Jul 22 2016

Does Race Exist?

World_Map_of_Y-DNA_HaplogroupsIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? Are these two categories even meaningful? The reality is that objects orbiting our sun occur on a continuum from asteroids to planetoids, dwarf planets, and full planets.

Humans like to categorize, however. It helps us wrap our minds around complexity, gives us convenient labels to help sort our knowledge, and hopefully the categories reflect some underlying reality.

Categories often begin as purely observational. We label diseases by what they look like (their signs and symptoms), and then later may have to recategorize them once we know what causes the diseases.

Prior to Darwin, taxonomists categorized all of life according to superficial characteristics. These categories sometimes, but not always, matched the underlying reality of evolutionary relationships. We now have a different system of taxonomy called cladistics, which is purely evolutionary. That’s why birds are now dinosaurs.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 42

Jul 21 2016

Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Winter_Dark_Matter_CFHTLenS_alternative_colour

Genuine mysteries in science are fascinating, and there is no shortage of them. Scientists love mysteries because that is where the work is.

Two of the biggest scientific mysteries of our generation have similar names – dark matter and dark energy. Their names imply the unknown. They are, in fact, place-holder concepts that are temporarily representing what we don’t know. However, we are  slowly crawling toward an understanding of what they are.

Dark energy makes up about 70% of the mass/energy of the universe, while dark matter makes up another 25%, leaving just 5% for ordinary matter and energy. This means we currently don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of.

Fritz Zwicky first proposed the existence of dark matter in 1933, but his ideas were not accepted until the 1970s when they were revived by two astronomers, Vera S. Rubin and W. Kent Ford Jr. The hypothesis derives from the observation of how galaxies rotate. Their rate of rotation depends upon the amount of matter they contain – the more mass that exists within the orbit of any particular star, the faster that star will revolve about that galaxy. You can therefore estimate the amount of mass in a galaxy by observing how fast the stars are moving.

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Comments: 31

Jul 19 2016

Debunking Islamic Creationism

scaletofeatherAdnan Oktar, who writes under the pen name of Harun Yahya, is an Islamic creationist. He has written several books and his articles now infect the internet.

His arguments are essentially the same as Christian creationists, which raises the question of whether or not he developed them independently or he simply read Christian creationist texts. He references Duane Gish and other similar sources, so it seems that at least to some extent the similarity is through direct copying.

Some of the similarity may also be due to the fact that he is following a similar process, which can best be summarized as “making shit up.” He also likes to quote scientists out of context, a technique he seems to have borrowed from his Christian counterparts.

I also find it very familiar in that he presents himself as an intellectual and yet is breathtakingly ignorant of his subject matter. He appears to have learned about evolution from what Stephen J. Gould characterized as, “secondary hostile sources.” The result is that he tilts at rather simplistic “strawmen,” and never comes close to modern evolutionary theory, which escapes his attacks unscathed. Let’s take a look.

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Comments: 109

Jul 18 2016

Taking the High Road

skeptical-activismI am passionate about science and critical thinking. I believe these to be the best tools humans have for understanding the universe and tackling the challenges that face us. This is why I am a science communicator and skeptical activist.

Part of this passion is that blatant anti-science, credulity, and fraud are genuinely upsetting. Homeopathic potions are approved drugs, the medical profession is soft on pseudoscience as long at it is presented in flowery language, some people want to teach their religious beliefs as science in the public schools, pseudoscience in the courtroom leads directly to injustice, and there are organized and well-funded groups who are rabidly opposed to safe and effective technologies because of irrational fears.

Some of the forces behind irrationality and pseudoscience in our world are straight-up con artists. They are exploiting scientific illiteracy and lax regulations to knowingly defraud people. Many think they are just being slick marketers, and this is how business is done. Or, they are scientifically illiterate themselves and they actually think the pseudoscience they are selling is legitimate.

Many, however, mean well but are trapped inside their own ideology. They are equally passionate, perhaps even more so, about their issue. They feel they need to do everything they can to oppose what they see as an evil in the world (vaccines, fluoride, GMOs, mainstream medicine, evolution, etc.). This justifies in their minds some extreme tactics, such as harassing scientists, slandering their opponents, vandalizing scientific experiments, or lying when necessary. Some of them become extremely nasty people as a result.

This, of course, only serves to fuel the passion of the science advocates.

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Comments: 131

Jul 15 2016

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Pokemon Go

PokemonGoThis past week my daughters were running around the neighborhood with their iPhones trying to capture virtual creatures. They weren’t alone – Pokemon Go became an instant sensation, becoming the most downloaded game app in US history. It will probably not last long (the app is somewhat buggy and the execution has issues), but I think it gives us a glimpse of the near future.

Predicting technology is tricky because it is difficult to know how people will receive and adapt to the technology. Until the tech is in the hands of the public, you cannot predict how popular it will be, and even how it will be used. Who would have predicted that texting would be more popular than video chat?

