Category: Science & Medicine

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Money, Water, and the Social Game

Full disclosure: I did donate to the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Association. It wasn't much, but it was a good cause, even if my reasons for doing so were partially irrational. On one hand, I thought, I'll enhance a small donation a bit because an offer to match was available [rational], but I am not doing so with due diligence, based on information about the disease or the charity [irrational], though I did head to Charity Navigator afterward to check them out, and I did already know about ALS. Furthermore, I fully anticipated being nominated for the Ice Bucket Challenge eventually, so somewhere deep down in my icky stuff I probably thought, hey, this insulates me from the inevitable inner conflict when I am finally implicated. Someone would get around to it, surely, and lo and behold, someone did—a close friend of mine, who also happened to make a pretty hilarious video out of his own Challenge. (He actually anticipated my discomfort, and cited it in his video as the reason for my nomination. I have some respect for this sort of trolling.)

But there is something that doesn't smell right. If it were simply the contrarian impulses that sit in my bowels, I'd be inclined to let the matter go without much more thought. On one hand, I do resent that a person can so easily be made to look like a heartless bastard, simply by not participating in a popular trend or meme, for charity or otherwise. In addition, I don't think we can ignore the oddity of wasting so much water—a back-of-the-envelope calculation by a Washington Post blogger estimates that 5 million gallons have been dumped—or the fact that by pouring ice water over your head you purportedly signal that you'd actually rather give less than the $100 "penalty" assessed in the event of refusal. Granted, many or most people just do both.

Besides the social pressure, though, one might also suggest those partaking in the Challenge are doing so out of sound self-interested decision-making: a person can mitigate both their financial and social losses.

More on that later.

You can, of course, donate whatever the hell you want, whether you decide to freeze your ass off or not. Explicitly calling on others by name to do so, however, puts undue pressure on that person for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you have no clue what their financial situation might be.

Addressing practical considerations, Vox has an excellent piece about why donating to charity based on viral memes isn't a great idea—namely, because that sort of donation leads to inefficient allocation of resources—and I highly recommend you read this one to get an idea of the health burdens created by various diseases in comparison to ALS. The ALS Association is now going to have to figure out now how to use the unprecedented influx of cash, more than $20 million as of this writing, and I sincerely hope it is allocated well in order to support new and exciting research efforts. I really do. The fact that ALS affects such a small number of people, it should be stressed, does not make studying it worthless, nor should we fail to recognize those who have it. They deserve the hope and awareness that this Challenge, in its best iterations, provides. Neither is it heartless, though, to take utilitarian concerns into consideration, as I've seen suggested among acquaintances. Millions of people die every year from malaria, heart disease, lack of access to sanitary water, and a host of other causes. Something tells me Ice Bucketers won't be infusing charities that address those problems with loads of cash, despite the fact that the life-per-dollar ratio is undoubtedly much higher. This, from the Vox article's quoting of William MacAskill, illustrates the reasoning [emphasis mine]:

If you're concerned about the latter [maximizing impact], he suggested giving to diseases that impact the developing world. As a rule, he explained, "donating money to the best developing world health charities will reach at least 100 times as many people than if you donate to developed world health causes." For example, consider the potential public-health impact of your dollars spent, using a measure of disease burden like the quality-adjusted life year. With ALS, he said that $56,000 would provide one quality-adjusted life to a sufferer. On the other hand, he said, "the same amount of money could provide 500 quality-adjusted life years if you give money to bed nets for malaria."

"People can get upset when you say some causes are more effective than others. That's not true, because it's as tragic for someone to die of ALS as it is for someone to die of malaria. But wanting to respect and honor a particular tragedy is different from trying to help as many people as you can."

Also, while most Challenge videos do cite the reason for the stunt, some do not. In case your feeds have been replete with less-than-explicit explanations for why this challenge is going on (ignoring its real roots), please at least read the following passage entitled "What is ALS?" from the ALS Association's website:

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.

A-myo-trophic comes from the Greek language. "A" means no or negative. "Myo" refers to muscle, and "Trophic" means nourishment–"No muscle nourishment." When a muscle has no nourishment, it "atrophies" or wastes away. "Lateral" identifies the areas in a person's spinal cord where portions of the nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located. As this area degenerates it leads to scarring or hardening ("sclerosis") in the region.

As motor neurons degenerate, they can no longer send impulses to the muscle fibers that normally result in muscle movement. Early symptoms of ALS often include increasing muscle weakness, especially involving the arms and legs, speech, swallowing or breathing. When muscles no longer receive the messages from the motor neurons that they require to function, the muscles begin to atrophy (become smaller). Limbs begin to look "thinner" as muscle tissue atrophies.

If you want a really thoughtful post about the social game involved, look no further than the Google+ post below. Before you read it, though, let me stress once again that donating to support ALS research or work on other rare diseases is important. I am certainly not trying to discourage people from giving generously to causes they feel strongly about. More people should give to charity more often, myself included.

ALS is a horrible illness that I cannot myself fathom going through. I feel for those who have it, and I do sincerely hope that these dollars, however wrought, will succeed in pushing ALS research forward. In the meantime, I will also suggest that you donate to a charity I support because of the fantastic work they do across the world in bringing basic medical services to dangerous and poverty-stricken parts of the world: Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders.

Support Doctors Without Borders

All of the inevitable points and counterpoints have been bandied about, I know. Such are the social media cycles that revolve around hot topics, so if you made it to the end of this one, I thank you.

Sperm Snacks and Sexual Selection: What Kinky Crickets and Katydids Do

Perhaps by virtue of having adequately signaled my predilections over the past few years, or maybe due to my loved ones having so long endured fevered bouts of irritating, giggly prattle, two people sought to mark the occasion of my 30th birthday by giving me the same gift, a book called Nature's Nether Regions by Menno Schilthuizen. (I favor the latter explanation, being that these people were my girlfriend and my brother.)

natures-nether-regions-coverChock full of extremely fascinating and detailed examples of reproductive machinery—which comprise a breathtaking menagerie of complex, sometimes labyrinthine, members, attachments, and orifices—Schilthuizen's book attempts to sketch out how sexual selection gives rise to the vast array of genitalia seen in nature. As opposed to natural selection, the process by which traits are selected for based on suitability to an organism's environment, sexual selection works when traits increase mating success, not due to simple survival but because those traits are desired by the opposite sex. So while a crest of feathers on a bird, for example, might not confer a survival advantage, the crest may nonetheless look pretty sexy to a female, increasing the chances that the male will be able to mate and thus pass on sexy-crest genes to their offspring.

There are a number of different ways in which sexual selection can work, and Schilthuizen does a good job of illustrating these mechanisms, their limitations, and the controversies surrounding them with requisite humor but without the sort of offputting winkiness that often drenches articles about animal sex like bad cologne. On the contrary, from a scientifically inclined layperson's perspective, I think he does a fantastic job of balancing serious discussion of evolutionary concepts and florid illustrations of genitalia with the demands of a non-specialist audience. The scientific issues are simplified and made accessible but are dutifully explained, all of which makes for an enjoyable and engrossing read.

