Monday, October 29, 2007

What is their problem?

This is a quick post to plug ERV's latest post: "The Discovery Institute LOATHES smart college students". What I find the most relevant portion is highlighted below:

These supposed 'professionals' act nothing like real professionals. Though behind-the-scenes mentoring might not be intuitive to a layman, the actions exhibited by professional organizations should be. When is the last time you saw the American Physical Therapy Association release an official rebuttal of a college students opinion piece on her half-marathon training in her college newspaper1? Does Aaron Beck respond to his critics in a sexist, condescending manner on his 'Amazon blog'2? Does Sigma Xi send PR reps after students who critique the activities of a professor who happens to be a Sigma Xi member3??

The Discovery Institute, a group of grown men desperately wanting to be taken seriously as 'scientists', has engaged in all of those behaviors in the past six months. What the hell is their problem??
Indeed. What is their problem? Why don't they engage us in practicing science?


Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday beautiful science

I'm recycling an old image for today's Friday Beautiful Science. I'm on vacation, and am spending *very* little of it online. It's a shot of a sunset taken from one of the Mars Rovers. I'm currently enjoying the sunrises and sunsets in the mountains of Quebec, Canada. A little less desolate than Mars, but just as beautiful.

Back next week...


72nd Skeptics' Circle

The 72nd Sceptics' Circle is up at the Quackometer Blog. Go have a gander.


Friday, October 19, 2007

A personal story on cause and effect

I recently posted this comment on the "Autism debate" at

No doubt I will be accused of being an arrogant scientist, but here goes... Which of the following sentences makes sense to you?

"Cosmologists have found several planets rotating around stars quite a distance from earth, but parents disagree."

"Geologists have found that plate tectonics underlies the formation of mountains and the occurrence of earthquakes, but parents disagree."

"Medical scientists have found that thimerosal and vaccines have nothing to do with autism, but parents disagree."

This was a trick question. All 3 statements are nonsensical.

*That's* why rationalists call parents who campaign to ban vaccines the "mercury militia". Right or wrong, it's out of frustration with the lunacy of it all.

(As an aside, I'm a biomedical scientist and new parent. My son has been having *all* of his vaccines on schedule.)
Several commenters took me to task as being a lousy scientist, because I ought to know that parents watch their children and know their children well. I thought I would expand on this thought, as it's clear that many people don't understand how science arrives at particular conclusions. People are really, really lousy at arriving at cause and effect, and it takes very careful controls to demonstrate cause and effect.

As an example of how I (a scientist) arrive at a conclusion:

I have recently been diagnosed with occipital neuralgia. It's a rather painful disorder that's caused by damage to nerves in the back of my scalp (running up over my ear). Basically, the nerves fire inappropriately, and so I experience severe pain in my head like I'm being struck by lightning (repeatedly) even when there's nothing physically wrong with my head.

My neurologist has prescribed for me a drug called gabapentin that is supposed to help numb the nerves. On my last visit, he asked me the question, "Is the medication working?" Me being a scientist, I literally replied, "I don't know, I haven't done the control." My pain is mostly gone, but occipital neuralgia often spontaneously goes away. So I can't tell if my pain has been reduced because I'm taking the medicine, or if it's been reduced because the neuralgia is receding. (That said, given that the medicine has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the pain of neuralgia, I am going to continue with my dosage for a while before I experiment with reducing my dose). It may be that the medicine is no longer doing anything for me. Or it could be that it is the only thing between me and searing pain. Until I experiment with reducing the dose, I really have no idea.

It's an awful lot more difficult to determine cause and effect if you only have one sample (yourself). In science, we refer to this as n equals 1 (n=1). You have 1 sample. One. One sample tells you very, very little.

Same thing goes with determining causation with a disease in your child. If my son gets sick, I could say, "Well, he caught it at the daycare." He may have caught it at the daycare. Or at the grocery store. Or from the child next door. Or from his grandmother. I don't have enough information, even though I am his father and I watch him carefully. And when his cold resolves, I could say "It's because I gave him orange juice". Or vitamins. Or holy water. Or sunshine. But really, I don't know how quickly he would have gotten better if I had done none of these things. Or all of them.

