The Most Influential Biologist (?) and How To Change The Way You Blog Forever

Picture from the Huffing Post -

Allen So―a friend of mine―commented on someone’s Facebook discussion that Richard Dawkins is is the most influential living biologist. I’ll be honest, that didn’t seem right. Richard Dawkins is vocal and very famous, but he also sort of exists in an echo chamber: creationists didn’t pick up The Selfish Gene and sincerely read it; readers were mostly already interested in science or biology and accepted evolution. So we tried to pin down exactly what he meant by “influential”. The result was a proto-metric for being influential and that helped me understand how to be influential.

Allen seemed to mean “famous”. That’s a very different word to influential, with a very different meaning. And I’d argue that David Attenborough is more famous than Dawkins. Dawkins can be harsh to listen to and may admit to being turned off by what he says (including my stepdad, a former student of Dawkins, who describes him as arrogant and pompous but had no idea he had become famous for his atheism). Attenborough, by contrast, is affable, friendly and makes content which is more consumable and enjoyable.

I am not saying that I don’t enjoy Dawkins’ books and interviews, because I do, but I understand that I am a part of his echo chamber. Attenborough’s documentaries on the BBC are globally famous and I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like at least one documentary or Attenborough himself (even if it is just for awful impressions of his voice).

But I disagree with Allen’s definition of “influential”. Chris Brogan and Juliet Stanwell Smith probably best sum up my idea of influence in their book The Impact Equation: they’ve written is as

Impact = contrast x (reach + exposure + articulation + trust + echo)

They use the word impact (to be more influential), but I think in this context influence is a suitable synonym. This is perhaps more specific than I have thought needed, but all the right elements are there. I’ll take just a moment to discuss them and what they mean to my hobby: blogging. I’m not ashamed to admit that I want more followers, shares and likes as vapid as all that is.

Contrast is the most interesting one. Influences someone to agree with something they are already confident about is no influence at all: if you’d tried nothing, nothing would be different. To influence things, you must want something different, so that you can effect change. This is why I like getting atheist followers, but delight in getting religious ones.

Reach and Exposure are very similar, but not quite the same. The number of followers I have is my reach: it’s the potential size of an audience. My local newspaper has my entire county in its reach, this blog has a reach of approximately 350 people. Exposure is about how often you can direct readership. To increase that, you need catchy titles (I’ve tried to spice up this title, inspired by clickbait; compare it to me other titles) and interesting pictures. All your reach sees in the shortened blurb, they have to open the post before it is counted as exposure.

Articulation is about the clarity of your writing, directness and relevance. I cut out a short story about Allen’s Facebook argument with a creationist, as well as his professional and academic bio because it wasn’t relevant to what I wanted to write. My writing is more direct for that.

Trust is paramount. I have read some very direct and well written religious blogs that, when fact checked, didn’t hold up. But there’s something a little more intangible about being trustworthy as well: sincerity. The Food Babe, for example, talks absolute nonsense a lot of the time. But she manages to write passionately and sincerely so her audience trusts her because she seems to care. She’s demonstrably wrong, but still acquires a lot of trust.

Echo is not, as it first seems, about likes and shares. It’s about developing an accord on an emotional level. I have unfollowed atheist bloggers because their writing somehow alienates me from their topic. You need your message to echo in the mind of each individual reader, make it worthy of their thought. There are cheap tricks to do this, like making Pokemon analogies which, for my generation, is suddenly evoking childhood feelings which makes the post echo in my mind. The more mature way of doing it is, again, about sincerity.

So, for one to be influential, they must have an idea that is novel (contrast), effects change (trust and echo) in a large number of people (reach and exposure). I really do not think Dawkins fits the criteria for the most influential. The Selfish Gene and meme theory are solely academic ideas and as such the most change they can effect is academic; it feeds back into the university teaching. That immediately limits the audience you have as only people who describe themselves as academics or intellectuals will really care. The God Delusion fails to be properly influential because it alienates a lot of religious readers instead of creating an echo or engender trust.