Much as with Holy Shit, I am tempted to copy reams of descriptions for you to read here. From sharks to humans to damselflies and spiders, the ways in which penises and vaginas have coevolved, sometimes in competition with one another, are endlessly fascinating. However, the mating habits of two species of insect, a cricket and a katydid, caught my eye as delightfully weird. For the purposes of understanding the following passage, you will need to be familiar with a couple of terms.

First, sperm competition refers to situations in which males devise strategies to give their sperm the upperhand within a female's reproductive tract. In some cases, males scoop out prior mates' sperm before depositing their own; in other cases, they may divert sperm into areas within the female that are less likely to bear that seed unto her eggs. These strategies exist because females evolve, by chance, genitalia that increase their sexual autonomy, or in other words, their ability to choose whose sperm fertilizes her eggs. Males, also by chance, "respond" when mutations result in changes to their genitalia or behavior that allow them, via force, subterfuge, or other means, to subvert the strategies of females.  Females want the best quality sperm, essentially, while males want to make sure their own sperm wins out, because that is how they pass on their genes. This second concept, the "conflict" between reproductive goals, is known as sexually antagonistic selection. Cryptic female choice, on the other hand, refers to strategies employed by females to favor males whose genes are (involuntarily) deemed fit. Cryptic female choice consists of the ways in which females' genital tracts privilege some males' sperm over others, either by their very construction or by responses to purportedly stimulating features of male genitalia. Sperm dumping, when a female ejects sperm after coitus, is one such method of cryptic choice. And, last of all, a spermatheca is an organ in many female insects that holds the sperm until the female is ready to fertilize her eggs. Whereas human sperm dies in the female genital tract in two or three days, female insects can hold sperm for a much longer period of time.

Okay, now that we've got the background out of the way, you're ready for this:

Crickets also flush. Except that they don't use water but their own semen. The pretty green Japanese tree cricket Truljalia hibinonis has a huge (relative to its body length) member that it can push all the way up the female's spermatheca. When it then ejaculates, its sticky mass of sperm will force backward any sperm that·is already in there, pushing it out of the female's vagina and onto the penis shaft of the male—who then bends over and proceeds to nibble away at the freshly removed rival sperm as a postcoital snack! And in another cricket-like insect, the European katydid Metaplastes ornatus, sperm flushing is a part of sex in which male and female actually collaborate. The male inserts his genitalia, moves them in and out for a bit, and then withdraws. Since his genitalia are jagged and crenellated, pulling them out of the female brings forth a large portion of the female reproductive system, momentarily exposed inside out. What then happens is rather remarkable: the female doubles over and licks out the inside of her own genitalia, eating up any sperm packages of previous mates that still remain in there. This ritual is repeated several times before the male finally deposits his own sperm.

This last example may seem a little puzzling: why would a female join in on a male's attempts to empty her sperm stores? Again, we have to remember that a female has a vested interest in whatever the male does. A male that is able to persuade her to give up her stored sperm reserves probably has qualities that she'd do worse than to pass on to her sons. So, in some species, the whole sperm-scooping business has evolved to become incorporated into the mating ritual and, in a way, has become part and parcel of cryptic female choice—merging imperceptibly with sperm dumping.

Now, I think that's absolutely fantastic, and the rest of the book is replete with similarly captivating examples of sexual selection's effects on the genitals and sexual practices of all sorts of animals. There is also a companion website that I just found while writing this post, with what I hope are many more such examples and which I plan to peruse just as soon as I'm through the last seventy-odd pages of this wonderful genitaliary.

Mammoth Reads: Scratching the Surface of Free Will (Determino-compatibo-dualism?)

I was going to write a whole post about my take on free will... but why? I will say nothing that hasn't been said before in much more worthy fashion by people with philosophical and scientific qualifications that can't be garnered simply by idly perusing RSS feeds on Saturday afternoon in one's underwear. So I'm just going to give you a list of articles and essays I've read over the past few months that, I think, adequately parse different aspects of the free will debate. (I first heard about Benjamin Libet's experiments—just Google him, you'll find them—a few years ago, where that seed languished more or less undeveloped until recently.)

Two things before the list:

  1. Based on the current extent of my reading, I fall into the determinist camp these days, and I don't believe that, given the same conditions, we can choose other than we do.  Even if, as some have posited, random events complicate this statement, I don't see where freedom or control exist in indeterminacy.  Either way, we're beholden to events of which we have little or no knowledge.
  2. I am now retroactively mildly embarrassed by some of my previous comments on inhibition, originally written in response to a post by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias regarding culpability in sleep rape. My suspicion of the punitive instinct stands, as does my reluctance to equate waking and sleep states, but my current thinking on free will demands that I revise my insistence on an agent's having a choice to prevent or allow an action to take place once that person becomes aware of his/her behavior. Though so-called "free won't" isn't an entirely unhelpful concept, I'm backpedaling now on my insinuation that inhibition is a controlled reaction (duh). In my post I cited an article entitled "Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?", of which I only ever read about half, maybe a bit less, before deciding I understood Baumeister's point (read: tired of it). Conscious thoughts may have a role in decision-making, but they are determined as well—even if consciousness itself is astoundingly complex—and the experience of awareness is merely a byproduct of brain functions that we for the most part do not perceive. However, the review article does point to and attempt to counter Thomas Huxley's steam whistle hypothesis and, in so doing, perhaps unwittingly provides what I think is actually a pretty splendid shorthand for how consciousness probably works.  I provide, with caveats mostly irrelevant to this already overly long list item,  Baumeister's explanation of Huxley's analogy: "It [the steam whistle hypothesis] says conscious thought resembles the steam whistle on a train locomotive: it derives from and reveals something about activity inside the engine, but it has no causal impact on moving the train." There is a larger discussion to be had about the proper role of punishment in light of an increasingly nuanced understanding of consciousness, but I thought it important (for me, at least) to outline where I feel I erred in my original criticism of Hanson.

Ok. The list that follows is presented in whatever order will strike me as appropriate during the following minutes, suffice to say the first two are my favorites.

James B. Miles. 'Irresponsible and a Disservice': The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma. British Journal of Social Psychology.
Miles criticizes the view that knowledge of a lack of free will would send society into an amoral/immoral tailspin and that people would, by definition, become selfish cretins.  Largely a criticism of social psychology and its relationship with free will (as Miles puts it, philosophical libertarianism, which is distinct from the political philosophy of the same name), this paper also provides a nice summary of determinismcompatibalism, and libertarianism, essential concepts to understand in order to appreciate the debate.