This is why it is very important to determine things with larger groups of people. Larger groups allow you the power of controls. Using controls are how we determine causation.


Don't piss off your Roomba.

Don't piss of your Roomba. No really, don't piss it off. It's got a bigger brother. From Wired:

We're not used to thinking of [real robots] this way. But many advanced military weapons are essentially robotic -- picking targets out automatically, slewing into position, and waiting only for a human to pull the trigger. Most of the time. Once in a while, though, these machines start firing mysteriously on their own. The South African National Defence Force "is probing whether a software glitch led to an antiaircraft cannon malfunction that killed nine soldiers and seriously injured 14 others during a shooting exercise on Friday."


[SA National Defence Force spokesman] told The Star that it “is assumed that there was a mechanical problem, which led to the accident. The gun, which was fully loaded, did not fire as it normally should have," he said. "It appears as though the gun, which is computerised, jammed before there was some sort of explosion, and then it opened fire uncontrollably, killing and injuring the soldiers."
Fortunately (?) we are reassured:
Defence Ministry spokesperson Sam Mkhwanazi said the "friendly-fire" tragedy was the worst he could remember.

"Without hesitation I can say it is very rare; I can't even think of one - I can't remember when last an accident of this magnitude happened."
This isn't reassuring. You were supposed to reassure me... You can't remember? You could forget an event of this magnitude?

Is it just me, or does giving firing capability to a robot targeting system seem like a bad idea? One little software bug, and it's choosing the wrong targets. I'm not worried about a Terminator-style rebellion here, I'm more worried that if the number of software bugs in your average computer is any indicator, they're going to have a lot of extremely tragic software errors...

Meanwhile, Roomba is also getting in on the action:
The makers of the cuter-than-cute robotic vacuum cleaner are rolling out a new machine: A big, fast-moving, semi-autonomous 'bot capable of killing a whole bunch of people at once.

Early versions of the iRobot Warrior X700 "are slated to be ready by the second half of next year," according to Army Times' Kris Osborn. And unlike previous offerings from iRobot -- which tended to be on the light, bordering-on-flimsy side -- the Warrior will weigh up to 250 pounds. It'll be able to lug a 500-pound payload, and carry 150 pounds with a newly muscular arm. Which will mean the machine is more than buff enough to pack heat.

“We’re looking at urban warfare... It can be deploying weapons systems. It can be doing re-supply operations, taking ammo or water to troops who are pinned down, perimeter security and building clearing,” Helen Greiner, iRobot chairman and co-founder, tells Army Times.

“Right now, it can go 10 miles per hour. When we finish the development, it will be able to do a four-minute mile,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, iRobot’s president of the government and industrial division. “You are starting to see the first robot that can really haul your pack and be not only a partner but be a stronger and faster partner.”

Unlike other armed robots -- which are entirely remote-controlled -- the Warriors are "being engineered with advanced software, giving them the ability to perform some battlefield functions autonomously."
I have a picture in my head of a little Roomba, moving through a room, randomly bumping into things, and when it bumps into something soft and squishy, shooting it. In all seriousness, I would hope that they could get the software designed in such a way as to get rid of all the bugs (unlike standard systems) but the story above suggests that perhaps programmers are not able to write bug-free software. Please don't give the Roomba guns!


Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes from the Nanotechnology Now art gallery at the University of Cambridge Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy:

The image shows the magnetic field lines in a single bacterial cell. The fine white lines are the magnetic field lines in the cell, which were measured using off-axis electron holography. Such bacteria live in sediments and bodies of water, and move parallel to geomagnetic field lines as a result of the torque exerted on their magnetosome chains by the earth's magnetic field.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Quote of the day

"The general public could understand relativity a whole lot better if they actually got a science education. Uninformed comments from a large number of uneducated people are worthless against the informed statements of educated people.

Does that sound horribly elitist? Well, so be it. Let it be proclaimed from the mountaintops that I support elitism: in fact, I love my own elite so much that I think everyone should belong to it."

-Blake Stacey


What would it take for you to abandon a fundamental principle?

