ID-creationists claim that ID is not religiously motivated and doesn’t refer to the Christian god. To test this claim I did some google searches on uncommondescent.com and compared the occurance of the terms “designer”, “god”, “jesus” and “holy spirit”: Here’s the outcome for god under his different aliases (all results from September, 26):Quite. Nice one, SPARC.
And this is the outcome for the term “designer”:
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Friday, September 28, 2007
Today's Friday beautiful science comes from the National Science Foundation's Visualization Challenge. This photo was one of two co-winners for the 2007 prize. (I have featured a previous prizewinner here). Though this looks like a dragon running head on towards you, it is in fact a CT scan of the underside of a woman's head, highlighting the sinuses:
Human anatomy it may be, but the airways that riddle the space behind our noses take on an alien aspect in this unearthly rendering created by Kai-hung Fung, a radiologist at the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong. A computed tomography (CT) scan from a 33-year-old Chinese woman being examined for thyroid disease provided the raw data for Fung's rendering. He stacked together 182 thin CT "slices" to create a 3D image looking upward at the sinuses from underneath the head. Normally, CT renderings meld slices together into smooth surfaces, but, in what he terms the "Rainbow Technique," Fung instead broke them apart, creating a topographical map of the airspaces described by the contour lines of individual slices, and colored according to the density of the tissues that border them.You can see all the winners here.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
[Just because there will be someone out there in the depths of cyberspace who will stumble upon this page and take my arrangement of the Skeptics' Circle literally - this is my disclaimer. My tongue is very firmly planted in my cheek. Thank you.]
Imagine, if you will, a large boardroom. It is dimly lit. There is a large table in the middle of the room, and high-backed wooden chairs placed at several positions around the table. A small glass of unfluoridated water is ready at each chair around the table.
As you glance around the room, you see several symbols carved on the walls. Some you recognize. The masons symbol. The illuminati symbol. Others of the symbols are more arcane. Older.
This room, you see, is the boardroom of the Conspiracy Factory. Very few people get to see it. And a meeting is about to take place. This 70th Skeptics' Circle is a rough accounting of that meeting.
A group of men in black suits file into the room silently and all take their seats. None of them speak. They seem to be waiting for something...
Rather suddenly, at the head of the table, there is a flash of light and a buzzing noise. A fuzzy, 3 dimensional hologram appears of a hooded man. He looks faintly familiar.
"What is the first order of business?" he croaks, opening the meeting.
"Well, my lord," one of the men says, "HIV/AIDS."
He continues. "It seems that some of the rabble are starting to figure out that it doesn't exist. That it's just a fancy marketing scheme to prop up failing pharmaceutical companies."
"Put Bob Carroll on it." croaks the hologram. "Next issue."
"Well, sir," squeaks the youngest man at the table, "There seem to be some folks that have figured out that you can cure HIV and many other diseases using..." he fumbles with a flier in his hand, "and I quote:
[creating] a holistic mirror energy/information set to the disease using a special process [Peter Chappell] does not yet disclose."It could ruin us, my lord. Put all of pharma out of business"
"Ben Goldacre can handle that one. He's one of my best shills."
"But my lord, one detail. These issues are contradictory. They've cured HIV, but it doesn't exist. How is this possible?"
"SILENCE!" shouts the hologram. He makes a clutching motion with his fingers, and the young man collapses to the floor, clutching his own throat, unable to breathe. Everyone in the room quietly watches him as he dies.
"Next issue." the hologram croaks.
"Well sir," says another generic man, "While we're discussing our pharmaceutical enterprises, we've had our man Skeptico pushing to test alternative medicine to see if it works. He's even suggested
either all CAM treatments must always work, and there are no CAM treatments that don’t work, or CAM treatments are never pulled because CAM treatments are never tested to see if they do work."Of course, everyone here knows that all CAM treatments work all the time. But they compete too well with pharma, so we need to push the testing issue."
