rhetoric that access to information, communication and education cannot but help people. As such, I’m prepared to give this project and others like it, the benefit of the doubt. And that’s why I decided to write this article in this particular style. I hope you enjoy it:

There’s something grotesque about reviewing Nicholas Negroponte’s XO–the so-called “$100 dollar laptop”–for a magazine like Icon. And that I’m writing the piece on my gas-guzzling SUV of a MacBook Pro can only compound the horror. This is not a machine designed to be evaluated by people like me. Nor is it meant to be bought by the kinds of people that will read this magazine. To talk about it in the same design terms as a lamp or a set of headphones borders on criminal, because in every way that really counts the XO is not a consumer artefact. It’s not trying to wheedle itself into your living room. In fact, quite the opposite. It has more in common with a clean water pump or an honourable approach to third-world debt than it does with an iPod. It’s a sincere but radical political act.

The result of a two-year project by “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), the XO aims to introduce primary school children in the developing world to the educational possibilities of technology and the network. Green and white with a tough, textured plastic body about the same size as a lunch-box, it has been optimised in every way to deal with the extreme conditions of its use. Its astonishingly frugal use of electricity allows it to function in areas where power is sparse or even non-existent. The screen switches into an energy-efficient black and white mode that is also readable in direct–even aggressive–sunlight. The rubberised keyboard seals the device against dust and water. Even the friendly green “ears” of the device serve a triple function – acting as latches, protective shields for USB ports and as antennae designed to extend the range of the distributed wifi networks that will connect children across the planet.

And this is a device optimised for the young. The keyboard immediately reveals the clumsiness and size of fully-grown fingers. Each key is springy and responsive–fun to touch and explore–but they’re packed tightly together to help small hands roam effectively. In every dimension, the XO is child-shaped. The grasp of the handle, the heft of it in your hands, the way it swings when you walk–it’s enough to make any adult feel like a freakishly large mutant. And it’s not only child-shaped, it’s child-resistant – it feels resilient, solid, indestructible–as if it could be used as a tennis racket without sustaining any real damage.

Yet what’s truly extraordinary about the XO isn’t the way it’s been tailored to work under extreme conditions, but the bets it places on our collective political and creative future. Geek utopianists have infused every aspect of the device with their own profoundly aspirational, positive and humanist political ideology. The XO is their lever to effect change at a global scale.

You can spot it everywhere. Every aspect of the device — from the operating system to the mesh networking that distributes connectivity to each machine — works on the principle that each node on the network can accomplish more together than they can apart. Every application on every machine is designed to operate in a social context – you can show off your work, share your web browsing or advertise an ongoing discussion. Some applications–including a version of Connect 4–are only functional at all if you have other people to play with.

The collaborative, communal experience is tied together by the “zoom interface” – the XO’s version of the Finder or File Manager. It allows a user at any time to zoom back from one particular application to their desktop, then to their community of friends and then still further to see everyone on the network. While zoomed out, you can see clumps and clusters of people collaborating and playing, always connected and situated within their community. The XO is not a device for loners. It is a device that believes aggressively in society and aims to support it.

There are also challenges to our traditional understanding of intellectual property. The communities in the developing world that cannot afford life-saving drugs can find themselves similarly constrained by the cost of textbooks–and often for similar reasons. But with a turn of the screen, the XO becomes a simple ebook reader connected to a network. It’s an environment ideal for the distribution of free knowledge, and so it’s no surprise to see Wikipedia involved in the project. Information, as the technologist’s mantra goes, wants to be free–and the XO is there to help that happen.

You can see similar principles at work in the pervasive use of open-source applications and software like the Firefox browser or Linux. This software is free to use, install and distribute but–more importantly–offers its very code up to exploration and change. The XO revels in this opportunity, making it easy for children to access and edit the very software of their machine. There are no finished creative works here, but simply sites for continual exploration and learning.

In every area, this iconic object is an attempt to refashion the world in the image of the dreams of its creators – noble, vigourous, creative and expressively utopian dreams. Every element is impregnated with these aspirations of sociality, play, creation, freedom. As a project and as a device, it’s beautiful and revolutionary.