"But, as my teacher Haldane pointed out, a single fossil rabbit in Cambrian rocks would falsify evolution." - John Maynard Smith

An important question that I think creationists should ask themselves more often: What would it take for you to abandon your belief in creationism?. What experiment can you imagine that would satisfy you that intelligent design/creationism is wrong?

If you can't answer that question, read no further, as you have religious belief. Every time I demonstrate something in the lab, I think to myself "How could I be wrong? What can I do to prove myself wrong?" If I am indeed correct, I will fail in my attempt to prove myself wrong.

So, in this regard, I will list a few biological discoveries that would weaken/invalidate evolution for me. Please add your own in the comments, for those of you who have different backgrounds from mine:

1) Discovery of an organism on earth that uses a truly unique genetic code. Better yet, an organism based on something other than nucleic acids (i.e. demonstrating that there is another fundamental way that life can exist on earth, a separate pathway if you will).

2) Discovery of an organism on earth that uses fundamental metabolic systems that bear no resemblance to any system on earth (i.e. no DNA polymerase, no ribosomes, no RNA polymerases that bear the fundamental similarities that we see).

3) God stepping out of the sky and repeatably creating a woman from a man's rib. <-- Okay, this one's a friendly ribbing for the creationists out there.

4) Fossilized human skeleton found inside the belly of a fossilized tyrannosaur.

What else?


Abercrombie and Fitch conspiracy

This week a group of 111 men descended on an Abercrombie and Fitch in New York City and removed their shirts. Hilarity ensued:

Agent Nguyen came up with the idea for this mission when he noticed the 5th Avenue Abercrombie and Fitch store had a shirtless male model greeting all customers as they enter. Upon further examination, we discovered the model is only one aspect of the store’s celebration of the shirtless male. There are photographs all over the store of bare-chested men, both on the wall and on the products themselves.

I sent out an email recruiting men willing to take their shirts off in public, and 111 agents showed up to the meeting point in Central Park. Everyone wore jeans and a shirt that would be easy to stuff into a pocket.

I explained to everyone what we’d be doing, and then the shirts came off for a very tasteful Abercrombie-style photo shoot coordinated by Agent Nicholson.

After the photo shoot, we regrouped and got organized for the mission. There are four floors in the Abercrombie, so I divided everyone up into four groups by birthday month, to ensure we’d have an even number of men on each floor. Those on the second floor were out of luck, as they’d be shopping on the women’s only floor. I instructed them to claim to be shopping for their girlfriend. I then divided the group up by birthday year and had them enter the store at staggered times, to prevent an obvious line forming at the entrance. At exactly 4:37 everyone was to discreetly remove their shirt on their assigned floor and hide it in their pocket or pants. (We figured that if we had 100 people trying to enter the store shirtless, they’d probably stop letting us in after the first 20 or so slipped by.)
Head on over and enjoy the fun.


Monday, October 15, 2007

I confess, I am disappointed...

I am nerdier than 86% of all people. Are you a nerd? Click here to find out!

and... says I'm a Nerd God.  What are you?  Click here!


Dembski and the chattel machine

Bill Dembski, creationist-extraordinaire, works at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. What kind of school has creationists teaching science? This kind of school:

Equal but different.

You hear that a lot on the lush green campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

God values men and women equally, any student here will tell you. It's just that he's given them different responsibilities in life: Men make decisions. Women make dinner.
Yowza. Does that sound a little retrograde to you? I'm only getting started...
The [homemaking] academic program, open only to women, includes lectures on laundering stubborn stains and a lab in baking chocolate-chip cookies.

Philosophical courses such as "Biblical Model for the Home and Family" teach that God expects wives to graciously submit to their husbands' leadership. A model house, to be completed by next fall, will allow women to get credit toward bachelor's degrees by learning how to set tables, sew buttons and sustain lively dinnertime conversation.
Is this real? Or is it from The Onion? Who would sign up for this?
It all sounds wonderful to sophomore Emily Felts, 19, who signed up as soon as she arrived on campus this fall.

Several relatives have told Felts that she's selling herself short. They want her to become a lawyer, and she agrees she'd make a good one. But that's not what she wants to do with her life.