Francis Compton died in 2004, and Francis Crick died in 2008, but James Watson is still alive and his work has been extraordinarily influential. He is the still-living father of genetics and the ability of nucleic acids to hold information. All of genetics was born from a small collection of people, leading to the academic discipline of genetics, mapping the human and Neanderthal genomes, medical advancement and much more. Watson’s work has a global reach, being part of exam curriculums and the foundation of a lot of work in hospitals. It’s not only people who believe it that have Watson’s ideas successfully influence them, for the work of doctors based on Watson’s work has changed lives. Watson, despite enjoying very little name recognition, is much more influential than Dawkins.

But this still doesn’t seem like enough. I am reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not a biologist, but the nature of his influence is different and worthy of a look. Tyson is famously passionate and articulate, which means him trustworthy and creates an echo in his audience. These traits, plus his academic success (and a lot of luck, I don’t doubt), have extended his audience not only to the Hayden Planetarium, but to the US Government. Tyson works on the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, influencing government decisions (particularly arguing to expand funding to NASA). This gave me the idea of looking for living influential biologists who are influential in ways periphery to direct academic biology.

From the Guardian -

And from there, without question (I would think) we get to the the most influential biologist on the planet: Dr Margaret Chen. She is the Director-General of WHO (my car is also her namesake, because the licence ends is WHO, I named my car after her). Okay, Dr Chen enjoys basically no name recognition globally, her efforts are the most influential I can think of: she has meant the difference between life and death for millions of people, which is undoubtedly as much contrast as one can ever get; the policies and procedures she has overseen are in place around the world with billions of people under her care to some degree and the organisation she oversees is sincerely trusted by governments across the world

Stories that make me think I might be a Conservative

The Desert

Paul, Andy and Mike had just met. They were all out backpacking when they met in the North-East of Australia. They had decided to rent a car as a group and drive to the North-West of Australia. They agreed to make a stop at a few sites along the way and at one stop Andy and Mike got a little bored, so they started a water fight.

The rules were simple enough: whoever was wettest by the time the water bottles were empty was the loser. Paul advised against the game. “We’re in the desert, water is literally our most scarce commodity. Treat it with a little more respect.”

“God, Paul, you’re so boring. We’re just having a little fun.” Mike said, and Andy agreed. “I just don’t think you’re being sensible. If anything goes wrong, we’ll want all the water we can get.” But Andy and Mike ignored Paul and continued playing. Paul swigged from his water bottle and put it in the glove box of the car. “I win!” Mike exclaimed “can we go now? It’s boring here”.

“Yup. We’re all ready to go.” Paul said and they piled in the car and set off. 15 miles later, at just-before-3 in the afternoon, the car ran out of petrol. They were 80 miles from civilisation and had just under 1.5 litres of water left, between them: Paul’s share.


At the pub

10 mates have been going to the pub on a Thursday afternoon for a quick round at lunch for the last few years. They’ve been going it since they were at college together. And the there was a rule that had followed them since their early days: pay what fraction you can, so long as the whole bill is paid. When they were at college, this was an about-equal payment. There was some give and some take from month to month depending on who had exams or missed a shift of evening work or had to buy a coursebook, but generally it was all about even. Now, they all had jobs.

There was a gardener, a plasterer, a barber… basically 9 of them had about-equal, about-average pay. The 10th was a financial consultant, he earned a lot more than the other friends. But rules were rules, and the financial consultant paid about 80% of the round, where the rest paid just over 2% each. Or, to put it another way, their regular round (a beer each) cost £20 so the financial consultant paid £16 and the rest paid about 40p each.

One Thursday the bar tender comes up to the friends just as they are about to leave and says “I’ve over-charged you. Tax on beer went down” and the bar tender places £2 on a variety of coins on the table. The financial consultant grabs £1.60, puts his coat on and starts to leave. “Woah there!” the gardener halts the financial consultant, “that should be 20p each. Why are you walking off with £1.60?”

The financial consultant smirked and continued towards the door before the stares of his friends made him very aware the gardener was serious, and his friends agreed. “Come now, for 3 years I’ve paid for more than half the beer, I’ve been putting nearly all the money in the pot. Proportionately, that is my money” the financial consultant explained.

“Yeah, but you can afford it” the painter argued.
“And I’ve got kids to feed” the bricklayer added.

The financial consultant pocketed his money and next Thursday he went for a drink in a different pub. And his 9 friends had to pay £1.90 for their beer.