If the perfected whole succeeds in its mission, these aspirations may find a new home in the minds of generations of children in the developing world. And this new generation – growing up able to access and manipulate knowledge, technology, literature, music and code – will bring to the networked world their new perspectives, voices and needs. It’s a project to transform the world: this small device has a substantial mission. It’s not a laptop, it’s a movement. And it deserves our full support.

Health Science

On Ben Goldacre on Gillian McKeith…

There are times when I feel that Ben Goldacre—author of the Guardian’s Bad Science column—should be knighted. His services to the British people are astonishing and crushingly under-rated. Occasionally I have questioned his style and on one particular occasion I’ve thought his sense of the ethical ramifications of a particular line of research was a bit naïve, but this is not going to be one of those times. Today he’s written a piece that shows him at his absolute best, taking on bastardised popularised notions of science and nutrition and systematically ripping it to pieces. There are times to celebrate the Guardian and this is one of them.

His target today is Dr. Gillian McKeith, who has become rich and celebrated on the back of a series of TV shows and health products focused around demonstrating you are what you eat. Her British TV show involves exploring the symptoms and excrement of chronically and dangerously overweight people with terrible diets and then putting them on diets rich in fish, fruit and vegetables. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Except she’s only sort of a doctor and many of her theories are absolute hogwash. I’m going to quote some of the article below, but really you’d be better served by reading A menace to science yourself. In the meantime, I look forward to ‘Dr’ McKeith’s response to the article and leave you with Ben Goldacre:

McKeith is a menace to the public understanding of science. She seems to misunderstand not nuances, but the most basic aspects of biology – things that a 14-year-old could put her straight on. She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it’s “high in oxygen” and will “oxygenate your blood” – but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It’s dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn’t absorb much oxygen in there, because you don’t have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don’t think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination. Future generations will look back on this phenomenon with astonishment.

She says DNA is an anti-ageing constituent: if you “do not have enough RNA/DNA”, in fact, you “may ultimately age prematurely”. Stress can deplete your DNA, but algae will increase it: and she reckons it’s only present in growing cells. Is my semen growing? Is a virus growing? Is chicken liver pate growing? All of these contain plenty of DNA. She says that “each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full-grown, healthy plant”. Does a banana plant have the same amount of calories as a banana seed? The ridiculousness is endless.

Diet has been studied very extensively, and there are some things that we know with a fair degree of certainty: there is convincing evidence that diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, with natural sources of dietary fibre, avoiding obesity, moderate alcohol, and physical exercise, are protective against things such as cancer and heart disease.

But nutritionists don’t stop there, because they can’t: they have to manufacture complication, to justify the existence of their profession … These new nutritionists have a major commercial problem with evidence. There’s nothing very professional or proprietary about “eat your greens”, so they have had to push things further: but unfortunately for the nutritionists, the technical, confusing, overcomplicated, tinkering interventions that they promote are very frequently not supported by convincing evidence. And that’s not for lack of looking. This is not about the medical hegemony neglecting to address the holistic needs of the people. In many cases, the research has been done, and we know that the more specific claims of nutritionists are actively wrong.

PS. The thing that disturbed me most about the article was Dr McKeith’s apparent behaviour in chilling debate about her theories through legal threats. I’d like to suggest that there’s strength in numbers here. If you think this use of threats to chill legitimate debate about an individual’s theories goes against everything that an academic or scientist stands for, then I’d recommend that you too link to this article. Obviously you should also feel free to point out its flaws, inaccuracies or places where you just don’t agree with it. Such is the freeflow of debate.

Design Mobile Science Technology

On Wattson and Electrisave…

Thanks to a fascinating conversation on haddock the other day, I’m now completely obsessed with a brand new class of personal lifestyle gizmos – a class that is very much in sync with the emergent energy puritanism that I find myself unexpectedly interested in after An Inconvenient Truth. The class of objects is ‘things that help you develop an understanding of your personal energy consumption’, and thus give you a handle by which to control it.