Sam Harris. Free Will. Simon and Schuster.
In what is, besides Miles's paper, my favorite piece of the bunch, Harris publishes what he claims will be his "final word" on his opinions regarding free will. This is a highly digestible essay that tackles a number of issues, from culpability to legal implications and personal understanding. (If free will were truly an illusion, we'd have to accept, as Harris says, that psychopaths were simply unlucky to have been born as they were.  Thus, hatred could not be warranted, nor could cruel punishment.  Presumably we would do what is necessary to protect society from murders, rapists, etc., and forego the revenge instinct, which is a programmed survival reaction but one that is not coherent once we take agency out of the equation.)

If you don't ever read this piece, do one thing that he suggests therein: sit down one day and simply pay attention to how your thought process operates. Thoughts just pop in there, to cop a Ray Stanz line from Ghostbusters. How could they do anything but?

(UPDATE: 4/14/2012)
Joshue Greene, Jonathan Cohen. For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Unfortunately, I read Greene and Cohen's article after writing this post, and it may be, as far as the practical implications of a modified conception of free will are concerned, the most interesting one on the list.  Drawing a distinction between consequentalist and retributivist compunctions, the authors argue for the former as a progressive, scientifically justified view of punishment rather than the revenge-driven legal system that seeks to wring remorse out of the prisoner, or right some cosmic moral scale.  The law's default disposition, compatibalism, will be challenged as advances in neuroscience make the causal chains that lead to decision-making more apparent; with this advance knowledge, a system aimed at punishment, rather than prevention, will seem untenable.

Their basic position may be summarized thus:

Existing legal principles make virtually no assumptions about the neural bases of criminal behaviour, and as a result they can comfortably assimilate new neuroscience without much in the way of conceptual upheaval: new details, new sources of evidence, but nothing for which the law is fundamentally unprepared. We maintain, however, that our operative
legal principles exist because they more or less adequately capture an intuitive sense of justice. In our view, neuroscience will challenge and ultimately reshape our intuitive sense(s) of justice. New neuroscience will affect the
way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones. Cognitive neuroscience, by identifying the specific mechanisms responsible for behaviour, will vividly illustrate what until now could only be appreciated through esoteric theorizing: that there is something fishy about our ordinary conceptions of human action and responsibility, and that, as a result, the legal principles we have devised to reflect these conceptions may be flawed.

Green and Cohen's distinction between what law wants (retribution) and what people will want (compassion, or consequentalism) largely drives their assumption that certain types of large-scale change will be unavoidable, and warranted. However, they remain of the opinion that law has been molded in such a way that it may incorporate these new findings, as well a shift in philosophy, without requiring an entirely new framework. Rather, the mechanisms of the system may simply be applied in a manner accordant with an understanding of free will and culpability informed by the latest science.  Libertarianism is out, and soon, compatibalism will be, too, they say.

For fans of thought experiments, the Boys from Brazil problem is an absolute must. Are we really so different than Mr. Puppet?

Massimo Pigliucci. The Incoherence of Free Will. Psychology Today.
I haven't included any writing by Daniel Dennett, a prominent determinist, because I haven't read any yet. But both Pigliucci and Harris mention his concept of a "free will worth having," an explanation that Pigliucci summarizes as follows:

What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of "free will" that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.

Whereas Pigliucci likes this explanation, Harris, in Free Will, accuses Dennett of "changing the subject." Regardless of this disagreement (in which, for the record, I side with Harris at the moment), Pigliucci does a nice job of tearing down dualist notions of free will and summarizing reservations many people tend to have when they are forced to consider that they may not have control over their actions in ways they previously may have assumed.

Kerri Smith. Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will. Nature News.
This is a traditional news piece over at Nature News that describes the respectively different treatments free will receives from scientists and philosophers. Most neuroscientists, the article states, are content to attack dualist notions of free will without considering the more robust philosophical debate that surrounds the issue. Philosophers, however, must explain how freedom to choose otherwise might exist in a causal physical system such as the one in which we, and our brains, exist. One of the large issues has been a lack of consensus regarding a working definition of free will from which further research and rationalization can proceed. For any of you interested in Libet's research, as well as recent studies that confirm and build upon knowledge of unconscious decision-making, the article cites and summarizes a few references. I've only read summaries myself, and I'm not sure full-text is widely accessible.

Björn Brembs. Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Of all the pieces included in this list, I am farthest removed from having read this one.  I have to go back through my highlighted PDF to refresh my memory, but Brembs, in searching for a different scientific understanding of free will, rejects both the dualist and determinist approaches.  Instead, he conjures quantum indeterminacy:

That said, it is an all too common misconception that the failure of dualism as a valid hypothesis automatically entails that brains are deterministic and all our actions are direct consequences of gene–environment interactions, maybe with some random stochasticity added in here and there for good measure [2]. It is tempting to speculate that most, if not all, scholars declaring free will an illusion share this concept. However, our world is not deterministic, not even the macroscopic world. Quantum mechanics provides objective chance as a trace element of reality. In a very clear description of how keenly aware physicists are that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle indeed describes a property of our world rather than a failure of scientists to accurately measure it, Stephen Hawking has postulated that black holes emit the radiation named after him [11], a phenomenon based on the well-known formation of virtual particle–antiparticle pairs in the vacuum of space. The process thought to underlie Hawking radiation has recently been observed in a laboratory analogue of the event horizon [12,13]. On the ‘mesoscopic’ scale, fullerenes have famously shown interference in a double-slit experiment [14]. Quantum effects have repeatedly been observed directly on the nano-scale [15,16], and superconductivity (e.g. [17]) or Bose–Einstein condensates (e.g. [18]) are well-known phenomena. Quantum events such as radioactive decay or uncertainty in the photoelectric effect are used to create random-number generators for cryptography that cannot be broken into. Thus, quantum effects are being observed also on the macroscopic scale. Therefore, determinism can be rejected with at least as much empirical evidence and intellectual rigor as the metaphysical account of free will. ‘The universe has an irreducibly random character. If it is a clockwork, its cogs, springs, and levers are not Swiss-made; they do not follow a predetermined path. Physical indeterminism rules in the world of the very small as well as in the world of the very large’ [9].

Brembs studies invertebrates, and in this paper he is most concerned with concocting working models of behavioral variability. Quantum mechanics is often used to obscure dishonest claims, to shield them behind the shroud of mystery the indeterminate world underlying our existence provides, but Brembs doesn't seem to be invoking it in such a way. Citing some interesting studies with fruit flies and leeches, he illustrates cases of seemingly spontaneous decision-making and behavioral variability in invertebrates exposed to controlled constant stimuli. It could be said, of course, that each action affects subsequent actions deterministically regardless of the constancy of the stimulus, but I'm already out of my ken with this entire post.

I highly recommend Brembs's paper.