More to the point, it's not what she believes God wants of her.

"My created purpose as a woman is to be a helper," Felts said firmly. "This is a college education that I can use."
Damn. I have every respect for women who decide to stay home with their kids. One of our neighbors did that. My wife thought about it (she just loves every minute with our son). But to be a helper? I don't know how other people run their marriages, but my wife and I are equal partners. It makes decision-making a tad more difficult, but why would she want to subvert her desires for mine?
For the rest of the nearly three-hour class, guest lecturer Ashley Smith, the wife of a theology professor, laid out the biblical basis for what she calls "the glorious inequalities of life."

Smith, 30, confided that she sometimes resents her husband for advancing his career "while I'm changing diapers and getting poop all over me."
I'll bet she resents him, and she should.
But then she quoted from Ephesians: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." And from Genesis: God created Eve to be a "suitable helper" for Adam.
Well, if God says so...
"If we love the Scripture, we must do it," said Smith, who gave up her dreams of a career when her husband said it was time to have children. "We must fit into this role. It's so much more important than our own personal happiness."
*gurgle* *gasp* *is speechless*

Well, ladies, what can this education do for you? It can turn this woman:
Donella Cecrle, 36, spent years in the corporate world, traveling the nation to sell computer software -- and far out-earning her husband, Andy. Subservience wasn't in her vocabulary.
into this woman:
When Cecrle became pregnant, she left work for good and now stays home with their two preschool-age children... ...She started this semester with a homemaking course, which Dorothy Patterson, 63, teaches at her dining room table (artfully decorated with sprigs of autumnal berries and curls of pumpkin-hued ribbon).

Cecrle credits Dorothy Patterson's lectures on God's vision of womanhood with helping her embrace her role as helper -- and restrain her instincts to take charge. "I have to be able to shut my mouth," she said.
I have to be able to shut my mouth. I have to be able to shut my mouth. This is what Dembski's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is teaching women. Read it one more time, would you? I have to be able to shut my mouth. And something to leave the taste of a fine education in your mouth?
"It really doesn't matter what I think," [she] said. "It matters what the Bible says."


The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

I confess, I like this blog meme. I studied how mutations happen in bacteria in graduate school, so anything even tangentially related to that has my interest. This blog meme was created by Pharyngula as a means of demonstrating evolution and mutation in cyberspace:

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

* You can leave them exactly as is.

* You can delete any one question.

* You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

* You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".

* You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My great-great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula
My great-great-grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
My great-grandparent is Flying Trilobite
My grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock
My parent is The Primate Diaries

The best time travel novel in SF/fantasy is:

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The best scary movie in scientific dystopias is:


The best sexy song in electronica is:

"The Sea" by Morcheeba.

The best page-turner book in Nobel-prize-winning fiction is:

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago

I am propagating this meme on to:

Bug Girl
White Coat Underground
Bronze Blog
Skeptical Alchemist

It'll be interesting to see how this experiment ends up. Don't let it go extinct!


Friday, October 12, 2007

The Obesity Epidemic

MarkH, over at Denialism, posted an excellent article about obesity, related health risks, and issues that obscure the problem of obesity. Rather than pull out the best parts, I'm merely going to plug the entire article. Go read it, and the comments. The whole thread is a good read, raising important issues not only about the health risks of obesity, but the cultural and psychological issues that go along with it, and how few options we currently have for taking care of the problem. It's a great discussion. Head on over there.


Friday beautiful science

I was really hoping to have a photo from the Japanese mission to the moon for today, but there aren't any good ones ready yet (just shots of the satellite unpacking itself with the moon in the background). Instead, I provide a photo of "The Whale and The Hockey Stick" from the Astronomy Photo of the Day. If you've never checked them out, you should. Their description of the photo above is:

The Whale and The Hockey Stick
Credit & Copyright: Josef Poepsel, Stefan Binnewies (Capella Observatory)