The Dark Object

Claire, Abi and Robin are all siblings. Claire is the oldest and Robin is the youngest. One day all three children were out playing in Baiter park, which adjoins a shallow natural harbour. Abi and Claire were playing on the small beach beside the harbour and Robin was on the grass. Abi pointed into the harbour and said calmly “what’s that?” All of a sudden Claire shrieked “Ewwwwww. Gross gross gross!” and was pointing at what Abi had seen: something dark a few feet away in the harbour. Claire hated anything an 8-year-old girl might consider ‘icky’ and a wet unidentified dark object no bigger than a child’s shoe was enough to send her into histrionic wailing. Abi stared at the dark object and asked (as 6-year-olds do) “What is it?”

Neither of them knew. Claire’s wailing subsided intermittently to show her curiosity. Both the girls stood on the narrow beach pondering what it was. Abi said she was going to get it. “No! Yuck. You’re digusting. Don’t go in there. You’ll be smelly” Claire went on warning her sister against going in after the yucky, dark object. However, Abi took the risk. She took off her shoes and waded a few feet in and pulled up the dark object.

As the water cascaded off it, a Velcro seal became apparent and tugging at it Abi discovered she was holding a lost wallet. It opened and was empty: no ID, no coins. As she thumbed through the separate pockets she found a £20 note. From the narrow beach Claire saw Abi holding the £20 note and was excited that they had found money. When Abi refused to share the £20 because not only had she waded out to it, but she is also the one who saw it first, Claire ran to their mum and their mum made Abi share the £20 with Claire and her brother, Robin.

Claire and Robin spent their share on sweets, where Abi bought herself an inflatable ring so that she could float out into the harbour. Once Claire and Robin had finished their sweets, they also wanted a ride on the inflatable ring. Abi refused; she had already shared her £20, they had not shared her sweets and the inflatable ring was rightly hers. Claire and Robin told their mother and their mother made them take turns in the ring: Abi was forced to share.

Quick Fire Round

New Testament Round

  1. If the rise of Christianity is evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, do you also believe in the tablets Joseph Smith claimed to find because of the rise of Mormonism?
  2. Sathya Sai Baba (died 2011)
    1. Sathya Sai Baba has witnesses to his miraculous healing of others, resurrections and virgin birth (among other miracles). Are you less convinced by Sathya Sai Baba’s witnesses in this modern context than Jesus’ witnesses in the 1st century?
    2. If so, why?
  3. Where did Jesus tell his disciples to go after his resurrection?

Old Testament Round

  1. What does archaeological evidence say about the Exodus of the slaves from Egypt?
  2. Cain
    1. What happened to Cain after he killed Abel?
    2. If you answered “He got married”, who did he marry?
    3. If you answered that the Earth no was no longer fertile for him, how did humanity continue (with his brother dead and him unable to eat)?
  3. How many sons did Abraham have?
  4. What should a healthy person’s lifespan be, approximately?

The Qur’anic Round

  1. Is there a Geographic and literal point on Earth where the sun sets into a murky puddle?
  2. Did Mohammed literally fly on a winged horse?
  3. (If you answered “No” to either of the above) How can you tell the Qur’an is scientifically accurate when it indulges in non-literal descriptions?
  4. What are stars?
  5. Give details on the size and distance from the Earth of the moon and sun.


Why do theologians and sceptics talk past each other on the question of God’s “goodness”? And which have a better point?

The question of whether a God character is “good” has continued for thousands of years. Since Epicurus, since Job. The position of the sceptic tends to assume the idea that humans have some idea of what morality is and approximate ways to benchmark it against God’s actions (either in Books or in nature), but the theologian doubts humanity has any idea what morality can look like. Theologians delegate their concerns on morality to God, being willing to make some conflation between God’s authority and Its morality. The sceptics are woolly and the theologians are messengers.

David Hume made some basic observations in A Treatise of Human Nature about how we face new situations: he observed that we are making moral decisions all the time, seem largely to be in agreement and people can comprehend our thinking. Hume pointed to that consistency as evidence that there is some principle or passion behind it, even if the principle is invisible to induction. Those principles are what we might call our “humanity”. Basic principles, which attempts have been made to condense―”do unto others…”, “first do no harm”―is an innate or a priori structure within us. We have ideas now that such prosocial ideas may be part of our genetic legacy, and we basically know what it looks like.