Eddy Nahmias. Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? The New York Times.
This article doesn't impress me much, as Nahmias seems more concerned with rhetorical gymnastics geared toward discussing an alternative definition of free will than he is dealing honestly with the gruesome holes neuroscience is poking in the formulation most people probably consider when the term is used: that we are autonomous agents able to choose between one or more outcomes and that, given the chance, we could choose otherwise.  (In other words, most people would probably concede that our actions are in some way affected by the physical characteristics of our brains, but unprompted, my guess is that most of those people would also likely assert that they are able to control the trajectory of resultant actions once conscious awareness sets in.)

Nahmias instead posits the following definition, which sounds a bit like Dennett's:

These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

But what Nahmias seems to have described is consciousness, not free will. For him, free will represents the opportunity to perceive and experience the various facets of consciousness, including the prepackaged illusions with which it shipped, free from coercion.  To me, it sounds like we're now talking about something else altogether. But, read it for reference, if you'd like.

SHOWDOWN: Pigliucci v. Coyne
The following three articles represent a public discussion (argument) between Massimo Pigliucci and Jerry Coyne, in which Pigliucci takes a compatibalist tack while Coyne defends from the determinist's corner.  (Actually, Coyne started it with an op-ed for USA Today.)  Coyne tends to rub some people the wrong way, even those who might otherwise agree with him, as he's often both quick and a bit fervent on the draw.  Still, I think any notion of free will must describe how that will circumvents or changes the outcome of physical events, for it seems any will beholden to physical laws as we understand them would exist within the broth of causal relationships that surround it, however obscured by complexity those relationships might be.  At any rate, I'll preempt the list of articles with the observations of a commenter on Jerry Coyne's second piece, Ron Murphy:

Given that there is no evidence yet of anything that might be considered non-physical then the null hypothesis is that everything does follow physical laws. We are looking for exceptions. On this basis the dualist notion of free-will is the alternative hypothesis, and that it does not exist is the null hypothesis.

That free-willies think that theirs should be the null hypothesis is based only on their ‘feeling’, the historical and personal notion that we have free-will. But ‘feeling’ that something is the case doesn’t cut it as sufficient evidence, or reason, to think that it should form the basis of the null hypothesis.

Whether it is traditional dualist free-will (or soul), or even this other form of free-will that is supposed to be non-dualist and yet has no concrete explanation, they are both alternative hypotheses awaiting even a good definition let alone the possibility of falsification.

The illusory nature of free-will is simply the common sense view derived from all we know about the universe so far. That some of us don’t like it, and even that all of us appear to act as if we have free-will, is no support for that alternative hypothesis, whichever way it is framed.

So now that I've attempted to prime you in favor of Coyne—oh, how dastardly of me—the respective parries and thrusts:


My Dubious and Tenuous Conclusions (*grain of salt not included)
As I said, I'm siding with the determinists for the time being, with no less wonder than I've ever had in this weak heart, with no less awe in this shackled mind. I will caution those who may be tempted to view a deterministic world as one in which actions mean nothing to differentiate determinism from fatalism (Harris makes this important distinction in Free Will). Were we all to stop acting, the world would be an unrecognizable place. A lack of free will, in the magical terms it has most often been described, is no cause for despair. After all, you have no choice but to live the illusion. And should free will one day be unequivocally proven to be such an illusion, you would not find yourself in a different plight than that of all prior generations. You would simply be better acquainted with your nature.

Personally, I find the concept "freeing" in a certain sense: my actions, good, bad, or indifferent, occur due to factors beyond my control, and in recognizing this I can "choose" to bend my "will" toward changing those actions and characteristics I don't like. I can show more compassion to others and deal better with their faults and shortcomings, knowing that I too am in the same boat. The instinct to tune out and give up does not, to me, hold much appeal. I feel, for whatever reason, that a path to self-improvement is more evident, which is not any sort of proof; it's just the manner in which I've come to view the matter. Some will view it otherwise.  But as you've no doubt noticed, our language is currently unequipped to deal with the implications of such a shift in thinking: I was unable to write this paragraph without the insinuation of agency and choice—a fact that may, admittedly, say more about my prowess as a writer than anything else. I have slipped, as I often do, into incoherence.

There is simply no escaping the storm and, as always, much more reading to be done.

Mammoth Reads: Attraction, Death, Medicine, and Punctuation

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Here's an interesting one:

The present study experimentally manipulated status by seating the same target model (male and female matched for attractiveness) expressing identical facial expressions and posture in either a ‘high status’ (Silver Bentley Continental GT) or a ‘neutral status’ (Red Ford Fiesta ST) motor-car… …Results showed that the male target model was rated as significantly more attractive on a rating scale of 1-10 when presented to female participants in the high compared to the neutral status context. Males were not influenced by status manipulation, as there was no significant difference between attractiveness ratings for the female seated in the high compared to the neutral condition.

On first glance, this doesn't seem all that surprising.  The evolutionary conjecture probably goes something like this:  Traditionally, males of the species are responsible for wooing their female counterparts by way of impressive feats, activities that showcase the male's ability to build a home, hunt prey, or exhibit brute strength; females therefore instinctively pick up on these sorts of success queues from men.  Males, on the other hand, choose their female targets based on the perception of fertility, normally showcased by the female via purely physical traits; males are therefore queued into females' physical characteristics rather than their possessions of status.  So a nice car wouldn't affect a male's perception of attractiveness, whereas it would a female's.

I can't promise my parsing is correct, mind you.  I'm sure an evolutionary biologist would have a thing or two  to say about it, my assessment of which is based on a non-trivial number of hours spent watching nature documentaries and some fairly light reading on the subject.

Putting 9/11 on the Backburner

Robin Hanson is pulling me in two directions again.

Here's the part of his recent post entitled "Forget 9/11" that I agree with:

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles...

Here's the part I don't:

...And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

(Click the link in that excerpt, as you might not get the gist of that sentence unless you read Hanson's previous post on near vs. far thought modes.)

Hanson's anger regarding the disproportionate weight we put on native deaths is well taken.  That the World Trade Center bombing provided such potent imagery, seared into our brains by nearly constant coverage, does not help us look past all of the impotent memorializing ten years later.  I am still haunted by the image of people throwing themselves from the towers as flames devoured the upper floors, not because these people were Americans but because they were human beings.  Human loss is difficult to swallow, and it's worse to swallow when we see it close to home.  But we do disproportionately realize these sufferings:  Consider the 12 million people threatened by famine and sickness in Africa right now (4 million in Somalia alone), or the ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti, or any of the other billions of people who live in  relative poverty, faced with the prospect of dying every single day.

What Hanson doesn't seem to appreciate in the context of his post, though I doubt the distinction is entirely lost on him, is the potential for 9/11 to remind us of our responsibilities to remember this greater scope of human suffering.  September 11 ended the naive dream many of us were living (my high-school self included) that saw us safe and secure and indefinitely prosperous, that acknowledged specters of violence like those we saw on the news in places like Lebanon and Israel as mere theoretical risks.  To forget the slide the WTC attacks precipitated, however, would be foolish.  Hanson himself mentions the wasted treasure and degradation of legal principles we witnessed; what makes him think forgetting all of this would somehow benefit us, I don't know.