Explanation: NGC 4631 is a big beautiful spiral galaxy seen edge-on (top right) only 25 million light-years away towards the small northern constellation Canes Venatici. This galaxy's slightly distorted wedge shape suggests to some a cosmic herring and to others the popular moniker of The Whale Galaxy. Either way, it is similar in size to our own Milky Way. In this gorgeous color image, the Whale's dark interstellar dust clouds, yellowish core, and young blue star clusters are easy to spot. A companion galaxy, the small elliptical NGC 4627, appears above the Whale Galaxy. At the lower left is another distorted galaxy, the hockey stick-shaped NGC 4656. The distortions and mingling trails of gas detected at other wavelengths suggest that all three galaxies have had close encounters with each other in their past. The Whale Galaxy is also known to have spouted a halo of hot gas glowing in x-rays.


Homeopathy, malaria & free speech

Orac brings us news of a fellow skeptical blogger, Le Canard Noir, who has been threatened with a lawsuit (in the U.K.) for posting the following article. In honor of free speech, we re-print the article here. Please spread it around, would you?

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

Thursday, August 16, 2007
The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48 • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority.
• No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72 To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.
The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,
Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.
Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. ... The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs...

Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,
The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.
This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that 'she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics'. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,
introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.
I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for 'treating' various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,
is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.
This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let's remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.
there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won't find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.
Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the 'immediate priority' to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

Labels: homeopathy


Thursday, October 11, 2007

71st Skeptics' Circle

The 71st Skeptics' Circle is up at Infophilia. Go take a gander.


Friday, October 5, 2007

Watch out for the deadly monkeypox!!!

Here are some important warning signs for you to hang up around your labs. Stephen Colbert has offered these up as a service to the science public (and the episode they're taken from is below).


Friday beautiful science

Today's photo comes is taken of rat axons that have been stretched slowly using mechanical forces. A group at the University of Pennsylvania grew their cells in culture, and slowly pulled them apart to demonstrate that it was possible to stretch axons over fairly long distances. From their abstract:

Large animals can undergo enormous growth during development, suggesting that axons in nerves and white matter tracts rapidly expand as well. Because integrated axons have no growth cones to extend from, it has been postulated that mechanical forces may stimulate axon elongation matching the growth of the animal. However, this distinct form of rapid and sustained growth of integrated axons has never been demonstrated. Here, we used a microstepper motor system to evaluate the effects of escalating rates of stretch on integrated axon tracts over days to weeks in culture. We found that axon tracts could be stretch grown at rates of 8 mm/d and reach lengths of 10 cm without disconnection.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Have you been properly Mirandized?

The next time one of your woo-inclined friends or family tell you that they're buying a woo-product to cure their illness, make sure you point them towards the fine-print. "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." As PalMD points out:

There are three ways to look at this: the truthful way, the sinister way, and the bat-shit insane way.

1. Truth: Anyone who wants to sell you something that’s a load of crap must use this statement to cover themselves legally.

2. Sinister: Variation of above–someone wants to sell you something that you are supposed to believe is medically useful, but at the same time they tell you in fine print that it is not medically useful. When it doesn’t work, they don’t get sued. I wonder why anyone would buy something with that disclaimer attatched to it? When I treat someone for a medical problem, I pretty much say that I intend to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent a disease. Why would I say otherwise? It would be a lie. Also, who would go to see a doctor that told you that they didn’t intend to diagnose or treat disease. The whole thing is bizarre.

3. Bat-shit insane: The FDA and Big Pharma are in cahoots with the AMA to keep you from learning all the simple ways to treat diseases. They want you’re money, and they’ll do anything they can to get it from you, including suppressing the knowledge than anyone can learn to heal cancer.

I can’t really help the people who believe #3, but people who are willing to suspend their paranoia should read #’s 1 and 2 a few times. Unless you’re being arrested, no one should be reading you your rights. The Quack Miranda Statement is the red flag that should send you running.
Make sure people know their rights. And they have the right not to buy a product that fully acknowledges it doesn't work.


Creation Science 101

Phil Gillette over at Skeptic Friends has written up the logistics of the Noah's Ark story. In practice:

I'm just taking what they claim and agreeing it to death.