Well, the real story here is that Pokemon Go is perhaps the first time that augmented reality was put in the hands of the public, and they loved it (at least in the short term). This may prove to be an infatuation, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality

There is no question that these technologies are here and on the verge of becoming widespread. We are at that point similar to just before the iPhone, when smartphones were ready to become ubiquitous.

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Comments: 17

Jul 14 2016

Framing the Debate on GMOs

Framing is a very interesting and intellectually critical concept. It is part of metacognition, the act of stepping back from the details of your beliefs and arguments to think about the nature of the thinking itself. Framing is meta-debate, where you think about the context of the debate itself, not just the details.

Framing can also be used, either consciously or inadvertently, to control a debate or discussion, to set up the parameters so that they favor one position.

A recent article in The Conversation discusses the framing of the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. It’s an interesting article that definitely makes me think about how the GMO discussion should be framed, although I do not agree with the author, Sarah Hartley’s, take.

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Comments: 2

Jul 12 2016

Vitamin Supplements in Pregnancy

vitamins pregnancyFor a moment, imagine that you did not read the title of this article. What if I told you that a drug manufacturer was trying to get the public to use more of their drug, arguing it was necessary when the evidence shows that it isn’t? One trick that they use is to conduct studies in developing countries with a sicker population, and then apply that data to the developed world.

Even in the face of a thorough expert review of the published evidence, that concludes that the public is overusing their product and wasting money, the drug company argues that people still need their drug “just in case.”

Of course, in such a case, there would be cries of “Big Pharma” and the company would be rightly criticized for deceptive marketing and pushing their drug despite the published evidence.

For some reason, when the “drug” is a multivitamin, many people have a different reaction.

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Comments: 13

Jul 11 2016

Former FDA Directors Criticize Supplement Regulation

fda1Recently six former directors of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met in Aspen to talk about the FDA. According to reports much of their criticism for their former agency was focused on lax regulations for supplements.

I, too, have been a consistent critic of how supplement are regulated in the US and elsewhere. Currently the regulation is determines by the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This law passed while David Kessler was commissioner of the FDA, a law he vigorous opposed.

The Atlantic reports:

Jane Henney, commissioner from 1998 to 2001, recalled that the DSHEA law actually passed in the wake of the FDA “really trying to get their arms around stronger regulatory authority with dietary supplements.” This attempt at requiring supplement producers to guarantee the quality and safety of their product was countered by one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in history, in which TV commercials warned citizens that the government was coming for their vitamins. “I believe that the amount the Congress heard about this whole issue was greater than what they received about the Vietnam war,” she said. ‘I mean, it was tremendous.”

By all accounts this was a clear case of an industry lobbying the government in order to pass regulation friendly to industry and against the interests of the public. They were successful for a few reasons.

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Comments: 0

Jul 08 2016

Should We Ban Homeopathy for Animals?

homeopathy-veterinarianYes. Yes we should.

This is an interesting idea I had not previously considered. Danny Chambers is a UK veterinarian from Devon who started a Change.org petition to ban the veterinary use of homeopathy in the UK. He has 1,000 signatures from UK vets so far (out of the 22,000 total UK vets).

Chambers said:

“We think vets these days should be offering 21st Century medicine,” he told BBC News.

“It’s been shown that homeopathy doesn’t work, so it probably shouldn’t be offered any more even if it is offered with good intentions.”

It is absolutely clear that homeopathy is worthless. This is among the most solid conclusions in all of medical science. First, there is no possible way according to our current understanding of physics, chemistry, and physiology that homeopathic potions can have any biological effect. It’s not just unknown – we have very good reasons to conclude that homeopathy cannot work (follow the link above for more details if you are unfamiliar with these reasons).

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Comments: 14

Jul 07 2016

Kubrick and the Moon Landing Hoax Conspiracy

One of the silliest grand conspiracy theories is that the US faked the Apollo moon landings. Moon landing hoaxers engage in a combination of anomaly hunting and the argument from personal incredulity or ignorance. They engage in an elaborate exercise in JAQing off (just asking questions), like, “why are there no stars in the background of pictures,” and “why does the flag wave if there is no air?”

They have no positive evidence for a conspiracy, just a wild theory and completely unimpressive anomalies that have all been easily and adequately explained. They also ignore gaping holes in their theory. How could NASA maintain this 50-year cover up when scientists around the world, including in competitor nations, could easily reveal it?

Some moon hoaxers engage in a related theory, that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was the one who filmed the fake moon landing footage for NASA. It is not uncommon for such theories to aggregate around famous people. Otherwise it is not clear why they would chose Kubrick and not a struggling director desperate for cash who could be conveniently eliminated when the task was done.

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Comments: 18

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