Why forget and pretend that 9/11 was a blip on the radar?  Why not simply remember it as the complex story of pain, strength, political malfeasance, paranoia, and cultural shift that it is?  I can't imagine that Hanson fathoms death as the only salient metric by which to judge history.

The caveat, of course, is that 9/11 should not be used as an excuse to stagnate; unfortunately, these events, and the dead, have been used as political capital by pretty much everyone in Washington.  So, in that sense, we are not remembering 9/11 correctly or constructively; I'll give Hanson that, wholeheartedly.

Screening for Breast Cancer

The NEJM has an interesting piece on clinical guidelines for breast-cancer screening.  You may remember that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently changed the mammography recommendations for women in their forties, supporting a reduction in the number of scans, even while finding that regular scans reduced mortality in this demographic by 15%.

The author of the NEJM piece, Dr. Ellen Warner, has this to say:

How should one approach the question of screening mammography in a patient in her 40s, such as the woman described in the vignette? The decision should be individualized, with the recognition that the probability of a benefit is greater for women at higher risk. This patient has no major risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer or a history of a premalignant lesion on biopsy, that would put her at even moderately increased risk. Her chance of having invasive breast cancer over the next 8 years is about 1 in 80, and her chance of dying from it is about 1 in 400. Mammographic screening every 2 years will detect two out of three cancers in women her age and will reduce her risk of death from breast cancer by 15%. However, there is about a 40% chance that she will be called back for further imaging tests and a 3% chance that she will undergo biopsy, with a benign finding. Lifestyle modifications (e.g., weight control and avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption) that might lower her risk should also be discussed.

Read the whole article for a discussion on the evidence regarding breast-cancer screening; it's a complex issue, and considering the backlash in response to the new recommendations, it's worth reading about the sorts of observations and evidence that go into producing clinical guidelines.

Oxford Comma Blues

I'm going to tell you this once:  use the Oxford comma.

Why?  Well, imagine we have a list of things which includes:

  • Merle Haggard's ex-wives
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Robert Duvall

That list is taken from a newspaper article the linked-to Language Log blog cites as having incorrectly, or ambiguously, punctuated the listed items in a picture caption showing Merle Haggard.  In the context of that caption, the sentence can be written one of two ways, depending on which theory of serial commas you prefer:

  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

Which do you think is correct?  If you guessed the second sentence, congratulations!  The first sentence clearly reads as if "Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall" is an appositive renaming "ex-wives", when clearly those two are separate items in the list.  The only way to punctuate this sentence without ambiguity is to include this final serial comma, the Oxford comma.

Some publications traditionally omit the final serial comma, and while most lists don't lend themselves to the sort of ambiguity seen above, there will be instances in which an Oxford comma is necessary to preserve the writer's intended meaning.  But because publishers like to be consistent, and because consistency, to a publisher with low regard for this type of punctuation, will mean including a list with the serial comma omitted, editors will likely ask for a rewrite and end up wasting a bit of time. The simple answer:  just use Oxford commas all the time.  You will never be wrong, and if you ever need to equate the final two items in a series for any reason—omitting the comma also insinuates that the final two items are more closely related  to one another than they are to the other items—you can always leave it out.  Stylistically, you'll have more leeway.

Click through to the Language Log post for another funny and improperly punctuated list.  I'll give you two of three items from that one:  "Nelson Mandela" and "dildo collector".

Mammoth Reads: Homeopathy, Philosophy, Monopoly

Water in the Pill

Pharmacist Scott Gavura reviews a paper titled "Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective" from the journal Bioethics about when it might be ethical to use homeopathy in a clinical  setting.

Homeopathy is based on the "theory" that "like cures like."  In essence, find a substance that produces symptoms similar to those of a cold, and that substance should help to cure the cold itself.  Furthermore, homeopathy states that the more a substance is diluted in water the  more potent it becomes, which is, of course, bunk.  Claims like these (and those of many other homeopathic fantasies) fly in the face of everything we know about basic physics.  (Here is a search for "homeopathy" from Neurologica Blog; Steven Novella has done more writing on the topic than anyone else I know of, and his blogs are a terrific resource for anyone interested in the evolving fight to keep homeopathy and other dubious "alternative" medicine practices out of so-called mainstream medicine.)

To Gavura's point (and also Kevin Smith's, the author of the Bioethics article): the decision to use homeopathy in a clinical setting would be contingent upon no other feasible treatments being available.  A placebo would provide only the advantage of psychological comfort to the patient.

Neither Gavura nor Smith appear too convinced that prescribing a placebo in such a scenario would be ethical.  Neither am I; and Gavura provides a terrific outline of why placebos generally don't have a place in clinical treatment, tackling the ethical issues with more authority than I can pretend to.

As a patient, I don't want my doctor to deceive me with a fairy-tale medication, even if it means I have to grapple with an inconvenient truth.  Bottom line: a patient has the  right to provide informed consent.  One can only do so if they're provided with facts—not a vial of what's really nothing more than water.

...And Then Someone Asked "Why?"

I don't, frankly, have a whole lot to say about this one; I have been an outspoken, if somewhat intellectually lazy, critic of philosophy as a worthwhile endeavor, though I'll admit to using the term loosely, often referring more to the lame mental ejaculate that commonly passes for insight.

Katja Grace on the matter, from Meteuphoric:

...It matters whether the methods that were successful at providing insights in what were to become fields like psychology and astronomy—those which brought definite answers within reach—were methods presently included in philosophy. If they were not, then the fact that the word ‘philosophy’ has come to apply to a smaller set of methods which haven’t been successful does not particularly suggest that such methods will become successful in that way.

At any rate, the utility of philosophy is worth considering.  My sneaking suspicion is that the conjecture and loose framing of conceptual questions provided by philosophical thought is an important starting point.  Eventually, though, scientific inquiry takes over, redefines, and, ideally, answers the  questions we've posed.  In some cases, science viciously neuters philosophies.  For instance, those philosophers who continue to idly ponder the nature of the universe—its structure, the implications of its existence, etc.—would probably do well to let physicists answer those questions.

Perhaps philosophy is, in some respects, more equipped to investigate social and intellectual issues than it is problems with supposedly quantifiable solutions.

The Freedom to Compete

I've tried to follow the Net Neutrality wars over the past year or so, and I've been an advocate of the FCC baring its teeth for once to stand up to the telecommunications corporations.  (How long can an organization be so preoccupied with tits on TV, after all?)  Sadly, they offered a watered down plan and made too many concessions to the oligopoly that currently owns the pipe.  My interest in this regard is not in more or less regulation, but in good regulation.  As I see it, if too much regulation ends up stifling positive competition, then it should be loosened or done away with.  If the opposite is true, then the market should be regulated accordingly.