My boss at UpMyStreet had a line he used recurrently about statistics”Everything measured goes up”. Specifically, he meant that the act of measuring itself creates an impetus for change and competitiona pressure to move a figure towards whichever extreme is (sometimes arbitrarily given the absence of context) defined as ‘better’. It’s a comment on the nature of observation, feedback loops and the selection of the criteria by which you measure success.

The energy-tracking gadgets that have come to fascinate me hope that by exposing these figures, a pressure will manifest that drives energy consumption downwards, and that these actions will justify the expense to the earth spent in making and powering the trackers themselves.

This beautiful object is the Wattson available from It’s a handmade object that costs a significantly alarming 350 of your Earth Pounds. You attach a sensor near to your elecricity meter and can then place the object itself pretty much anywhere in the home where it will communicate with the sensor wirelessly. It will then display in real time both an ambient and a digital numerical display of the amount of electricity being used in your house, so you can see the benefits of turning off a light or microwaving a meal or having a shower. It can alsoapparentlyconnect to the internet via your computer and broadcast data about your energy consumption to online social environments. But more about that stuff in a minute.

Of course you don’t have to go quite this extravagent to get this kind of functionality. The wooden sides and iPod-like white of the display are clearly designed to fit into some hybrid modernist but environmentalist minimal aestheticand I suspect that it’s really the visual or artistic appeal of the object that really floats my boatbut you can get cheaper and less ridiculous devices that do similar jobs.

The Electrisave Meter is a very different-looking beast – it’s all grey plastic and LCD displays and cables. But then again it’s also the rather more manageable ¬£80. But somehow it doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

There are two particular things that occur to me about these devices and my own (and potentially other people’s) reactions to them. The first is back to the nature of scoring and measuring. I went to see a rather introductory talk by Judith Donath when I was last in the US around signalling theory and she talked a bit about what signalling actually referred to in particular cases. She talked about the man who buys a fast and flashy car, who probably thinks that he’s communicating in some ways that he is virile and manly and exciting, where in fact in pure signalling terms he’s communicating no more and no less than that he can afford to buy a fast car. Still, being able to buy a fast car actually may be a good thing to advertise. She also talked a bit about the controversial Handicap principle which talked about why there might be advantage in reproductive terms to develop completely impractical or ridiculously showy traitslike the tails on peacocks. The proposal of this particular controversial theory was that the generation of these costly attributes might actually be designed to indicate genetic health and vigour, since only particularly strong and healthy candidates could afford to be so wasteful.

Anyway the thing that leapt to my mind when thinking about this stuff was that anything that’s scored can have at least two positive states. Behaviour that is good is often rewarded, but the inability of all people to be the best on these grounds creates a space where bad behaviour can be viewed as revolutionary or cool or subversive. Lowering energy consumption might be viewed in positive ways by many people, but giving people an easy way to display their own patterns may just as easily lead people into showy conspicuous consumption and indications that they can afford to be wasteful. Metrics are always troubling, conflicting and often uniquely vulnerable to any forms of interpretative activity.

The other thing that occurred to me was that I’m noticing an increasing instinct in my own life towards trying to capture and track as much information about what I’m doing or what I have done as possible – and to be able to get it out somewhere on the internet where I might be able to do things with it. From my playcounts in iTunes and my profile through to my web stats and geotagged Flickr photos all the way to my sudden almost overwhelming fascination with tracking/displaying my energy consumptions and getting programmatic access to my Oyster card data, over and over again I’m finding myself interested in capturing and making sense of the activities of my life in an ambient and backgrounded way. I want to know what I’ve watched on television, how many days of sunshine I’ve experienced this year and how well my mood as correlated with them, how much I’m sleeping, how much I’ve drank, how much bandwidth I use up in a week and how loud my neighbourhood is compared to the average.

Or more specifically I don’t want to know this stuff, I want to be able to capture it invisibly so that it can be knitted together and sense made of it and data made discoverable and searchable at some point in the future, when the urge or need takes me. This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects. The citizen of the future will have some of their personal fuzziness removed as the sharp data edges of their lives are captured and tracked for personal use. And I’m not sure what I think about it. Except that it’s fascinating.

Do you know about any more products like this? Things that display in interesting ways the energy consumption or patterns of consumption around your home? What do you think of these ones in particular? Should I get one?

