Monthly Archives: May 2009

Wasabi Monkeys

There is something unnatural about genetic engineering that alarms most members of the public. Even without a full appreciation of the potential problems that genetic modification could produce, Joe Public doesn’t like the idea of scientist’s playing God. That’s how most people refer to this new field. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about inserting the genes of one life form into another.

There are indeed potential problems with genetic modification (GM) as one has to be careful not to produce unforeseen mutations that have negative consequences. One of the problems of GM is that it by-passes the longer, winnowing processes of natural selection where diversity emerges within the context of an environment of competing life forms.  It’s the laboratory equivalent of importing cane toads to Australia that have no natural predator and then discovering decades later that your environment is overrun with these reviled amphibians.

However, I don’t think the general public are primarily concerned by the problem of unforeseen consequences but rather people are appalled by the transformation of life forms in principle. There is something very wrong about mixing different life forms or at least that’s how the public view it.

I think that this concern reflects a naïve essentialist belief that species are categorically different from each other. This biological essentialism emerges early in child development and before children have been educated about genes and DNA. Rather, our naïve biological reasoning leads us to draw a distinction between life forms by inferring some deeper mechanism that makes life essentially different from each other.

Marmoset_385x185_563858aThis week we learn that Japanese scientists have bred GM monkeys with feet that glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. This is because they have had the green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker gene inserted. Why might you ask do we need transgenic marmosets with feet that glow fluorescent green in the first place? The answer is that GFP can be used as a marker to track the effects of genetic manipulation. Last year’s Nobel prize was given to the scientist who discovered and developed the GFP marker technique. 

I would imagine that most of the general public would probably have no particularly concern about this study as the research seems so academic. However, I bet there would be more public outcry if they knew that the GFP was originally isolated from a jellyfish.  This jellyfish gene has been successfully used with many different plants and animals but the marmoset study is the first time that primates have produced offspring that carry the GM trait allowing a colony of transgenic animals to be produced.

The idea of plants and primates having jellyfish genes seems so unnatural but then that simply reflects our misunderstanding of what genes are. Our naïve biological essentialism simply does not easily allow for the concept that all life forms share a common set of genes. Humans may share around 98.5% of their genetic make-up with our closest cousin the chimpanzee but we also share around 50% with a banana. That just doesn’t seem right.

Maybe the mother of one of the twin marmosets agreed as she bit it to death. Or maybe the Japanese mother marmoset mistook the glowing green feet for wasabi.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Radio Ga Ga

IMG_0178This week is all about promoting the book in the UK. When things settle down I will get back to highlighting and discussing the quirks of the human behaviour that go beyond belief. But today is another marathon of self promotion as I am scheduled to give 18 back-to-back BBC regional radio interviews.

Here’s the list so if you happen to be in that part of the UK then tune in or better still phone in.

1000       LEICESTER recoded

1010       HEREFORD & WEST *LIVE*

1020       DEVON *LIVE*


1040       BRISTOL *LIVE*

 ** break **

 1100      HUMBERSIDE recorded

1110       CORNWALL *LIVE*

1120       SHROPSHIRE recored

1130       SUFFOLK *LIVE*

1140       CUMBRIA *LIVE*

1150       SOLENT recorded

 ** break **

 1210      SURREY & SUSSEX *LIVE*

1220       DERBY *LIVE*

1230       KENT recorded

1240       SHEFFIELD *LIVE*

1250       YORK recorded


1.15-1.45pm    Live interview with BBC Scotland The Radio Cafe

 4-4.30pm         Pre-recorded interview with Ireland’s RTE1 Dave Fanning Show


As you can imagine, it will be pretty difficult to keep coming up with original things to say and I reckon I will be talking ga-ga by the end of the day. I wonder how many will play Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as an introduction. Also, a prize to the keen listener who spots me using the key phrase “suacy codpiece” that I plan to randomly insert into one of the interviews!


Filed under book publicity, Radio

Start the Weak: Update


With Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 "Start the Week"

With Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 "Start the Week"

On Monday, May 25th I will be appearing on BBC Radio 4’s “Start the Week: setting the cultural agenda every Monday.”  This show was recorded as the relentless Andrew Marr does have to take a holiday sometime. This is not my best performance by a long shot and yes, before you email me, yes I know … I use a couple of makey-up words. However, I blame Andrew for this as he nonchalantly informed us that they had an estimated 2.2 m listeners just before we started. Holy crap… better not screw it up which means “You’re going to say something stupid!”