In North Carolina's case, municipalities and co-ops have been creating broadband networks that outperform—both in price and in speed—those of Time Warner and other commercial purveyors, but a bill passed the North Carolina House and Senate with veto-proof margins that restricts public competition.  Today, Gov. Perdue failed to veto the bill, perhaps because her veto would have probably been overturned.

Doc Searls explains the nature of the internet in its current capacity:

We also need to recognize that the Internet is a utility and not just the third act (after phone and TV) in the “triple play” that phone and cable companies sell. The Net is more like roads, water, electricity and gas than like TV or telephony (both of which it subsumes). It’s not just about “content” delivered from Hollywood to “consumers,” or about a better way to do metered calls on the old Ma Bell model. It’s about everything you can possibly do with a connection to the rest of the world. The fatter that connection, the more you can do, and the more business can do.

I think Searls is dead-on when he classifies the internet as a utility and then goes on to support the idea that competition related to broadband services, from whatever source, will be crucial to moving our web forward, especially in rural areas where broadband penetration is low.  Searls also posts a letter written to Gov. Perdue by Larry Lessig—whose books Code: Version 2.0 and Remix are two fantastic texts about the potential and future of the internet—that parses the issue as only Lessig could.

Searls' post is still worth a read even though the bill has now formally become law.  He sketches out the basics of why net neutrality needs to be protected at the state level, not just in Washington, as well as why improving internet service will require a multifaceted approach that involves both the cable/telephone companies and municipalities.  Beefing up our broadband  capabilities is not optional; our future requires widespread access to fast, affordable internet.


Mammoth Reads: The Anthropo-Pedagogio-Quantumnal Edition

The Mammoth Reads series is to be a (hopefully) regular to semi-regular shortlist of (hopefully) interesting things I've read recently.  (Hopefully) you'll click a link or two.

Most of these lists will not have long, ridiculous, impossible-to-read titles like this one, but I figured I would kick this series off in irritating fashion.

You Are a Poor Scientist, Dr. Venkman

Prof. Andrew Gelman counters a few claims from a Weekly Standard editorial by emeritus professor David Rubinstein, formerly of the University of Chicago at Illinois, in which Rubinstein claims that professors are paid too much for their "cushy" jobs.  Rubinstein is of the opinion that the current system—namely tenure track—encourages laziness.  Gelman makes some interesting observations about the function of good salaries and benefits in luring top-notch professors, and seems not to buy Rubinstein's impression that these are necessarily bad things.  Gelman also suggests that Rubinstein simply might be a bit lazier than most college profs, that he might be erroneously using his own lack of zest for the classroom as a metric by which to measure his peers.  (In all fairness to Rubinstein, he does seem to lob some valid criticisms regarding professorship in his original piece, which Gelman also links to.)

Riding the Collapsing Wave

We all know by now that the quantum world doesn't make any kind of intuitive sense.  A photon goes along its merry way existing in a state of wave-particle duality, and the minute someone tries to measure it the wave state collapses.  (There's a joke about my Saturday nights in there somewhere, but I'll let someone else find it.) Well, the BBC has a nice human-readable explanation of a study that adds a new(ish) twist to the  double-slit experiment.  Traditionally in this experiment, photons are monitored individually as they pass through the slits, a form of "strong observation"  that inevitably weakens the interference pattern and causes the photons to act more  like particles.  The new twist is a successful use of "weak observation" that preserves the interference pattern, allowing the observer to infer photons' paths by averaging the activity of a large number of them rather than attempting to monitor each individual photon.

Anyway, the article does a much better job than I do of sketching out the basics.  I'm sure a scientist, or even a scientifically literate layman, would flog me for the rubbishy explanation in the  preceding paragraph.

The Age of Man

Are we living in the Anthropocene Epoch? Geologists think so, and based on their reasoning that we humans have left some permanent chemical and radioactive traces in our layer of the Earth, it's difficult to argue with them.

From the article:

Anthropocene, a term conceived in 2002 by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, means "the Age of Man", recognising our species' ascent to a geophysical force on a par with Earth-shattering asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes. Geologists predict that our geological footprint will be visible, for example, in radioactive material from the atomic bomb tests, plastic pollution, increased carbon dioxide levels and human-induced mass extinction.

Now that's a legacy to be proud of: planet killers.

(Disclosure/Tangent: I agree—based on my own uncanny and unchallengeable horse sense—with Bill Gates' assessment that small-scale green tech will not be enough to curb climate change; we need a paradigm shift in energy production.  Being "green" is nice, but oftentimes it's easy to fall into the culture of buzzwords.  Vinnie handles a few green pitfalls over at "Rifraff and Bugaboos.")

Vanishing Act

Why are researchers (especially medical researchers) unable to replicate experiments over time that initially yielded positive results?

Researcher and publication bias are obvious reasons that come to mind. Dr. Steven Novella, author of NeurologicaBlog, takes us through the Decline Effect as well as a few claims from a Nature News article that conflate quantum mechanics with the large scale. Novella is pretty reasonable about it, though, and acknowledges that the article does correctly identify the Decline Effect as (likely) a research artifact.

Remember, science is messy.  It is not dogma and is always subject to revision.

404 Error — This Qubit Cannot Be Found

Quantum computing scares and excites me.  If it ever becomes viable, all of our current encryption systems—as I understand it, every last one of them—will become obsolete.  Whereas current bits can exist as a 0 or 1, qubits can exist in both states at once and, thus, can process computations at mind-numbing rates.   We're in an either/or world on the brink of becoming a both/and one.  Because of this, quantum computing may become one of the most useful and powerful tools humans have invented.  We may not understand the solutions it yields at first, but the potential for discovery of all kinds will swell suddenly.

The problem, however, is that quantum computers are very unstable and can only exist on a small scale.  Current quantum computers rely on entanglement in order to work their magic, and the entangled state is an exceedingly fragile one:  Even minimal interference from outside energy sources can break the system.

But what if a quantum computer didn't need to rely on entanglement in order to work? What if it actually relied on (or at least accepted) a  certain amount of chaos while operating?

From the article:

In a typical optical experiment, the pure qubits might consist of horizontally polarized photons representing 1 and vertically polarized photons representing 0. Physicists can entangle a stream of such pure qubits by passing them through a processing gate such as a crystal that alters the polarization of the light, then read off the state of the qubits as they exit. In the real world, unfortunately, qubits rarely stay pure. They are far more likely to become messy, or 'mixed' — the equivalent of unpolarized photons. The conventional wisdom is that mixed qubits are useless for computation because they cannot be entangled, and any measurement of a mixed qubit will yield a random result, providing little or no useful information.

But Knill and Laflamme pondered what would happen if a mixed qubit was sent through an entangling gate with a pure qubit. The two could not become entangled but, the physicists argued, their interaction might be enough to carry out a quantum computation, with the result read from the pure qubit. If it worked, experimenters could get away with using just one tightly controlled qubit, and letting the others be battered by environmental noise and disorder. [...]