"Very good," croaks the hologram, "Good work. How are we doing with the coffee enemas?"
"Well sir." says another man, "As you know, last time we debated about allowing people to use coffee enemas. You know, they are pretty funny."
"But ultimately we agreed that they will compete too well with pharma. So they must be silenced. We put PalMD on that one."
The hologram chuckles and then pauses. "We may need to revisit this issue in the future. Keep me informed. How are we doing on the seal oil vendors?"
"Very well, sir. The folks over at Holford Watch having been doing good work discrediting the seal oil people. But, my lord, there has been considerable work on acupuncture. Another hit to our pharmaceutical companies' bottom line. "
"Yes. Put Orac on it. And someone tell him to stop being so respectful, and more insolent. I prefer the insolence, when dealing with these healers" the hologram continues, "We should really have a broader war on alternative medicine. Something to destroy it completely, so that we can rule the world with our pills and expensive diagnostic tests. Can someone put Steve Novella on that?"
"Yes, my lord." and a suited man scuttles out the door.
"Now, on another topic" says yet another suited man, "One of our former agents, Zoo Knudson, is letting out our secrets. He's told people about Skull Island, and he's publishing credible data about homeopathy. Indeed, he's even published about our plan to destabilize the oceans and kill all the fish!"
"Watch him carefully. At present, no one believes him, but if he starts to look like a credible source, eliminate him" croaks the hologram. "How are we doing on weakening peoples' belief in god, so that they can worship me?"
"Well, sir, we've taken three tacks on this problem. First, we have Greta Christina, discrediting sightings of dead religious figures, and Bronze Dog discrediting fundamentalists, using their own tactics."
"Very good." croaks the hologram. "And your other approaches?"
"Well, sir, we've gone pretty hard on promoting evilution." the suited man snickers, "And we've had several good agents pushing forward on that front. We've got Zeno, and Bing, arguing against the truth-telling Creationists".
"We also have Ben D, telling a true tale of Tyrannosaurs and lettuce. We'll have to do something about him. He's getting a little too close to the truth."
"He's gone too far. Eliminate him." croaks the hologram. "Now what about the children?"
"Oh, my lord, you'll be absolutely delighted. They did an excellent job of impressing their professors. We've actually recruited young kids to discredit the Creationists! It's brilliant!"
"Someone put ERV on the payroll. She's done well." croaks the hologram. "And the third approach?"
"Well, my lord, we figured we could kill two birds with one stone. We thought we could eliminate religion AND make some money for our, erm, evil enterprises. We're trying to sell softcore porn on military bases."
"Brilliant!" cackles the hologram. "Everyone knows that belief in god cannot exist when there is porn in the room!"
"Speaking of which, sir. One of our former employees, Jenny McCarthy, has been ratting us out. She's told Oprah the truth about how to heal children!"
"Bah, who would believe her? She's a former Playboy bunny. Forget her." croaks the hologram.
"Two more issues, my lord. First, sales of Splenda have been dropping. We need to do something about it. People have realized that it contains chlorine, which we all know is a
"Final issue my lord, until next time. What are we doing about the UFO we crashed in Peru?"
"Put Sam Wise on it. He'll get out our story."
With that, the hologram disappears. Without acknowledging each other, the men in suits get up and file out of the room, leaving behind the one dead agent.
Next time, they'll likely meet at Infophilia. But you never know, they could be meeting at Skull Island right now...
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
The inimitable Fox News reports today:
Fake Acupuncture Works Nearly as Well as the Real Thing for Low Back Pain, Study Finds.Which is to say, it doesn't work at all.
Almost half the patients treated with acupuncture needles felt relief that lasted months. In contrast, only about a quarter of the patients receiving medications and other Western medical treatments felt better.They briefly point out the flamingly obvious:
Although the study was not designed to determine how acupuncture works, Endres said, its findings are in line with a theory that pain messages to the brain can be blocked by competing stimuli.