You know that feeling when you suddenly become very self-conscious and self-aware as you are speaking? Well I had it in spades. I think I rambled a bit. But at least I got the phrases “whizz -bang” and “supersense” into the interview a couple of times. All good practice for the Oprah Winfrey show I guess.

If you have not got a copy of the book yet, then you can get a 30% discount at Constable & Robinson by going to this link here.image001

It’s so cheap, I feel tainted.

UPDATE: Actually, the interview went alot better than I remembered. I just have to learn to slow down as I speak so fast!

You can listen to it hear

Oh.. and I made the UK Amazon top 100 rank … whoo hooo! Hope I maintain this.


Filed under book publicity, Radio

Cheesus, It’s Just a Type 1 Error

cheesus2Dan and Sara Bell have seen Jesus again. Once more, he has appeared in a convenience snack. In this case, the deity appears in the form of a “Cheeto” – a rather disgusting corn-based munchie from the US that sticks to the roof of your mouth and clogs the gaps in your teeth. We covered this tendency of seeing the divine in an earlier blog on pareidolia where Jesus turned up on the backside of a dog. No doubt, Dan and Sara will try their luck on eBay where other examples of divine apparitions in snacks such as cheese toasties and pizzas have sold for silly money. 

This nonsense bring me to Michael Shermer’s piece in this month’s Scientific American about what he calls “patternicity” – the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. (He also gives, “SuperSense” a good plug in the article so I am hoping this mention will drive some of his readers over here). Patternicity is the consequence of a brain that automatically seeks out structure in the environment, looking for significant events. This tendency is particularly strong in the case of detecting people and faces as our brains readily interpret all manner of random configurations as evidence for others. As the Scottish philosopher Hume said, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds.”

The psychologist Stewart Guthrie has argued that this is a perceptual bias that means we are trip-wired to detecting the presence of potential enemies even when the evidence is so weak. It is better to assume that someone is hiding in the bushes rather than ignore them. So if you see a face in the bushes when there is none, this is know as a Type 1 error because you have inferred the presence of something which is not really there. On the other hand, if you ignore the face in the bushes when there really is an enemy hiding in there then that would be a Type 2 error. The evolutionary argument is that it is better to make a Type 1 error than a Type 2 error because the consequences of ignoring the evidence of a potential enemy are much greater than assuming that someone is there.

However, I don’t think you necessarily need an evolutionary argument based on potential threat for the person bias. All the evidence suggests that newborns (human and monkey) have built-in mechanisms for paying extra attention to faces so we are supersensitive to any face-like pattern to begin with. We even have special face processing areas in the visual parts of our brain. So having a perceptual bias could arise from a variety of different advantages, not necessarily enemy-detecting.

Shermer’s discussion of Type 1 and Type 2 is very relevant to one of my arguments developed in SuperSense – namely that individual propensity to supernatural belief is supported by their interpretation of ambiguous evidence. You can test this by presenting people with computer tasks where they have to detect a faint pattern that may or may not be present among random noise.

Individuals who score highly on scales that measure supernatural belief are also more likely to make Type 1 errors compared to those who score low on such measures who make Type 2 mistakes. So we vary in our susceptibility in detecting evidence and how we interpret it. If you already have a strong belief that there are significant patterns out there, then you will more readily find evidence for it. Beautiful theory, isn’t it. I can easily see all the evidence to support it! Or that might be my SuperSense at work.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Research

Getting Up Ben Goldacre’s Nose

Boy, that was a busy day. I got an early train into London to record “Start the Week” with Andrew Marr (more on that to follow in a later blog). I then headed off to a club in Piccadilly to film an interview with Victoria, a young film school student. She had asked me for an interview for a piece of work that would be graded for her diploma course as she wanted to get into documentary making. I figured that as I was in London and she had been so insistent that I would help her out. It was all a bit surreal as we shot the interview in the “Jewel” which was like some weird Gothic themed bar.  I think the camera man that turned up was her dad. We all tried to figure out how to mount the camera and drown out the noise of the music that the bar owner had decided to have on. After many takes, I think she had enough to edit together.  Victoria was very enthusiastic so I hope the afternoon’s filming gets her a good grade.IMG_0171After that it was a quick dim sum in China town, a meeting with the wonderful Abby and Lucida at the Cassaroto agency  and then back on a train to Bath to pick up the car and then drive through to see the Ben Goldacre perform at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol.