Conference Notes Politics Science

On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO '06)

One talk from FOO Camp 06 started off fascinating me and end up driving me to distraction with frustration. Chris Csikszentmih√°lyi from the MIT Media Lab did a talk about the implicit politics that lies behind all technology. Initially I found this highly engaging – it reminded me a lot about the cultural studies work that I’d been involved with during my incomplete doctorate – only with a more practical bent. Specifically Emily Martin’s article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female roles leapt into my brain – an article that argued that scientific discourse was regularly distorted by cultural prejudices and explained how unexamined assumptions made a mockery of concepts like ‘good science’.

Csikszentmih√°lyi described his work as exploring the implicit assumptions of technological work and science – the difference between what the scientists think they’re doing and what actually happens. One of the interesting facts he revealed was that only 3%-5% of experiments in advanced science are ever reproven (ie. the experiments are successfully replicated) for a whole range of reasons. This is not because the science was wrong (necessarily) but simply because some of the experiments can only be performed using incredibly expensive equipment that might only be owned by one laboratory (CERN’s particle accelerators?) and that many of the experiments could only be replicated with the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the people who had performed the initial experiments – knowledge that often was not successfully captured in the write-ups of the experiments. He argued that, ‘scientific conflict is not resolved by individuals replicating stuff like that, it’s resolved in a remarkable social process’.

Anyway, so far so good. He then talked about tool neutrality and how where you received funding from – and the perspective from which you were viewing the research – inevitably revealed that all work was political, and that ideas like ‘tool neutrality’ (I’m making something neutral and it can be used for good or ill) and ‘technology is out of control’ were both missing the point and were completely irrelevant to the debate. That the politicised nature of science was indisputable, but did not necessarily result in anti-technological standpoints.

The parts that got difficult for me were when – accepting that there was no science that was not political – Csikszentmih√°lyi seemed to me to wander rapidly down into relativism, almost seeming to argue that there was no such thing as empirically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ science, but simply different political takes on the same field. I tried to get him to expand around this and challenged a few points that seemed to be logical extensions of this without much success at all, and left frustrated and irritated by the whole enterprise. It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones. This seems to me to be an idea that’s seeped into the world from my old discipline to the good of precisely no one. It seems to me that there remains some way of arguing that a theory that was demonstrably disprovable was conceptually ‘worse’ than a theory that fitted the available data, and that this metric was implicated in and connected to but orthogonal to the inevitably politicised nature of the science itself. That is to say that the politicisation would inevitably exist and would always and inevitably obfuscate any model of a ‘real world’ that one might wish to posit as a useful mechanism to think against (subject to disproval, of course). But that while we accepted that, there were metrics that could often be used to measure practicality, utility, plausibility or whatever that could be a debased but functional analogue to ideas of ‘what makes good science’.

I have no sense of whether I managed to successfully challenge Chris on these theoretical issues, whether he simply did not get what I was trying to ask him or whether I was just evidencing my stupidity in public again. However, the whole thing did seem to reach a nasty point when I said that he seemed to be arguing for the death of logic itself, only for him to say that he believed in logic – as a fundamentally perspectival and human way of interpreting the world. At which point I could not help but feel he’d managed to destroy the platform on which he himself was talking – running hard into the wall between modernity and post-modernity that left feminism with no concept of a woman left to defend.

I’m still thinking around this talk, and would appreciate any insights anyone else might have on it out there in the world. From talking to many of my ex-colleagues in the humanities it seems that much of the sociological and philosophical frameworks for these kinds of the positions are being rapidly abandoned by community after community – but this is purely hearsay. Anyone got any thoughts?


On the perception of the colours of Mars…

I was looking at a post about the relative proportions of various planets today and it reminded me of a thought I’d had a couple of years ago and hadn’t ever explored in depth. It was based on a stupid theory of mine that I’d like you guys to disprove or correct or support. To start off with, look at the following picture from the above link:

So the most notable thing about this picture from my perspective (other than the size differential) is the difference in colour. More specifically, not that the colours are different, but that non-Earth planets are much more monotone. So my theory goes like this – we evolved on Earth, it’s important for us to be able to distinguish between certain types of substances and so our eyes are set up to better distinguish between the specific wavelengths of light that things on our planet reflect. Not a great moment of insight, I’m sure you’ll agree. Pushing it further though – this suggests that if we had evolved on Pluto, Jupiter or Venus, we’d perceive different wavelengths in more depth and with more variety. In fact, potentially if we’d been born on Mars, it would look to our eyes like a vibrant and colourful place, while Earth could look comparatively drab.