Positive expectations the patients held about acupuncture -- or negative expectations about conventional medicine -- also could have led to a placebo effect and explain the findings, he said.Yes. When your negative control group (sham acupuncture) and your test group (acupuncture) are indistinguishable - it means it doesn't work. Acupuncture is solely a placebo effect.
And then go flying off into woo-land again:
Dr. Brian Berman, the University of Maryland's director of complementary medicine, said the real and the sham acupuncture may have worked for reasons that can be explained in Western terms: by changing the way the brain processes pain signals or by releasing natural painkillers in the body.I wish that Fox News were distorting this story and sensationalizing it. But they're not. The abstract from the paper that they are discussing states:
Low back pain improved after acupuncture treatment for at least 6 months. Effectiveness of acupuncture, either verum or sham, was almost twice that of conventional therapy.This is not true. When compared to the proper control, acupuncture shows no increase in its ability to make people feel better. That means it doesn't work.
They also state:
The superiority of both forms [meaning sham and real] of acupuncture suggests a common underlying mechanism that may act on pain generation, transmission of pain signals, or processing of pain signals by the central nervous system and that is stronger than the action mechanism of conventional therapy. The underlying mechanism may be a kind of superplacebo effect produced by placebo and all nonspecific factors working together. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of acupuncture cannot be attributed merely to a placebo effect because there is no reason to believe that the action mechanism of conventional therapy is the result solely of the placebo effect.No. What it suggests is that the authors of this study don't understand what a negative control group is. Your negative control group is the sham group.
If you want to test if there's actually an effect of magically inserting needles, you need to control for patients knowing that they're receiving acupuncture. I.e. You need to perform your sham acupuncture on an unconscious patient. Or you need to tell your patient in advance that it is a sham. Then see if you have an effect compared to the group who doesn't get stuck with a needle. As it is, you have merely shown that people like to have needles stuck in them by a magical healing man.
It's a beautiful study. It's a pity the authors don't know how to interpret it.
Friday, September 21, 2007
The meeting I just returned from was so fun, that I've been looking at photos of more and more of the photosynthetic worms that I heard about. This photo is of Elysia ornata, a member of the family of worms that suck the plastids out of photosynthetic algae, and use them to harness light themselves. Very cool. Check out more photos here.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Horizontal transfer is cool. This is the process whereby cells pick up DNA from other cells that are totally unrelated to them. Bacteria do this all the time. They pick up DNA from viruses and other bacteria and integrate this DNA into their genomes. If it turns out to be useful, it remains in the genome. If not, it's slowly lost over time.
People have always assumed that horizontal transfer doesn't happen in larger organisms. When was the last time you met a person who had picked up a little cabbage DNA. This has historically been one of the complaints about anti-genetically modified food campaigners. Putting genes into a plant that come from a bacterium is somehow "unnatural". Well, turns out horizontal transfer is very natural (in the sense that it’s starting to look like it might be quite common in nature).
In the last few months, there has been more and more data suggesting that horizontal transfer *does* occur in larger organisms. A group at the J. Craig Venter Institute recently published a paper in Science showing large chunks of the Wolbachia genome has been transferred into some fruitfly genomes. Wolbachia is a bacterial obligate intracellular parasite in insects. It grows inside the germ cells of insects, and transfers itself to the following generation inside the egg or sperm of the infected parent (usually through the egg). Well turns out that in at least one detectable case, the Wolbachia genome has actually been incorporated into the fruitfly genome. Very cool! This shows at least 2 things:
1) Horizontal transmission in fruitflies (and possibly other metazoans) is probably not astronomically improbable. If it were, this discovery would represent an incredibly unlikely find. (Of course, until someone finds more examples of this, we could wave this away as just a bizarre anomaly, but I doubt it - more in a bit).