Ben is a star… an angry young man, but one who has a vision and passion that completely enthralled the audience. I felt like Lester Burnham in “American Beauty” when he encounters the enigmatic Ricky Fitts, a young self-assured man who is confident in his position in life. Ben was spell-binding and I have to say that he was a sensation. Ben knows how to work a crowd but it was his ability to navigate the talk through humour, ridicule, pathos and outrage that made him so utterly compelling to watch. I was awe-struck.

Ben is angry about the injustice that he sees operating under the guise of pseudoscience and he has a particularly barb for the alternative healing industry which has wreaked such havoc in South Africa, in the recent HIV and AIDS denial movement. This is no opportunistic journalistic swiping. The lawsuit brought against Ben and the Guardian cost over £500,000 to defend. He is bitter but for very good reason. Driving Ben over to Bath, I learned that this had come at some considerable degree of personal cost. It’s never nice to be hated and to have people try to bring you down but for Ben, the price of giving into the quakery was too much. This blurry photograph is the only one I have of the evening at his book signing but the 400+ audience were all on his side. I think this young man deserves some praise.


Anyway, whatever got up Ben Goldacre’s nose was dislodged in that drive through to Bath and I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with this impressive chap. I wonder if I could have had that energy or drive and frankly the balls to challenge the establishment when I was his age. I’ll never know but Ben Goldacre is one of my heroes for doing something the rest of us would rather avoid. I predict he is destined for bigger things and I will be cheering him on from the side lines.


Filed under General Thoughts

SuperSense Goes Camping

AD_CAMP09Camp Quest is a residential summer camp for the children of those who hold to a naturalistic, not supernatural world view. The camp is offered as a godless alternative to traditional religious summer camps, such as vacation Bible schools. It started in the US but the first ever UK Camp Quest is being held this summer in Bath, not too far from where I live. Samantha Stein is the organizer and you can watch her interview here.

My youngest actually told me about it and asked to go so I was only too delighted to send her off for a week. For the record, I have never pushed any atheist or agnostic view on my daughters and they seem to have migrated to this way of thinking by themselves. However, both are not so sure about ghosts at the moment. Anyway, I will be reporting back on the UK Camp Quest in July when it is held as I am really keen to see this scheme get publicity and work.

As an added bonus, I just discovered that the organizers have heard about SuperSense. I swear I did not try to plug my book but I am delighted to see that “SuperSense” is recommended reading in their online store. I promise to go along and sign any copies but I should warn parents that there is sex, murder and maggots in the book that may not be suitable for children, even those who don’t believe.


Filed under book publicity

Voodoo Histories

Aaronovitch, David C Nigel BarklieI turned up last night to the Arnolfini venue in Bristol to host an evening with David Aaronovitch who has just written a great book entitled, “Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.”

Imagine my surprise when I encountered a group of 911 conspiracy theorists outside protesting. They represent a hardcore known as “The Truth Movement,” who believe that the attack on the twin towers was perpetrated by the Bush administration (or someone very close to them) to justify the invasion of Iraq. Aaronovitch was an outspoken supporter of the war and so I guess his previous views on the Iraq War combined with a book ridiculing conspiracy theorists was justification to protest.

I am about as politically naïve as they come and so I was totally unprepared for any confrontation. Although the crowd was fairly small at about 20, I did not know what to expect. This was heightened by the Arnolfini manager approaching me and talking me though the various contingency plans they had for dealing with an angry mob including escaping back to the green room and calling the police should anyone attempt to invade the stage. “Has that ever happened?” I asked. “Oh yes, someone took exception not so long ago did a crap on the stage,” he replied nonchalantly as if this was a reasonable way to lodge a complaint. 

After closing my now gapping mouth, I decided that it is best to always encounter your fear so I decided to go and speak to the protestors outside. Also, I thought they looked quite harmless and this would be a good opportunity for a photograph and item for a blog post. After all it was not me that they were objecting too.Bruce is the Dodgy Looking Protester in the Middle

As you can see they were a very convivial bunch and seemed genuinely pleased that I would allow them to pose questions to David during the session. Actually, one of the protestors handed a leaflet to David when he arrived failing to recognize the target of the protest. David was remarkably unfazed by all the fuss as he is fairly well-seasoned to personal attacks. I was just enjoying the spectacle of everything.