This could all be total balls for all I know. But what I wanted specifically to do was to get an image of Venus or Mars or whatever and kind of stretch the spectrum of colours across our visual spectrum, with the assumption that you’d get more Earth-like shades and a different sense of the landscape, even if (to the natives of this world) blue would no longer correspond to water. I’m assuming that someone’s done something like this before, but I can’t find anything good online about it, or a way to do such a thing in Photoshop. Anyone got any thoughts?

Academia Health Journalism Politics Religion Science

On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria

Religion Science

Science (and evolution) is not a matter of faith…

You know what the real problem is with Intelligent Design? You know why it seems impossible to make it clear to people why it is such total bunk? It’s because the battle was conceded years ago in a parallel argument. Here’s my understanding of the philosophy of science – someone proposes a hypothesis, people test it. If the hypothesis is disproven it is thrown aside. Science is a process of throwing away hypotheses that do not work. It evolves and changes. It is as simple a process as working out that spilling hot things on yourself is something you don’t want to do twice, because the hypothesis, “it is nice to spill hot things on yourself” can be swiftly and easily determined to be untrue. Scientific rationality never claims things to be true beyond all doubt, unless they can be proven in self-contained conceptual systems like maths. In science, any theory is there to be disproven. People make careers out of challenging the work of their predecessors. Science is a process of self-critique.

But it’s not just about having hypotheses and testing them. Scientific rationality is also about understanding the nature of hypotheses themselves. Firstly, there may be an infinite number of hypotheses to test – even if they are only subtly different from one another. As such, with the sheer variety of options, it’s probable you will never achieve an answer that you can say is true beyond all doubt. But you can get pretty close. One step is to undergo testing of reasonable hypotheses. But the other is to pass over the infinite number of untestable hypotheses that also exist. These can be passed over because there is no logical basis for giving any one of those theories any credence over any other. Untestable concepts, untestable hypotheses must be treated with enormous scepticism in any rational attempt to understand the world.

Now we get to religion. I am an atheist of long-standing. Other people believe in a god of some kind. I think they’re wrong but it’s their right to make that error. What is interesting is when people try to move the terms of the debate to deny the existence of atheism itself. The argument bascially goes like this – given that you cannot prove that god doesn’t exist, then atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion. In fact, they argue, atheism is not even really a sustainable position – you can only really be agnostic.

This argument is founded on the assumption that one particular untestable hypothesis – no matter how fantastic – is different from all the others, and that we must give it more credence than equally provable ones about space aliens, pastafarian gods and the like. But it is the responsibility of the person promulgating a hypothesis to demonstrate that it is testable and that the results can be repeated. By allowing ourselves to lower that expectation, and to allow people to conflate a process of testing with a process of justifying, we’ve made it possible for people to argue that not believing any random theory that someone conjectures on the spot is a matter of faith – as good or as bad as any other theory.

We’re reaping Intelligent Design because we allowed the sowing of a view of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as parallel activities. They are not parallel activities. They are precisely different activities. They are not two approaches on the same quest for truth, they are two different processes with two different ends. They may be compatible views for people prepared to accept faith as the answer to areas where hypotheses cannot be tested, but that compatibility is predicated on the two world views operating on different levels, in different territories. Intelligent Design and Evolution are not equivalents. They too operate on different levels, in different territories. We cannot be asked to believe Intelligent Design on the basis that it’s as good a theory as any other that hypotheses magic to fill gaps in logic. Nor should we accept the characterisation of the scientific approach as one based on faith. We have to fix that earlier mistake on first principles if we expect to move forward.


Now available: Mr Webb's Mind Hacks!