2) This demonstrates an early step in the endosymbiont hypothesis. The endosymbiont hypothesis suggests that organelles that contain their own DNA come from previously endosymbiotic bacteria (like mitochondria and choloroplasts). These organelles contain their own DNA, but not all the proteins in them are come from their own genomes. Some of the proteins come from the host genome. This new Wolbachia finding is a demonstration of an early step in moving gene products from an endosymbion into the host genome. Very cool!
Well, today I heard a talk by a gentleman named Debashish Bhattacharya who had recently sequenced parts of several protist genomes. These are organisms like Paramecium, that are single-celled organisms that feed on bacteria (they’re quite a bit larger than bacteria, so they swim around and gobble them up). They don’t photosynthesize. However! He found the remains of several hundred genes from photosynthetic bacteria in their genomes. This shows yet another example of horizontal transfer in eukaryotes.
The coolest part of his story comes last. Dr. Bhattacharya hypothesized (and is looking for supporting evidence) that he would find genes from photosynthetic algae within the genome of a particular worm Placida cf. dendritica. This worm does something pretty cool. It eats photosynthetic algae, but it preserves the plastids within its own body, and uses them to generate energy from light. Holy photosynthesizing worms, Batman! But how do they maintain these complex organelles in a viable state that can provide energy? He hypothesizes that he will find hundreds of genes from photosynthetic algae that are involved in keeping the plastids functioning. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Just a reminder. I'm hosting the 70th Skeptics' Circle next week. Please get your submissions to me (earlier is better!) by 6 p.m. PDT on Sept. 26th. Put Skeptics' Circle in the subject line and e-mail to factician at gmail period com. (Appropriate submissions are described here).
I'm currently at the 15th Annual International Conference on Microbial Genomics in College Park, Maryland. I just saw a super cool talk by George Church from Harvard Medical School. Here's what they did. They made mutants in E. coli bacteria that were no longer able to make a particular amino acid. One of the mutants was unable to make tryptophan. The other was unable to make tyrosine. So these guys are unable to live, unless they are supplemented with the appropriate amino acid.
Well he asked the question, "can you watch the evolution of symbiosis in action?" He mixed these two cultures, and didn't supplement them. At first, they grew very, very slowly (doubling every 8 hours - much slower than regular E. coli). They were able to supplement the missing amino acids from leakage from their neighbor (i.e. the tryptophan mutant fed the tyrosine mutant and vice versa). After many generations (we're talking hundreds, here) they found that the cells grew more and more quickly. Using next-generation sequencing technology, they found that the increased speed of growth was due to a modification in the pores on the outside of the E. coli cells that allowed them to more easily take up the amino acids.
In a matter of a few months, they can see evolution of a symbiosis between two bacteria that are unable to grow on their own. They're able to watch that symbiosis improve, and molecularly characterize the improvement. How's that for evolution in action? (Though, admittedly, it won't be enough for everybody). Very cool talk (and that was only a small part of his half hour talk!)
Friday, September 14, 2007
via Bad Astronomy, I bring you Iapetus. Again! Blow this image up, turn out the lights, and gaze at it on your screen. It's beautiful. (These images were taken by Cassini on Sep 10, 2007 - so they're really very new).
Update: Even more amazingness from Cassini:
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The 69th Skeptics' Circle is up at Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Go have a gander.
EDIT: Check out the Noah's Ark Challenge to Biblical literalists. Very amusing.
I'm hosting the 70th Skeptics' Circle in 2 weeks. Please get your submissions to me (earlier is better!) by 6 p.m. PDT on Sept. 26th. Put Skeptics' Circle in the subject line and e-mail to factician at gmail period com. (Appropriate submissions are described here).
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
On Friday, an essay signed by Castro namechecked the Kyoto Protocol and blasted as hypocritical George Bush's call, at the APEC summit in Australia last week, for countries to band together to fight global warming. Neither the U.S. nor Australia, Castro noted, had signed the Protocol.Yow. What does Osama have to say?
In a suspicious display of climate change harmonic convergence, bin Laden also mentioned the Kyoto Protocol in his latest communique.