As it turned out, the evening went very well as David is an amazing speaker and raconteur. I did not have to work hard at all to fill the hour. Yes we did allow the protestors in the audience to speak but they were very civil and I have to say David was very respectful back to them without having to weaken his position. In fact the only retraction from David came from my own question to him about whether he still advocated the position he held concerning weapons of mass destruction when he said,

 “If nothing is ever found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere. They probably are.”

David’s response was the epitome of humility. “That was probably the most stupid thing I have ever said.”

In contrast, a conspiracy theorist would have found some way of justifying that remark. So my hat goes off to David Aaronovitch for holding unpopular views, sticking to his principles, admitting when he is wrong and not being worried by someone shitting on his stage.

I look forward to our next encounter.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

Sleeping with the Fishes

Image10The BBC correspondent Heather Alexander highlighted a feature this morning on Breakfast Time television about the Eternal Reefs company in the US who, for a fee of up to $6,495 (£4,000), will incorporate the ashes of a loved one into a concrete pod that is designed to encourage marine life and coral once deposited 3 miles off the coast. So far, around 1,000 such reef balls have been dropped on the ocean floor.

Families and friends are invited and encouraged to attend and participate in the casting of their loved ones.  The process includes mixing the remains into an environmentally safe concrete reef mixture to create their Memorial Reef. According to the website, “Once the Memorial Reefs have been cast, family and friends are given the opportunity to put handprints and written messages in the damp concrete reef mixture. Many loved ones feel this is a wonderful way to stay in touch for eternity.”

I don’t regard this as reefer madness. The interviews with the relatives were very revealing about the way many felt that the deceased would still be alive as part of a living coral reef.  This is a manifestation of essentialism and mind/body dualism that is so typical of the supersense, but one with good ecological intentions. As manager George Frankel said in the interview, “It’s a win-win situation for the relatives and the fish.”04250027z


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Today, SuperSense was officially launched in the UK so I went into Waterstones in Bath to see my baby. Imagine my horror when I asked the assistant who told me that yes it was in store upstairs filed under “occult & witchcraft” or as my UK editor calls it, the “woo-woo” section. I hurried upstairs and saw it on display in the deserted empty back store next to Wicca for Beginners and How to Douse Your Way to a Fortune. I went ballistic! I stormed up to the counter and demanded an explanation. But as I was reliably informed by the sales assistant, it was in the right section as this was how it was categorized on the Waterstones’s database. 

Apparently somebody had literally judged the book by its cover and not seen that in fact it was a science book about belief. Moreover, I happen to know that Constable & Robinson organized a promotional deal in a 3 for 2 scheme and that it was supposed to be displayed out front of store. 

To his credit, when this information was brought to the attention of the manager, he immediately apologized and set about sorting things out. Moreover, the wonderful Charlotte who reviewed it for the Waterstones’s Quarterly Magazine set about emailing head office to get the listing change to the same category as Gladwell’s “Blink.” 

When I returned an hour later SuperSense was prominently displayed in the “Everyone is talking about..” section. So bravo to Bath Waterstones and yaboo sucks to the person in head office who thought it was a “woo-woo” book.IMG_0156

Maybe I should have gone for a more prosaic title but that would have been boring…. but I would have thought the reference to Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” on the front quote from the New Scientist should have given a clue to the content of my book.

Anyway, let me know if you see “SuperSense” on sale in your local bookstore and which section it appears in. I may have to throw a few more author tantrums!


Filed under book publicity

Guardian Angle: – Update

picture-1Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of my all time favourite movies. Yes, it’s sentimental but I love it.Wouldn’t it be great to have a guardian angel? Someone like Clarence to watch over you and protect you from harm. Unfortunately I don’t believe I have a Clarence, but I do have a Guardian angle so if you live in the UK buy it this WEEKEND and find out why. Also in case you did not know, my UK publishers are offering the paperback version of SuperSense at a ridiculously low price. Don’t they know who I am????

Put your order in now!

Just in case you missed the article in “The Guardian” here it is again.


Filed under book publicity, In the News