My work colleague and R&D partner has a book out (with Tom Stafford)! It’s called Mind Hacks and it’s from O’Reilly in their Hacks series. So when you’ve finished fiddling with your Tivo or with Google’s API, now you can take that spare screwdriver and start mucking around with that most interesting pieces of squishyware in the world: your brain.

The book is about how your mind works and is put together, but it’s not one of those long boring books where you just have to nod sagely and stroke your beard. Instead, this is more of a things-to-make-and-do of cognitive neuroscience. It’s full of experiments, tricks and tips designed to expose how your vision, motor skills, attention, cognition and subliminally perceptual systems work. Moreover the hacks have entertaining and non-threatening names like Why people don’t work like elevator buttons (PDF) and Why can’t you tickle yourself? (PDF). The only annoying thing about the book is that it would be really ideal as a Christmas gift for Mr Webb, except he had to scupper my plans by being one of the people who wrote it. Bastard.

I think I was lucky enough to be around when the idea for the book first emerged a few years ago at a social software summit in Finland organised by Clay Shirky. At the time I think there was general agreement that it was a bloody good idea, but I don’t know how many of us actually expected to see it in print. Of course in order for it to make it to print, Mr Webb had to part-time abandon me in the bowels of the BBC to ponce off and have fun inside The British Library. He has been much missed (not that he’s coming back or anything), but I think it’s been worth it. There’s a weblog to accompany the book at

Anyway, it’s in my best interests to bask in the reflected glory of my chum, so I’m going to ask all of you to go and buy a copy immediately and recommend it to all of your friends – particularly those you think could do with some help keeping their brains ticking over. And I expect to see some pictures of you lazy bastards performing impromptu neurosurgery on each other by the end of the year!


On scientific truth and Christian truth…

In the middle of an article about the way that the religious right have interfered with scientific work in the US, I find a troubling paragraph:

At a time when biology is poised to undergo a fundamental revolution, the US government, arguably the most potent government in the history of the world, is rife with White House appointees who believe that scientific truth and Christian truth cannot be synonymous, and may well be in opposition.

I ask myself – do I believe that scientific truth and Christian truth can be synonymous? My answer – no. I ask myself – do I believe that they may well be in opposition? My answer – yes. The only difference between me and the people from the religious right then, is that we disagree with which ‘truth’ is the more reliable. I stick on the side of the people who test their conclusions and refine their belief systems with reference to evidence – they stick to the side of the people who believe that a magic being sets bushes on fire and turns women into salt.

So the scary bit for me is not that the nutters in power believe that the two are incompatible, but that the assumption is that for reasonable, normal, run-of-the-mill scientists all across America that it’s normal to be able to reconcile meteorology with the concept of rains of blood and biology with people who bring people back from the dead…

Gay Politics Science

On adaptive success and theories of homosexuality…

The latest issue of New Scientist contains an article – “The In Crowd” – that is both profoundly interesting and yet totally unavailable online. Gradually, I’m delighted to say, this situation is becoming more rare and more of a surprise each time it occurs.

Anyway, the article – written by Joan Roughgarden – contends that: “Same-sex relationships are not a biological dead end. They are a glue that helps hold many animal societies together, and a fatal flaw in one of Darwin’s central ideas.” Here are a few choice chunks of the article that I think encompass most of the article:

Author Bruce Bahemihl, in his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and natural diversity, has catalogued over 200 vertebrate species in which same-sex genital contact regularly occurs. In some species, homosexuality is not very common – around 1 to 10 per cent of all mating. In others, such a bonobos, homosexual mating occurs as often as heterosexual mating. In some species only males participate, in others only females, in still others both sexes. Sometimes homosexuality is associated with pair bonds that last for years, and in others with short-term courtships. This broad occurrence of homosexuality among vertebrates raises the possibility that if it has a genetic basis at all, it has some broad adaptive significance, and is not an aberrant condition just a few species happen to be stuck with.