"In fact, the life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord, with the knowledge that the statistic speaks of the death and displacement of the millions of human beings because of that, especially in Africa. "Well, how long do you suppose it will take for someone to use Osama to discredit the science of global warming?
Apparently not very long...
Or as Andrew Leonard says (ironically):
The fight to restrict greenhouse gas emissions cannot be simply labeled a Communist plot aimed at undermining the capitalist system of free enterprise.*ironic statement
It's more complicated than that. It's a revolutionary Islamic jihad socialist plot.
Mine is a small corner of cyberspace. I get around 75-100 readers every day, and I have readers who return here regularly. I enjoy that.
Every now and again I get linked by a carnival, or by Pharyngula, and they have had effects on my traffic. You can see those as the small blips above on my traffic graph (plotted since I started the blog in February).
On Sunday, I got linked to by reddit. Wow.
Yesterday, I pointed out a *terrible* example of science reporting (now picked up by several large news agencies). The science was not peer-reviewed, and the only other expert interviewed had a direct attachment to the work being described. Just bad.
Today, Carl Zimmer shows them how science reporting should be done in this fantastic piece in the New York Times:
One of the most famous monsters in film history is the extraterrestrial beast of the “Alien” series. It slowly opened its glistening fangs to reveal a second set of jaws that shot forward to kill its victims.Wicked. And peer-reviewed, even! This is work published last week in Nature.
Scientists have now discovered a fish that does the same thing.
Dr. Mehta rigged up a high-speed video camera that could peer into the mouth of a feeding moray. “When we got the movies, we sat and stared in disbelief,” Dr. Wainwright said.Check it out here:
The movies showed that when morays lunge for prey, they first grab it with the teeth on their front jaws. The pharyngeal jaws then shoot forward out of the eel’s throat, into the mouth, and snap down on the prey.
The eel can then open its front jaws, releasing the prey, while the pharyngeal jaws move back down into the throat, dragging the food with them.
Nicely done, Mr. Zimmer.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Newsflash! Man invents perpetual motion machine. Again. And fools journalists into thinking it is revolutionary (or even real):
For obvious reasons, scientists long have thought that salt water couldn't be burned.Yep. Obvious reasons like "it doesn't burn".
John Kanzius, a Washington County native, tried to desalinate seawater with a generator he developed to treat cancer...And this didn't make said journalist go "hmmmm????"
Dr. Roy said the salt water isn't burning per se, despite appearances. The radio frequency actually weakens bonds holding together the constituents of salt water -- sodium chloride, hydrogen and oxygen -- and releases the hydrogen, which, once ignited, burns continuously when exposed to the RF energy field. Mr. Kanzius said an independent source measured the flame's temperature, which exceeds 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, reflecting an enormous energy output.Okay. Assuming these people are just stupid and not dishonest, they're doing electrolysis. Releasing hydrogen gas, and burning it again. That means that they're completing a cycle that, only if they were doing it perfectly without any energy loss would produce zero net energy. Given that it is impossible to do this perfectly, it will require more energy in than it will produce. But what do our intrepid "scientists" think?
"We will get our ideas together and check this out and see where it leads," Dr. Roy said. "The potential is huge."Potential to fool naive audiences perhaps. Oh, and just for fun, Dr. Roy is also a homeopathy practitioner. Will wonders never cease.
Dear Mr. Templeton (journalist),
Oy. Avoid making an ass of yourself. Actually call someone not involved in the experiment to explain the hoax to you. Before you print it in a newspaper.
Shame on you, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Update: Shame on you, Associated Press, for picking this up without checking it. This is the single worst piece of science journalism I've seen this year.
The [troofer] article was only mildly interesting, but I was astounded at how much traffic this site was getting. Here is a screenshot of their visitor stats:Wow. Almost 800,000 visitors.
But then, my conspiracy radar came up. Does this site really attract that many visitors? It seemed unlikely. I clicked on the stat, hoping Sitemeter would not have it set as private.