Some folks have tried to simulate the ark, and found it rather difficult to build:Let us begin with simple logistics.
The Ark is alleged to have been somewhere between four and six hundred feet long, depending upon which version of the cubit one might prefer — there were several in use at the time, varying widely in dimension. A vessel of this description is not all that easily built.

It would require saw pits, smithies, foundries, rope-walks, cranes and other heavy-lifting devices, and all of the other facilities found in a large, early shipyard. It would have required a master shipwright and a construction crew with experience. And it would require a vast amount of timber to be harvested and processed in a land not noted for its forests. And lest we forget, in the days of the Ark there was little more than Bronze Age technology.

The largest clipper ship ever built is said to have been the Great Republic. She was somewhere, depending upon whose account you read, between 320 and 350 feet long with quite a wide beam to increase cargo space. She was relatively slow and in spite of oak construction, iron bracing and multiple keelsons, her hull hogged and sagged enough to render her a chronic leaker. She was only moderately successful and ultimately was lost in a tropical storm when the sea came in through her sprung hull strakes. There was some 15 feet of water in her holds when her crew abandoned her.
Bit of a problem there. For more of the interesting problems with the Noah's Ark myth, head on over and read it yourself.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

I thought Dembski didn't believe in reincarnation...

If ever you wanted a shrine to the Galileo Gambit, head on over to William Dembski's newly re-incarnated Evolutionary Informatics Lab.


The force will protect you.

[Luke:] I can’t believe it.

[Yoda:] That is why you fail.

Erm. What I mean to say, is all you have to do is believe.
hat tip Pharyngula.

From Neurotopia:
Woo also permeates the martial arts. If one's chi is properly aligned, supposedly the practitioner can make their body do amazing things such as selectively exploding an opponent's internal organs when struck, or sometimes inducing a time-delayed killing sickness. My old kung fu instructor even tried to demonstrate that chi existed by having us hold our hands right up next to a mirror after a workout, supposedly when our chi is flowing maximally. He claimed you could see the visible effects of chi which manifested as a mist traveling up the mirror away from our hands. He was right: the mirror did fog over. I imagine it had more to do with the mirror being at a significantly lower temperature than our hands, which were sweaty and radiating heat, which caused condensation to appear on the mirror and radiate upward away from our hands with our body heat. Oh well.


Quote of the day

It's a long one:

The only value woo woo like accupuncture offers is that it serves as a measure of how comfortable/disaffected patients are with science-based medicine. I watched Dawkins' "Enemies of Reason" series and was struck by the point he made, namely that "alternative" medical practitioners spend a full hour with their "patients" and palpate them, ask them lots of questions, pay them attention and generally make them feel special and important. Contrast that with a visit to a real doctor, and it looks like medical costs, dealing with insurance paperwork, and poor bedside manner has a lot to do with what makes woo attractive.

If I were puking with chemo, I'd hire a hot 19-year-old to wear a cheerleader outfit and massage my feet while showing me lots of cleavage. My guess is it would cost about the same and it'd be an equally effective course of therapy. Perhaps services like that could be offered under the alternative therapy banner. Having a crowd of people keening, wailing, and rending their garments outside my death-chamber would be kinda cool, too. If I still have a memory when I'm getting close to going, I'll see if I can do that one. That might be fun. "What's going on?" "the prophet is dying!!! *wail*" "Huh?"

- Marcus J. Ranum


James Randi, audioskeptic

I'm an audio and videophile. We have a fantastic high definition TV set up with (slightly aged) stereo sound equipment. It's fantastic. I've got wires under the floor to reach all the speakers, so it doesn't look like a college dorm room. But I'm not ridiculous. Most of the cables for this system are pretty thick gauge, generic Radio Shack cables. Copper is an excellent conductor, and there is no detectable difference for a home audiophile in the conduction over short distances.