In humans, moreover, homosexuality is much too common for it to be considered a genetic aberration. Real genetic diseases are really rare, and their frequency inevitably depends on their severity. A disease that is uniformly lethal must arise anew each generation, so its frequency is equal to the mutation rate, say one in 1 million. A disease that causes only a 10 per cent drop in offspring production (fitness) is 10 times more common than a lethal disease – about one in 100,000. Similarly, a mere 1 per cent drop in fitness leads to a frequency of one in 10,000. If homosexuality has a frequency of 1 in 10, the fitness loss could be no more than 0.001 per cent, which is completely undetectable. A “common genetic disease” is a contradiction in terms, and homosexuality is three to four orders of magnitude more common than true genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease.

All this seems eminently reasonable to me so far. I mean, clearly I’m no expert in evolutionary biology, so my opinion really counts for less than nothing. But on the other hand, as an engaged reader and a gay man I’ve at least got a legitimate interest in the subject and have found myself relatively compelled by the idea that if homosexual behaviour has a genetic component, that at least some of the genes that result in it must have some adaptive utility. The most commonly cited example is that perhaps a gene might exist that in an heterosexual adult provided a significant reproductive advantage of some kind – but which had the side effect of producing a certain proportion of children who were gay. As long as the cumulative effect was to mean that – on average – the familial line would produce more sexually productive offspring than a line which did not have the gene, then it would be clear that the genes that result in gay people had a reproductive advantage.

Of course while that theory has a certain compelling logic to it, it doesn’t (perhaps shouldn’t) have anything to say about what it means to be gay in this context. In other words – it makes no statement that homosexual behaviour is itself somehow useful or positive with regard to human behaviour, survival or evolution. Homosexual behaviour then, is not considered adaptively useful.

Now back to Joan Roughgarden’s piece (carrying on directly from what was written above):

Indeed, I challenge the presumption that homosexuality leads to any reduction in fitness whatever. Throughout history and across cultures, homoerotic attraction has not precluded heteroerotic attraction. And there is little evidence that people who feel homoerotic attraction have, as a group, any less Darwinian fitness than those who don’t. After all, many exclusively heterosexual people do not have offspring either. Even if those with homoerotic attraction did have marginally fewed children, they might make up for it by a better chance of survival – during wars, for example, when homoerotic bonds might lead soldiers to protect one another more vigorously.

So what then, is the adaptive significance of homosexuality? Homosexuality has many uses, much as the ability to speak does. Homosexual contact is a way to communicate pleasure. And I suggest that homosexuality is a social inclusionary trait – that is, it provides animals, including perhaps humans at times, with admission to social groups. It evolves, I suggest, whenever same-sex cooperation helps achieve an evolutionary successful life: to survive, find mates and protect one’s young from harm. This plays out in different ways in different sexes and species. Sometimes, as with bonobos, same-sex cooperation provides group security and access to food that females need to successfully rear their young. For others, such as male Savanna baboons and probably some whales, it provides the allies they need to survive conflicts so that they may later mate. But the unifying principle is the same – homosexuality cements relationships that are crucial for a successful life.

At which point, I’m afraid, I think my scepticism comes to the fore. It seems to me that any theory of homosexuality that operates in direct opposition to people’s experience of contemporary human sexuality seems to be at least flawed. While bonobo homosexuality might be seen to be useful in the creation of social inclusion, often exactly the opposite occurs in human society. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic book Between Men specifically talks about the continual need to disavow sexual components to male homosocial relationships (ie. male-on-male friendship / bonding relationships). We’re all familiar with this kind of experience – that the most common and most potent sources of anti-gay tirades are tightly-bound social groups of men. At the very least more is going on in those situations than simple homoeroticism bringing those men together to express solidarity and closeness. Even at our most open-minded, surely we have to state that in those circumstances, the fact that any vestigial or situational erotics have to be so vigorously denied makes it clear that there’s a distinction to be drawn between homoerotic behaviour, homosexual behaviour and homosexual identities that is much more complex than anything that Roughgarden supplies us with.

I will of course give her the benefit of the doubt in this case – the article is evidently a truncation of a body of work that no doubt includes a massive set of sample data from which to draw conclusions as well as the applied expertise of a lifetime of training. If I get the chance to read any more of her work, I will make sure that I do so vigorously. But in the meantime, I’m afraid I must remain interested but unconvinced.