A debate continues about the efficacy of disorder in quantum computing systems, and I suppose we'll see just how much this technology evolves in the coming years.

Of course, I'm just another moron with a blog who can't be trusted to switch the laundry, but this one got me real excited.

More Tornadoes on the Way: Forecasts, False Alarms, and Minimizing Your Risk

On the heels of yesterday's post, it looks like another active severe weather day in the central Plains.  The National Weather Service has issued a Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) declaration as part of Tornado Watch #356.  Northern Texas and central Oklahoma are most likely going to see an outbreak of violent storms:  the probability of at least two tornadoes forming within the watch area before 10 p.m. currently stands at 90%, and the probability of at least one strong tornado (EF2-EF5) at 70%.  Forecasts predicting the April outbreak listed similarly probabilities, and in both cases these chances are listed at higher probabilities than I can recall seeing prior to this year.  (Perhaps 2008, another uncommonly active year, saw a couple of days with higher than 60% probabilities as well.)

I was leafing through my Google Reader subscriptions this morning and found an interesting post by Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times website, in which he mentions an issue about false alarms and their relation to tornado deaths.  Areas that see a greater proportion of false positives tend to experience a higher number of fatalities when a tornado actually does hit.  Seemingly, the boy who cried wolf can also cry tornado.

You can read the abstract Revkin cites from the American Meteorological Society, but the full article requires a subscription.  Since I can't read it myself, I'm curious to know what constitutes a false positive:  for instance, is a warning that is issued when radar indicates strong rotation in a storm considered a false positive if that storm does not eventually produce a tornado?  It would seem to me that the precautionary principle should apply here, because supercells can produce tornadoes very quickly and with little warning.  Strong rotation in a storm (usually signified by a supercell's hook echo) probably should justify issuance of an alert.  However, I'm speculating a bit as to what parameters the authors used in identifying false alarms.

Here's an interesting bit from the abstract, though:

The casualty effects of false alarms and warning lead times are approximately equal in magnitude, suggesting that the National Weather Service could not reduce casualties by trading off a higher probability of detection for a higher false-alarm ratio, or vice versa.

So it sounds like there's a wash.  You make up with lead time what you lose due to the perception of false positives.

Tornado and storm forecasting will continue to improve, and ideally, we'll one day be able to rely on the accuracy of a warning without reservation.  But the detection and warning system in place today is still pretty damn good, and we need to know how to properly assess risk and avoid becoming jaded at the many warnings we see.  (Storm forecasting is a tough business, after all.) Rule of thumb: if a tornado warning is issued, don't take a chance on it.  Get somewhere safe.  You don't have to do what I do and hunker down in basement for six hours until the last drop of rain has fallen out of the sky, but being too casual about storm warnings can put you in a tight spot—maybe even cost you your life.  Minimize your risk, even though the odds are usually in your favor.

Because forecasting is not an exact science, let's hope the meteorologists goofed on this PDS for today.  I hope Oklahoma and Texas don't experience  the outbreak as predicted by the NWS.  But chances are they will, and the National Weather Service's watch and warning products will be the best tools the affected communities will have in order to stay as safe as possible.

Year of the Twisters: 2011 and its Tornadoes

After news of the Joplin, MO tornado—which killed at least 89 people and carved a mile-wide rut through the town—I started thinking about how remarkably active this tornado season has been.  We are way, way above the ten-year average for this time of year, both in terms of the raw number of tornadoes as well as tornado deaths.

Dr. Greg Forbes at has written us a brief summary of these statistics (with two nice graphs) that I highly recommend reading.  We're already in the midst of the deadliest tornado season since 1953, and we've logged two of the ten deadliest tornado days in U.S. history during 2011.

Forbes mentions that forecasting and severe weather warning systems have come a long way over the course of a few decades; and he cites tornadoes hitting larger population centers this year as the primary reason for the high number of fatalities.  But I have to think the tornadoes that have hit larger cities like Birmingham have also generally been more powerful.  In 2010, we saw fourteen EF4 twisters and no EF5's.  The April outbreak alone produced eleven EF4's and three EF5's—in three days.  (These numbers are still preliminary while NOAA continues to assess storm damage and data, but we're not even through the most active month yet.)  Sixty years ago, there was no alert system, so it's understandable that a tornado could hit without much warning and claim the lives of people who were simply unprepared.  However, residents of Alabama had a 20-minute lead time during the April 2011 outbreak: most of them had probably taken shelter and were indoors on the lowest  floor of their home or in a basement somewhere.  When an EF5 hits, though, there's no escape.

During the past eleven years (2000-2010) about 18 people died per year, on average, in a permanent home as a result of a tornado.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of deaths each year occur in mobile homes or vehicles.  In 2011, 65 people have died already in permanent homes with the circumstances of another 159 deaths (more now because of the Joplin storm) yet to be determined.  That's 3.6 times the typical number of home deaths for an entire year that we've tallied in less than five months, and more than 340 people have died in all so far this year.

I'm probably more terrified of tornadoes than your average person.  And while the vast majority of tornadoes are small EF0 and EF1 events for which taking cover will usually suffice, standing in the face of anything EF2 or higher is a fool's game; plus, unless you're looking at an obvious behemoth, you won't know until after the fact how strong a storm you're dealing with.

Better safe than sorry.

(Mashable has posted a list of ways in which you can help the victims of these storms.)

[UPDATE] May 23, 2011: The death count for the Joplin tornado is now at 116.

Evolution of a Serpent: And You Shall Eat Dust All the Days of Your Life

Whenever one has the audacity to bring up the topic of evolution in front of a Creationist, the Creationist will invariably (if he is somewhat educated) ask to see proof of these transitional species evolutionists are always talking about. The very request is silly. All species are transitional. What the Creationist wants is a fossil of an ape-man or a fish-squirrel, some clear cartoonish symbol of movement from one species to the next. Of course, evolution doesn't work in this way. Not remotely.

But every now and then scientists unearth a fossil that contains either vestiges of an organism's past or early mutations that eventually led to its future. published one such example today: a snake with legs.  Findings like this aren't entirely novel.  Some whales, after all, have femurs and tibias.  (The NCSE article is an old one, but consider it a primer.  I'm sure the study of vestigial structures in aquatic mammals has progressed since 1982, but this was the only discussion pertaining to whales that wasn't part of a larger, more expansive text.)

Now, the argument against Creationism is a silly one to enter, even for sport.  The discovery of this snake, I thought, is just the kind of "transitional" species Creationists are looking for.  Surely they will be dumbfounded and without retort.  Why argue?

Then I found this in the comments section:

So the LORD God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.