Morality looks like the intent to avoid harm and effect happiness; it looks like not acting solely for yourself and no inhibiting others ability to make informed decisions; it looks like affection and caring and it doesn’t look like a Semtex vest or an assault rifle. Sam Harris argued that another structure morality comes from is our brain, by being the parchment on which our wellbeing is written thus allowing us to read the effects of an action and talking about having safeguarded wellbeing. (Although, Harris seems to have abandoned his consequentialist moral framework to have far too binary a discussion with Noam Chomsky.)

These structures are easily overruled. We battle our selfish interests against our ethical ones, but we and those around us identify the difference. Selfishness is a separate and identifiable phenomenon. And by identifiying selfishness and uncoupling it from morality, we can avoid the confusion of ‘human nature’ and morality being the same. As we separate the elements of human nature we can start to extrapolate to see what the nature of morality really is.

The point here is that the sceptical and humanist understanding of morality emanates from us; we have structures that allow us to implement justice and evaluate actions. Although the exact nature of these structures is difficult to articulate and still under discussion, the idea that we rest at the core of morality is the point. We rest there, even if morality is relative to our existence or a construct as artificial as tax law. And that gives way to definitions of “good” that theologians just don’t engage with.

Theologians define good as irrevocably emanating from God. Unlike humans, who have core principles but wrestle with selfishness and self-interest and project an imperfect morality, God demonstrates perfect morality. God’s omniscience and perfection necessitates that God is absolutely good. More notably, that one must be perfect and omniscient to be absolutely good, that negates human’s ability to discuss goodness without reference to God. Human approximations to morality through “first do no harm” don’t even have to be close because all human efforts are immediately void. No matter how much God’s actions―known through natural phenomena or particular Books―offend our sensibilities, they are good.

Theologians recognise that it becomes nearly impossible to put content to morality through this definition. Holy wars are permitted and God can command rape, but only if the principles and the exact circumstance interact in such a way that permit it. But we have no access to the principles and so cannot make any judgements ever: we can not know what “good” will look like, we just have an authoritarian reason to believe it exists (based on bad assumptions).

What becomes apparent here is that sceptics and theologians are using the word “good” very differently. In fact, they are basically different words that share a spelling. And that underpins the reason the two groups talk past each other in discussions of morality and God’s nature. If we were to take the theologian definition of goodness―”God’s nature”―and append it to a new word, like “Divoodine”, the discussion would immediately become clear. Goodness and divoodinity clearly are not the same thing. And so the nature of the question becomes one of whether we should respect the good or the divoodine more.

Obviously, if there is no reason to believe in a God then there is no reason to pay any deference to the divoodine at all. But theologians talk on the assumption of a God, so I shall do them the favour of speaking from that perspective: even in a world with a God, why should we prefer the divoodine over the good? Most famously, the answers are to do with the carrot and the stick (Heaven and Hell), God’s immense power or God’s authority based on the fact It is our Creator. The first two are clearly born from fear, and I don’t see that it is worth spending our time on them. The latter is odd; it plays on our sense of goodness to see what deference we owe God for being our ultimate parent (else, it is just more fear-mongering about how a dissatisfied will assume the right to kill us. That also doesn’t warrant our attention when we are discussing what is good; only the attention we can afford it from fear). Even if we assume a God to be real, and our Creator, what respect do we owe this divoodinity, just because It is reflected in such values? Do we owe our parents’ ideas respect, regardless of what those ideas are? No. And trying to guilty us into disregarding goodness for divoodinity is an idea worth ignoring.

The human idea of good, that Hume observed we consistently share and understand of each other, doesn’t need to be respected; it is shared. We already have it and understand it. And we have long understood its benefit to us as a society and as a species.

The Whining Left, Democracy and Politics of the Future

I voted Labour. Everyone I know who actually voted, voted Labour (unless they voted Green, which is not voting). Except, a lot of people I know who voted haven’t told me who they voted for. They voted Conservative. And I think that is the cause of the protests; because the Conservative voters are quieter, no one thinks that’s what anyone voted for. Because the public pro-Conservative voice is so quiet, in the back of many people’s minds is the idea that the vote was rigged some how. Which is was.

