Saturday, 28 March 2009

Astonishing new learning method, which doesn't actually work!!

Apparently some pupils at a school in North Tyneside recently took part in an experiment. They crammed for a GCSE for a few hours, while taking exercise breaks in between, and then they took a multiple choice paper on the material. A year later, after four months of traditional teaching, they took a similar paper on different material. The results were... well, I don't know what the results were. The Times article had this to say:
Their average scores were higher for the second paper than for the first one (68 vs 58 per cent). But more than a quarter of students did worse in the second paper, despite the months of preparation.
Yep, that's right. That says absolutely nothing. Who's to say that 1 quarter of students wouldn't have done worse if they'd taken exactly the same paper the very next day? 75% of the students had better grades after traditional teaching than after the new method - whose to say the rest wasn't noise? They don't seem to have a control group cramming in a different manner. According to the article "the repetition is key", but there's exactly nothing in the results that indicates this is the case - they didn't have some other group trying to cram the material in 1h 30 minutes without repeating it.

This might well be a preliminary study, and the techniques it suggests might well prove to be useful in a broader context, but at the moment what they have proven is that trying to cram lots of material in 1 and a half hours is less effective than teaching it over the course of 4 months. Amazing!!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Science Minister can't answer questions about Science because of his Religion

A Canadian Science Minister Gary Goodyear was asked whether he believed in evolution. His response?
I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,


Imagine the situation: an economics minister is asked "Do you believe that increasing the minimum wage helps poor people?". His response: "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Keynesian and I don't think anyone asking a question about my Economic Beliefs is appropriate".

This is just too completely ridiculous for words - if your religious beliefs affect your ability to do your job, then asking questions about them damned well is appropriate. Given that he didn't answer the question, this guy presumably is some sort of creationist, and this is certain to affect his decisions regarding funding for biology (evolution is the organising principle of the whole of modern biology - if you don't believe in it, you have to throw the whole lot out of the window). There is no reason why religious beliefs should sacred (and yes, I know that's a bad word, but I never have been able to think of a better one), any belief which makes you incapable of doing your job is fair game.

Monday, 9 March 2009

CPS takes ridiculous law to its logical conclusion

According to the Mail on Sunday, the CPS has decided to treat Scientology in the same way as other religions when it comes to protections under the Race and Religious Hatred Act.

Now, don't get me wrong - Scientology is a really, really stupid religion - for God's sakes, it was founded by a man who said (something like)
"You don't get rich writing science fiction, if you want to get rich, you start a religion"
For more on this quote, see here - to quote that page:

To summarize: we have nine witnesses: Neison Himmel, Sam Merwin, Sam Moskowitz, Theodore Sturgeon, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Harlan Ellison, and the three unnamed witnesses of Robert Vaughn Young. There is some confusion and doubt about one of them (Sam Moskowitz). Two are reported via Russel Miller: one is reported via Mike Jittlov: one reported in his autobiography; one reported in an affidavit; and one reported to me in person. The reports describe different events, meaning that Hubbard said it perhaps six times, in six different venues - definitely not just once. And the Church's official disclaimer is now reportedly a flat lie.
It's a really, really stupid religion, it has some utterly ridiculous beliefs as part of its credo, and it does some pretty nasty things to people - but that's not my point here (there are other people far more qualified to comment on the stupidity and cupidity of Scientologists than I am. My point is that if you have laws which explicitly protect religious belief, then you're going to have to use them to protect "religions" like Scientology.

There's no evidence whatever that aliens flew to Earth in DC-8's, but then there's no evidence whatever that people can survive for three days in the belly of a whale, or that any of these things actually happened.

Taken at face value, almost all religious beliefs are ridiculous, and since religions don't demand any actual evidence for their beliefs, just about the only way to distinguish between a religion and a cult is that a religion has more members. This is something I've written about before, and I think it's quite important, and often missed by other people who write about this sort of thing. Once you start to officially recognise one form of unsupported nonsense, you're on a slippery slope to having to officially recognise whatever form of unsupported nonsense people happen to want to believe in tomorrow.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

FSA thinks we're all *really* stupid

There are some new posters up around Whitechapel to encourage healthy eating - not sure if they're made by the FSA or by the local council. Anyway they have some really excellent health tips on them. So far I've seen:

Eating less pastry can help reduce your saturate fat intake.

Mildly patronising, but I suppose possibly useful for people who might not know that pastry is high in saturated fats.

Swapping olive or vegetable oil for butter in cooking could help reduce your saturated fat intake.

Well... ok, if I don't cook with saturated fat as much then I won't get as much saturated fat in my diet. Again, I suppose this could theoretically be useful for people who didn't realise that vegetable oils are healthier than butter (which people these would be, exactly, I wouldn't like to say).

Simply eating healthier snacks can help reduce your saturated fat intake.

Now we're getting really patronising. Since in order for this to make sense healthier can only be defined as "containing less saturated fat", this is almost tautologous, and surely not actually new information for anyone. In fact, after seeing this sign, I suggested (in jest) to my friend that they should just put up a sign which said "eating less saturated fat could reduce your saturated fat intake."... which leads us onto the latest one I've seen:

Just reading labels and choosing options which are lower in saturates could help lower your saturated fat intake.

Yes, seriously, someone thought it was a good idea to put that on a poster. Once again, to paraphrase, because I can't imagine anyone stupid enough that this poster would actually benefit them: "eating less saturated fat could help reduce your saturated fat intake". Is it possible that there's someone out there in the world who is intelligent enough to read a poster multisyllabic words like "saturated" and not intelligent enough to realise that if they want to reduce their saturated fat intake they should eat less saturated fat? I think I've probably repeated myself too much in this final paragraph, but I just can't get over the inanity of this poster campaign - seriously, how stupid does the FSA think we are?

Of course, all this is assuming that reducing saturated fat intake is a good thing, which I am led to believe is far from proven. I'm not an expert, I don't claim Rob Grant is an expert, and I'm not about to claim that the FSA is definitely wrong, but there are certainly well-qualified people out there who are not convinced that a diet high in saturated fats actually does increase blood cholesterol levels (or that this would necessarily be a bad thing if it did). Why doesn't the FSA spend money researching this instead of placing highly irritating and patronising posters on the Tube?