Ok, so take these cables, being marketed to audiophiles with more money than God (a.k.a. William Henry Gates III). For the low, low price of $7250, you can get a 12 foot cable that:

In extended listening sessions, I found the cables' greatest strength to be its PRAT. Simply put these are very danceable cables. Music playing through them results in the proverbial foot-tapping scene with the need or desire to get up and move. Great swing and pace—these cables smack that right on the nose big time.
Beg pardon, what??? Danceable cables? You, my friend, are certifiable. And as it happens, James Randi thinks so, too:
We see that the Pear Cable company is advertising a pair of 12-foot "Anjou" audio cables for $7,250; that's $302 a foot! And, as expected, "experts" were approached for their opinions on the performance of these wonders ... Well, we at the JREF are willing to be shown that these "no-compromise" cables perform better than, say, the equivalent Monster cables. While Pear rattles on about "capacitance," "inductance," "skin effect," "mechanical integrity" and "radio frequency interface," - all real qualities and concerns, and adored by the hi-fi nut-cases - we naively believe that a product should be judged by its actual performance, not by qualities that can only be perceived by attentive dogs or by hi-tech instrumentation. That said, we offer the JREF million-dollar prize to - for example - Dave Clark, Editor of the audio review publication Positive Feedback Online.
And I thought Monster Cables were crazy expensive... Step up, get yourself a million dollars (you'll need it if you want to buy those cables).

Hat tip, Gizmodo.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Peace is Dangerous - wait, WTF?

I try to keep the Factory out of politics (not always successfully). I'm not always successful in that regard, especially since I read some political blogs, and I just can't stand it when they lie.

Take Red State for example. They have a recent blog post suggesting that peace is dangerous, and the recent combat fatalities in Iraq are actually *not that bad*:

In the peaceful year of 1980, 2,392 servicemen died while on duty defending our country. In 2003, the start of the Iraq War, only 1,228 servicemen and women died. In 2004, the number was 1,874, it went up to 1,942 in 2005, and it dropped to 1,858 in 2006. [my bold]
Wow. More deaths in peacetime than during all out combat? That doesn't compute, but maybe it's true...
In fact, only during the Clinton years of 1996 into the Bush years of 2001 and 2002, during a period of time when the Clinton policy of refusing to defend our national interest was in place, do we see the number of military deaths fall below 1000 annually.
Wait, so if you exclude the most peaceful years of the last 25 years, then you can conclude that peace is dangerous? I'm rather reminded of the Princess Bride quote:
Humperdinck: Tomorrow morning [my guards] will escort us to Florin Channel, where every ship in my armada waits to accompany us on our honeymoon.

Buttercup: Every ship but your four fastest, you mean. Every ship but the four you sent.

Humperdinck: Yes. Yes of course. Naturally not those four.
Of course, if you exclude the peaciest years, then peace might have some bad points. But let's actually examine the data, shall we? (They're available here for those who want to dig them up).

Click on the graph to see it in nauseating detail, but there are really 3 data sets that I want you to look at. One is the total deaths, and that is in light blue. The folks at Red State aren't lying when they say that there were more deaths in the military in 1980 than in 2005. They're just being completely disingenuous. Underneath that, in red, is the number of accidental deaths (vehicle accidents, training accidents, plane crashes, etc). That has been more or less steadily decreasing over the last 25 years. That accounts for the vast majority of the decrease in deaths in the military, and has remained relatively stable throughout the Iraq conflict. Now look at combat deaths. That's in black. Combat deaths have spiked, account for the enormous jump in military deaths (as you might expect).

So they're comparing the early 1980s, when accidental deaths were a huge number of deaths, which through whatever means have been brought down to much lower levels, and saying that the military deaths now are "only" in the thousands.

Now, let's examine one more bit of disingenuousneses of their claim. How much of not a big deal is the fact that for every fatality, there are 7.6 people that are wounded and saved by modern technology. Compare this to the Viet Nam War, where 2.6 people were wounded for every death. This is because many more people are being saved.

Expressed another way, if America were fighting in Iraq using Viet Nam era medical technology, many of those wounded would be dead. Instead of 3000 American deaths in Iraq, it would be closer to 9000 deaths. But that's really not a big deal to the folks at Red State, who would have you believe that the deaths in Iraq are no big deal. (I'm going to save for another time the discussions of civilian dead in Iraq, which are a *much* huger deal). Or as they say:
The moral of the story is that peace is dangerous.
No, the moral of the story is that if you ignore trends in data, you are dishonest.