- Genesis 3:14

To be fair to the commenter, I can't say with any certainty how serious the person is about the quote.  The obvious insinuation is that this fossilized snake fits in perfectly with the account of the serpent's creation as depicted in Genesis; and, of course, instead of considering the wealth of scientific evolutionary research, your run-of-the-mill Creationist prefers to stick his fingers in his ears and seize upon a vague verse from a vague religious text to bolster a pre-conceived, static worldview.

Thus do we inhabit the Age of Reason.

Hopefully, the whole of the internet is purged before long and this blog along with it, just in case someone thousands of years from now unearths a mutant scavenger bird with scaly dorsal tentacles and an FM antenna hooked into its brain stem and thinks I had something to do with it.

Mars Defaced

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Forgive the bad pun in the headline.  I couldn’t resist.

I don’t know if anyone out there still actually believes in the notorious “Face on Mars” located in the Red Planet’s Cydonia region, but just in case, those of you with any lingering trepidation may put your fears to rest. has just published an article outlining a new photograph of the area at a much higher resolution that confirms (again) the face is nothing more than your common, garden variety Martian mesa and reaffirms those who’ve been shouting the Face was simply a byproduct of optical illusion and pareidolia.  (Go figure that the originating citation from the article emanates from, which has surprised me for the second time in a week with a well-reasoned article.  Murdoch must be losing his sensationalist touch, but take a quick skim through the comment boards, and you’ll see there are still a handful of clingers-on that chalk this newest photo up as further spin from NASA, released to embolden the space agency’s vast conspiracy aimed at keeping us in the dark about alien life on Mars.)

Imagine my surprise — disclosure: glee — that the Wikipedia article about pareidolia to which I linked actually uses the Face as its primary visual example.  Other examples of the phenomenon include, of course, Jesus Christs on burnt toast, figures we see in cloud formations, and this eggplant that looks like Richard Nixon.  Pareidolia also applies to perceived patterns related to senses other than sight.

An eggplant.  What will Tricky Dick think of next?

Other Resources:

“Extreme Close-Up of the Face on Mars” – Universe Today
This article gives the most in-depth analysis of the progression from the original Viking Orbiter photo to the current one.  You’ll see a brief timeline of photos taken, each one clearer than the next, and it should have been abundantly clear even after the 2001 photograph that there wasn’t anything even particularly odd about the mesa, at least insofar as it resembles a face because, of course, it doesn’t.  There are a few anomaly hunters in the comment boards on this article too.  This article is also cited in the release.

This article was originally posted at The: Foolish Human.

Bad Reporting on Acupuncture / CC BY 2.0

So this article on the NewScientist website really chapped my ass.

It cites the publication of a new study that outlines successful use of acupuncture to treat spinal injuries induced in rats.  Now, I’m not a doctor, and I’m unable to access the full-text of the study in question.  My suspicions are that some qualified party will cite methodological issues, or more likely, the study will remain a footnote  in light of the overwhelming weight of evidence in favor of the interpretation that acupuncture possesses no therapeutic benefit beyond that of placebo. (Maybe not.  We’ll see, but I doubt it.)

From the article:

Acupuncture’s scientific credentials are growing. Trials show that it improves sensory and motor functions in people with spinal cord injuries.

Well, not really.  For a great review of the current literature regarding acupuncture and an even greater deal of irate bitching about a fishy article written by The YOU Docs, Drs. Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, I highly suggest reading an article on the subject written by Dr. Mark Crislip over at Science-Based Medicine.  In it he outlines the results of numerous systematic reviews of the medical literature as well as dubious claims made about the mechanisms by which acupuncture works its supposed magic.  It appears that Drs. Oz and Roizen are attracted to the mysticism surrounding traditional Chinese medicine.

(Harriet Hall has also written a very thorough overview of acupuncture.)

Furthermore, the scientific paper to which the NewScientist links in the blockquote (different than the paper the article is discussing) does not deal directly with traditional acupuncture but with electroacupuncture in which an electrical impulse is introduced to the nerve.  This is an actual intervention that will induce some type of physiological response and cannot be considered acupuncture as Dr. Crislip asserts in his piece.  It seems dishonest to equate the two since there is a big difference between simply placing a needle into someone’s skin and running an electrical current into their body.

Of further interest is another post by Dr. Steven Novella regarding the placebo effect, one of the more misunderstood health-related phenomena due to the complexities of interpreting study results.  The standard perception goes like this:  you walk into the doctor complaining of pain, the doctor gives you a sugar pill that you think is a pain reliever, and because you believe you’ve received treatment, your brain responds in kind and ramps up the production of natural healers, presumably the immune system.  Voila!  You’re better, and you didn’t have to ingest any dangerous drugs.

As you’ll see when reading Dr. Novella’s article and the mostly excellent discussion on the comment board that follows, the placebo effect doesn’t really work that way.  Most of it can be chalked up to study artifacts, bad study design, and reporting biases on the part of both doctors and patients.  Without an objective way of measuring pain or nausea or other types of discomfort, many of these studies are hindered by the need for patients to fill out a pain evaluation, the results of which can vary greatly from study to study.

You’ll notice all of my links are from Science-Based Medicine.  So sue me.  They devote their time and energy to evaluating dubious claims and pseudoscience, and they are an absolutely fantastic resource for anyone interested in the complicated study of medicine.  At the very least, reading many of these posts should help elucidate why all-or-nothing claims made by various pseudoscientific outfits are silly and don’t incorporate a nuanced approach to the business of getting things as right as possible.

This article is cross-posted at Foolish Human.

Bill Nye Cleans House

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I used to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy when I was a kid, and his show stands as probably the earliest discernible science-related influence I can remember.

Imagine my disappointment when I happened across Brian Dunning’s post over at Skepticblog that discusses Nye’s recent promotion of a cleaning product called Ionator from the company Activeion.  Essentially, the company has recruited Nye to endorse a line of water ionizers the cheapest of which is priced at $169 and the science behind which is unproven and dubious.

I’m not going to get into the debate over the science of their claims.  You can scroll through the comments on Skepticblog, which do a decent enough job of hashing out the quandaries, and you can read an article by Dr. Stephen Lower, a retired chemist from the Department of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, that Dunning links to and which discusses the general quackery of ionized water claimants and provides an interesting remedial chemistry lesson about the subject.

My overall impression is that at best, Activeion’s product is a ripoff that does what they say it does despite the fact that its effects could be achieved for a few dollars and without the aid of the ionizer, and at worst, it’s a pseudo-scientific scam.  (If you’re interested in specifics, I highly recommend reading the discussion.)

I don’t agree with Dunning’s reasoning that we should withhold judgment if Nye took up the job because of money woes.  If Bill Nye knowingly promoted snake oil, he has done so at the peril of his credibility within the skeptical community as a science advocate.  If he was duped, at least he wasn’t a witting scammer, but even so, it’s fair enough to say he should have vetted Activeion’s claims and checked with one of his many contacts that would have had access to pertinent knowledge.

Either way, my opinion of Nye is diminished.

This article is a cross-posted at Foolish Human.