Here is a screenshot of the “real” stats:
Did you catch the last line below the stats? I think I smell a conspiracy.
LOVE IT! The troofer makes up 798,235 visitors for his site, but claims that since he started tracking them using sitemeter, he's averaged 6 visitors a day (for the past 6 months). BEAUTIFUL!
Erm, where do you suppose he's hiding those 798,235 visitors?
"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."
Madeleine L'Engle died last week.
Her books were inspiring to me when I was a child, and I look forward to the day my son is old enough that I can read them to him.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Friday, September 7, 2007
Here's a video I've been dying to post since I first saw it a few months ago.
Blogger now makes it easy to post videos that aren't on YouTube. The video function choked today, and I had to get put the video on Youtube.
As described on the Cornell Mushroom Blog:
Here’s something I know you’ve all been dying to see. A video of one of the most compellingly jaw-dropping spectacles in mycology, condensed from four days of electrifying footage. What you can’t see is the stink, the awesome stink associated with this event. It caused our noble departmental photographer, Kent Loeffler, to vent the noxious, carrion-like fumes into the fourth floor hallway outside my office. We have all suffered here in the service of science.More cool time-lapse videos here.
There are two fungi in this video. On your right, the common pinkish-stemmed Phallus ravenelii. On your left, the rarer, paler, netted stinkhorn, Dictyophora duplicata. Note also the guest appearance by Hubert the fly (aka “The Vector”) late in the video! Oh! the humanity.
To preemptively answer your insightful questions, let me clarify a few points. The stinkiness is part of the dispersal mechanism of the crafty stinkhorn. The green goop covering the heads is a spore slurry that stinks in a sultry way and attracts flies and such. Insects disperse the spores on their little feet. Why does the mushroom look this way? I can’t say, but I can assure you that you’re not the first to notice a certain resemblance. The stinkhorns belong to an order of fungi called the Phallales. They have been causing trouble for a long time, and first got their suggestive Latin name in 1564.
via Small Things Considered.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
I haven't written about this in a while. Colony Collapse Disorder is a problem that has been devastating the American honeybee industry. Many of their domesticated bees seem to be dying far away from their hive, which has seemed a little mysterious. It has been blamed on genetically modified flowers, cellphones and the rapture. Breathlessly, the newspapers have presented these stories (in particular, Spiegel has published the worst nonsense).
Today, a paper in Science presents a model (and data! We here at the Factory love data!). They used some crazy 454 DNA sequencing power to sequence bacteria and viruses in and on the bee colonies and compare that to healthy colonies. And what did they find? Well, the CCD samples contained more infectious agents on average (3.7 vs 2.1). And one particular virus:
[Israeli acute paralysis virus] IAPV was, with a single exception, confined to CCD samples, yielding a positive predictive value of 96.1% and a specificity of 95.2%The one non-CCD source was from Australia. Apparently Israeli acute paralysis virus is endemic there. What does this mean?
IAPV was first described in 2004 in Israel (18) where infected bees presented with shivering wings, progressed to paralysis and then died just outside the hive. All CCD operations sampled used imported bees from Australia or were intermingled with operations that had done so. Importation to the United States of bees from Australia began in 2004, coinciding with early reports of unusual colony declines. Although the shivering phenotype is not reported in imported Australian bees or in CCD, differences in IAPV pathogenicity may reflect strain variation, co-infection, or the presence of other stressors such as pesticides or poor nutrition. The varroa mite, for example, absent in Australia, immunosuppresses bees, making them more susceptible to infection by other organisms, including viruses (19, 20). Other stressors may include chemical pesticides used on plants pollinated by bees and in hives to control pests. Crop pesticide use is similar in both the United States and Australia.Hmmm... so a combination of a new disease with slightly different conditions may have stressed out these bees. No cell phones? No rapture? No GM plants? Spiegel, what do you have to say? Bueller?