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Archive for August, 2013


An interesting discussion has arisen on science and the humanities, sparked by Steven Pinker’s essay in New Republic. Personally, I side with Massimo Pigliucci.
Indeed, my initial reaction to Steven Pinker’s essay was that science has a long way to go before it can explain (if it is even possible – the problem may require more computation than available in the universe) as much about the human condition as Jacques soliloquy in As You Like It.
A far more pertinent exercise is the podcast of See Arr Oh of the Just Like Cooking blog, ChemJobber of the eponynous blog
and Stuart Cantrill on plagiarism and how one journal (Stuart Cantrill is editor of Nature Chemistry) deals with the editorial process.
Plagiarism here is taken as the unattributed reproduction of text, passing it off as one’s own. (more…)

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Another excellent post on religion, charting the gradual move to a secular society

Pandaemonium

religion praying

Linda Woodhead is professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society research programme. She is also one of the most acute observers of contemporary religion and religious identity. She has been conducting a series of surveys with YouGov on social and personal morality for the Westminster Faith Debates, of which she is the organiser. Linda is writing an essay for Pandaemonium on the changing character of religious identity, which I will publish that next week. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the data from her polling.  (The survey was conducted by YouGov in Britain in June, with a sample size of 4018.)

What is striking is the divergence between the picture of religious belief that has been painted in recent political debates and media discussions and that depicted by the YouGov data.  Recent debates on social…

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Do We Need Religion to be a Decent Society?


Excellent piece, reblogged at Ferniglab

Robinince's Blog

On Saturday, I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate at Wilderness festival. The debate was “The world needs religion, just leave God out of it”. For the motion were Selina  O Grady and Douglas Murray, against, Peter Atkins and Myself. 

I am glad to say we won.

 I’ll start with my end of debate summing up, and below that you can see some of the working out I did on stage beforehand, if you’ve got the time. The time limit for the main speech was a strict 7 minutes, so much was jettisoned and my arms waved like antsy pelican wings.(Written as a speech, I’ve tried to neaten it up for the purpose of reading, sorry for where I may have failed)

If we are going to water down religion, remove the ugliness of misogynies, homophobia, overbearing and harsh god or gods, then why not just wash it…

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Following my post on August 7, “REF: !#?! GRRRR, Aaaaaarrrrrrrgh“, an article in the Times Higher by Paul Jump on the University of Leicester’s recent memo indicating that staff not returned on REF would be viewed as underperforming. This is somewhat disturbing on the grounds that REF does not equate with research excellence, for reasons outlined in my previous post and by others. There can be no excuse for those who are doing little research and teaching, but to start swinging this particular blunt instrument without taking into account overall performance is destructive.
In most universities, teaching brings in the greater part of the institution’s income. An interesting view of research is that it runs at a loss, but is important for the prestige of the university and to ensure that we can deliver research-led teaching. In any event, institutions sacking their less research active staff who deliver a lot of teaching and admin will be in for a shock, when they try to find staff of sufficient caliber to deliver the same teaching and admin.
For senior management to have written such a memo can be taken as either a sign of sloppiness – according to this viewpoint, the importance of other activities was understood, but not stated. The alternative is such a narrow view of a university that it is destructive. One can only hope that the memo is the product of the former.
UPDATE 16 August: Excellent post on the subject of REF by Athene Donald “Why I can’t write anything funny about REF“.

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Steven Salzberg on his blog discusses the plan by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands to engineer a new stain of H7N9 that could be far more virulent than the current wild one.

I wonder how much will be learned about ‘flu viruses through these experiments? The work has garnered a lot of headlines and I think it is another case of the summer’s outbreak of vanity science, which I posted on recently.

There is another facet, which is somewhat disturbing, the problem of accidents. The definition of an accident is that it will happen. Our health and safety measures aim to reduce the probability, but this can never be zero. While a nuclear power plant accident is a terrible thing, it is geographically localised. In contrast, a biological agent that lacks built in disabling mechanisms cannot be contained if it gets out. The mobility of a human pathogen = human mobility. So at some point when we have an accident where an engineered strain of a pathogen is released, it would be good to have a stockpile of vaccine. Maybe a more useful endeavor would be for them to produce a cheap and effective vaccine.

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An excellent article in the New York Times on a crisis facing citrus farmers has stirred the debate on the release of GMOs into the environment.

Humanity faces major issues with providing/distributing food, energy and education. On the agricultural front, we rely on a small number of plants, which have undergone substantial slow genetic engineering by our ancestors to produce the crops of the 1950s. This genetic modification then accelerated through the green revolution and now through modern molecular genetics. (more…)

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I spent June and a good part of July developing an exciting Synthetic Biology programme at the interface of biology and physical sciences. The remainder of my time was spent with my research group, editing colleagues’ grants and doing a bit of departmental fire fighting. Then I went on “holiday”. There was one large fly in the ointment: REF. I had an edit overdue and a meeting on papers to attend. So the first part of the hols was spent writing in my mobile office and an evening on Skype with my colleagues in Liverpool.

In late April, I posted “In Defence of REF” to highlight the positives of the UK’s assessment of research, though I did temper this with the statement that I am a modest fan only. Why is my enthusiasm not wholehearted? Because, while REF has pushed university hiring away from old boy networks towards a meritocracy, it causes a lot of damage. (more…)

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