I didn’t want The Conservatives to win. And we have a term for people like me in politics: “tough shit”. The Conservatives won, now is time to shut up about ‘not being heard’ and get on with it. Half the people claiming not to have been heard are the Russell Brand audience, and if you didn’t vote you don’t get to complain. If you don’t place an order, you get what you’re given.

An unnerving number of people voted UKIP. In fact, the number of people who voted UKIP has been used as an excuse to block any discussion about other voting methods (anything other than our current first-past-the-post approach). But our current voting system is what rigged our vote. Every other system of voting we’ve taken the time to consider would have lead to UKIP having more power in this government than they actually do. UKIP got a rather staggering 12.6% of the votes, but only got 1 seat (out of 650).

I don’t want UKIP in power, but if I use that as an excuse to keep the first-past-the-post voting then I am intentionally scuppering democracy and preferring a system that exaggerates my voice. Which brings me to the protestors…

Protesting the Conservatives winning is simply a case of wanting yourself to be overheard. The Conservatives won. In any running of the votes, in any system of counting, The Conservatives won. I don’t like it, but protesting it is flipping off at democracy. You don’t get 1.5 votes because you’re a bit angrier.

I know this sounds a little “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner…” and I do know how that quote ends: “… and liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting that vote.” So, how do we contest the vote? Proportional Representation.

According the BBC, proportional representation would have stripped a lot of the power from the two major parties. Admittedly UKIP would have gotten more seats, but that’s what we voted for (you strange country of mine). But The Conservatives would have been moderated by a greater Labour and Green Party voice, not to mention The Conservatives simply wouldn’t have the same amount of power.

Those of you who are protesting, the Government isn’t listening. Why would it? It knows you are in the minority precisely because they won the election. And with our terrifyingly binary ‘first to get 50% of the seats’ system, we don’t need to protest austerity, we need to protest the way we vote.

I still think we should vote for Google as our political leader. And I’m not joking. Google has the resources to process a lot of data, from a lot of countries over a lot of time. The history of British, French, American, Nordic (and so on) political decisions and consequences could be loaded up and real, scientific data could be produced on how you actually increase wellbeing, improve employment and run a healthcare system. Google has the power to run a country not on ideology, but numbers and cold, pitiless, indifferent numbers.

A vote for Google is a vote for metadata.
I should probably admit to having made this Knowledge Card myself, it is not something Google has actually made. But I think it is possible.

Do Antidepressants work? (Why having “PhD” on the cover doesn’t make it a reliable book)

A friend of mine is going through a hard time: on the verge of divorce, hates her job, suffering through depression. And she’s a really clever woman; a physics teacher, in fact. So, when she told me she had started researching her condition―depression―and found a book by a PhD graduate called The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsch that said antidepressants aren’t more effective than a placebo, I was shocked. I mean, I was in a room with a former psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants and found they do work, but that’s just anecdotal, surely?

So I had this strange feeling: a received wisdom about the efficacy of antidepressants which had been attested to by a psychiatrist I knew and a friends’ mother who actually used them and recovered was being challenged by someone I know to be clever citing a book by a PhD whose research was peer reviewed in this area: he’s a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Now what?

Well, the book isn’t peer reviewed, only the research in the bibliography was researched. I didn’t immediately believe that a Harvard Medical School lecturer and PhD would intentionally write a book saying the contrary to what their peer reviewed science said, because Kirsch wouldn’t be able to claim misinterpretation of his own published work.

But, Kirsch’s peer reviewed research does show that antidepressants are more effective than a placebo. The abstract of a 2008 paper Kirsch was an author of says “Drug–placebo differences increased as a function of initial severity”, and that where it matters―the severely depressed―the authors are in no doubt the antidepressants are statistically and clinically significant (this is where it matters because this is where antidepressants are used as a part of treatment; before this, NICE guidelines recommend therapy).

Not only that, but the Wikipedia page about the book talks about the failures of their statistical analysis. (See the Wikipedia page here.)

So, what’s my point? My point is that a book by a reputable sounding person in a scientific field is still only as good as the peer reviewed literature. It would still be an appeal to an authority to accept Kirsch’s book as an authority on the matter, especially as it doesn’t reflect his research, research on the field as a whole or the consensus of doctors in the field working with the best data available today.